Why Would We Move? Musings on Movement Practice and Training

Why would we move? Simply, because it brings joy.

Not joy that communicates, “Yes! I am really happy!” but joy like a light source giving power that feels whole, tangible, and multidimensional.

Sometimes it is difficult to search for or find joy. Sometimes we may feel inferior, or like a wall is built around our very being. How can we locate joy when there is no joy to be found?

Simply begin to move.

As a hearing-impaired person, the act of expressing through movement was a great discovery when I was younger. Movement allowed me to discover what it means to be alive; to discover a channel of expression that feels organic, innate, and truly from the soul.

I often tell people that if I was not hearing impaired, I am not sure I would be as fully invested in movement practice as I am. Movement became my communicative channel, my expressive channel, and an entry point to the canal of possibilities. I was hooked on movement—not so much with the steps of movement, but rather with how it made me feel when I pretended I was a snake crawling on the floor or when the rhythms of a particular piece of music needed to be physicalized. Movement became a way to tell my story as a performer, a movement director/choreographer, an educator, and, most importantly, a human being.

When working with actors, regardless of experience, the key is in the welcoming. It is in allowing them to explore how their body, their instrument, provides access to their imagination.

A mission of mine is to enable as many people as possible to experience their inner soul through the medium of movement. Regardless of experience, age, or disability, I believe the art of movement can be an entry point into how to engage, explore, and become enriched by and discover the world around us. I use movement to help people discover the world that exists inside of them.

My research at Boston University—where I currently teach—and beyond has focused on how movement practice can be accessible. I often observe experiences where “steps” are taught and the student “freezes.” Fear creeps inside them. Suddenly they feel inadequate and begin to judge themselves. The steps of movement get in the way of movement.

The opportunity here lies in knowing that their body is the solution, not a problem.

When working with actors, regardless of experience, the key is in the welcoming. It is in allowing them to explore how their body, their instrument, provides access to their imagination.

I begin by building language that they can relate to. How do their universal (neutral) bodies respond to different shapes (circular, angular, linear) and planes (vertical, horizontal, etc.)? How does their body create efforts (press, glide, flick, punch, etc.)?

Once the language of movement is ingrained, the students begin to explore how their instrument informs the act of theatrical “play.” How can “play” be accessible? This is a wonderful opportunity for the facilitator to take their practitioner on a journey back to their inner child. The essential discovery here in the facilitation is not that I am not taking the practitioner back to their entire childhood but rather to a time, perhaps by looking at photo taken or listening to their favorite song, when they felt most ecstatic in their childhood. Where any challenges of childhood disappeared—where everything froze in time. Where “joy” existed, even if for only a second.

Once this liberating freedom and ecstaticism of doing is embraced, the facilitator can then guide the practitioner to translate play into storytelling. I start by having them work with and embody a single word or phrase. Once they’ve developed an action or actions in relation to this simple idea, we add text. What happens, for example, if they recite Gabriela’s tree monologue from Jose Rivera’s play References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot? How does the action embody the monologue? How does the experience become, most essentially, transformative?

Lastly, discipline and repetition is key. Repetition allows the principles to become ingrained to the point that the artist can simply respond, not allowing technique or information to get in the way, but instead to expand their artistry. When ballet dancers execute a series of exercises every day at the barre, they are conditioning the body to eventually support freedom in what most matters: letting the steps not get in the way of the dance. What is essential here is that there is ecstaticisim in the repetition—by mixing up the phrases here and there, perhaps doing the same exercise differently on another day. Ecstasticism and joy are key in that the feeling is there to support and stimulate a new day and new horizon to come. Joy in learning supports sustainability—sustaining through wear and tear, loss of a role, loss of flexibility. The body may say it is time to stop but that doesn’t mean your heart has to as well.

Yo-El Cassell guides students in a movement exercise
Yo-EL Cassell guiding students from Boston Arts Academy in a movement exercise. Photo by Robert Torres.

In making movement work accessible to practitioners with different abilities or disabilities, the entry point is in creating an opportunity that communicates, “I have the ability”—creating experiences that can become translatable. For example, I once had the incredible honor of working with young men who had little to no experience with any specific type of movement training. What they did find comfortable, though, was basketball. For one of our classes, I took them to a basketball game and asked, “What do you see?” The answers were, “I see players playing basketball,” or “ I see two teams playing each other.” Hoping for more, I continued by asking them if they also see patterns, use of repetition, use of rhythm, and so on. Curiosity built and, most essentially, excitement in finding connections. We were able to build from this ecstaticism during the next class, when we played a game of basketball in the studio. As they were playing, I took the ball away and provided a soundtrack—their pattern making, the way they went around each other, the way they partnered up for scrimmage play looked like poetry in motion.

Most essentially, they found their joy in movement.

When working with practitioners who may not be able to hear, see, or walk, what I found helpful is to embrace what they can do. If a practitioner uses a wheelchair, there is a wonderful opportunity to encourage them to investigate moving with the wheelchair as an extension of their identity, their body, and their soul. The key is to make them feel like they can own the experience—being supportive by making sure we’re in an accessible studio and that their needs are met, but at the same time, empowering them to know they are valued partners in the experience of learning.

This partnership is always necessary: an educator or movement director must be a willing partner with the practitioner or artist. We must allow the practitioner to meet us on a horizontal plane, rather than a vertical one. In that partnership, the experience becomes fueled by shared learning, shared possibilities, and shared discoveries.

It is our job to locate relatability and excitement in the process of learning. Once excitement is embraced, there is a desire and hopefully a commitment to learn more. The commitment feels less like work and more like wings of the soul flapping.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story — you have no idea how much it means to me. I am hard of hearing on one side, and recently found out that I have a tumor in my ear which may cause me to go half-deaf. I have been dancing since I was three years old and it is the thing that brings me most joy in the world, and seeing how you've used your limitations as inspiration lifts my spirits so much.

Thank you HowlRound for publishing this excellent and poetic reaffirmation of the essential need for movement practicum. The article masterfully incorporates the essential ingredients of how movement practicum can channel expression and I particularly enjoy the personal story Mr. Cassell shared. My only qualm, in a positive way, is I wanted to hear more of his story--it is so interesting.

Excellent reflection on how movement practicum informs action which informs acting. I am a big fan of Mr. Cassell's practice, compositions and teachings. I had the pleasure of viewing him in Las Vegas at a conference and his speech and workshop rocked the house! I am highly looking forward to the inauguration of INMOTION THEATRE Initiative he helped launched with the School of Theatre at Boston University in April, 2018. My favorite line in the article, " Wings of the soul flapping." Thank you for publishing HowlRound! HowlRound will you be featuring more of Mr. Cassell's writings? I am a big fan!

Dear Jackie,

I hope all is well and thank you for your generous note! I am thrilled you were able to attend the conference in Las Vegas which was a pleasure to be a part of. I look forward to seeing you as well at the premier for INMOTION THEATRE which will be in the Edgard and Joan Boothe Theatre April 19-21st. Details can be found on the School of Theatre Website at BU under BCAP.

Our first physical play will imagine the story of Captain Ahab's wife and her journey to the undersea to confront the whale (Moby Dick) for taking away her husband, fusing a variety of movement approaches.

I hope this is helpful and thank you once again!With joy,

Yo-EL

There is so much about this article that moves me. As a Certified Laban Movement Analyst and Dance/Movement Therapist I appreciate the the bottom up approach and the meaningful and skilled facilitation of the experience for the students. "We must allow the practitioner to meet us on a horizontal plane, rather than a vertical one." Beautiful!

Such a beautiful champion for movement practicum Mr. Cassell is. I applaud his passion, his heart, his humanity and his belief that embodied acting translates from the body as a whole. I want to work with him!!

Mr. Cassell's champion for the practice of movement is so essential for embodiment of emotions, of thoughts and of the imagination. Bravo for publishing this!

There are many facets of Mr Cassell's that are very familiar, especially the references to dance and Laban movement ex. "How does their body create efforts (press, glide, flick, punch, etc.)?" and the movement studies of Wangh and Grotowski. Movement has long been dismissed and the studies are extremely important. I applaud Mr Cassell's work and wish that he was closer to us at Gymnasium Actors so that we may benefit from his experiences and teachings.

Dear P. Johnston,

I hope all is well and thank you deeply for your generous reply! I applaud the work you are doing with Gymnasium Actors as well and please do let me know how I can be of assistance in any way--Congratulations for extending the practice and production of movement!

With joy and appreciation,

Yo-EL

Just wonderful to read. Mr. Cassell changed my life when I was a student of his last year. I entered his class with fear of exposing myself through movement and I left his class with sheer will and empowerment. I am a better artist because of him, because of his lessons and because of his mentorship and guidance. I owe my embracement of craft to him, simply put.

Wow, what a fantastic read--thank you for publishing! Finally an article that truthfully articulates movement practice and the idea that dance is just one of the elements of movement and that movement is not merely dance.

Yes, Yes, Yes--agree with everything in this article. I want to work with him! He is the most overly under rated artist in Boston and his voice deserves to be heard more. I love how the article looks at accessibility from all angles and spends time on articulating valuable connectors to integrating physicality to image. Where can I see more of his work? Anyone know?

Dear Paula,

I hope all is well and thank you deeply for your generous note--Thrilled to read of your synergy with the article, particularly around the idea of accessibility via physicality. I will be sure to provide updates on opportunities to connect.

With joy and appreciation,

Yo-EL

This is just fantastic. I had the pleasure of listening to and working with Mr. Cassell at a conference in New Hampshire and he literally commanded with his poetic musings, genuine heartfelt joy and and tangible approaches to embodied acting. He also offered a movement workshop with text and introduced series he devised, entitled THE BREAKFAST WARM-UP, which was simply fantastic, touching on the ideas he mentions about in this article, specifically the idea that "your body is the solution". Does anyone know if he is writing a book? I would purchase it in a heartbeat! I totally agree with Gregory, Brava HowlRound for publishing and bringing movement practice to light.

Thank you deeply for your generous and thoughtful note! What a pleasure it was to be present at the New Hampshire State Council of the Arts Conference and thrilled to hear of your newfound embracement of movement practice!

I will be sure to keep you informed if anything develops in regards to writing in the future ahead.

With joy and appreciation to you,

Yo-EL

I totally agree Michelle. This read has redefined what the word "movement" means to me. I always thought of it as just "dance" but in reading this, the word means channeling of inner thoughts and embodying human stories. Bravo Howlround for publishing this and for supporting the voice of such a dynamic and incredible artist, Professor, and human being. His transfer of "joy" feels so genuine and so much needed.

Dear Gregory,

Thank you for your thoughtful and generous note! Yes, movement practicum, while it very much includes the elements of dance, is an art form entirely its own as well. Movement comes in many different forms such as a light coming on in a room and also, perhaps, some one simply " dancing" with joy.

Sending much appreciation,

Yo-EL

What a wonderful read--Mr. Cassell is an incredible and life changing advocate for the craft of movement, for movement direction, for mentorship and for the art of teaching.He is my son's favorite professor at BU and I can see why. Boston university has a treasure inside their walls. What makes his teaching so good is in his ability to locate provide inspiring entry points into the imagination. His work is challenging, imaginative and inspiring.