Softening the Chest when the World is Hard

The beautiful decaying grandeur of Raices Profundas dance studio. Yes, that’s cement.

When I travel, I almost always bring a yoga mat – a rectangular island of plushness to gently coax a jet-lagged body back to coherence. But when I travelled to Cuba to study dance, I wanted to travel light. I reasoned that I could practice on any wood floor. I could adapt.

But there was no wood floor. The Casa Particular where I was staying was tiled – unforgiving to my bony back. Our dance studio floor was the dusty rough cement of a decaying movie theater. There was no wood floor.

I lay down anyway, arranging myself in the Alexander Technique “Active Rest” position, but I felt every vertebrae crushed and aching against the tile. I experimented with bridge pose. Worse. Hmm… Perhaps practice on a hard floor is similar to wearing minimalist shoes. Just as thick soled shoes allow for careless impact of the heel bone, my thick mat has protected my back from careless slamming. The more cushioned the shoe, the more people tend to use their feet like bricks – a gait style one would quickly curtail if barefoot. The foot is composed of 26 movable bones…How about the rib cage? Twelve thoracic vertebrae, 24 ribs… What if I allow all these bones to articulate and roll? Perhaps the impact will not be so jarring…

Dance students practicing

The quest to soften the chest was highlighted in my dance studies. I had audaciously assumed that with my years of classical and contemporary training, my recent studies of Afro-Haitian and West African dance, plus the Alexander Technique, my secret weapon for free movement, that Afro Cuban Folkloric would be in my wheelhouse. You laugh. And rightly.

The fluidity of the chest, the articulation of the ribs, the shake of the shoulders, the powerful mobility of the pelvis are not learned in Western dance forms, nor is this sort of movement supported by Western culture. Nothing was coming easily.

The relaxed chest of the Cuban dancers (and everyone in Cuba is a dancer) was mimicked by their relaxed attitude to the harshness of life. With nothing to cushion the impact of poverty and limited freedoms, the people were easy in their attitude towards living. In America, I would have gone to Walgreens and bought a cheap yoga mat. I might have suffered stress from wasting money or buying polluting plastic, but I could purchase a yielding surface. In Cuba, there was no Walgreens. .

Early in the morning, as I did my Alexander Technique inspired warm up for dance, I experimented on that stony floor; rolling and dissolving to avoid impact forces. For 4-hours a day, I danced on cement, and meditated on what a fluid chest might be. I imagined ribs like fish gills, a spine like smoke, shoulders that melt into an easy shimmy in response to the rhythmic song of the feet.

Yes, that is The Little Prince, the ultimate emblem of conquering with gentleness. Yes, he’s painted on a bath tub, propped into a wall, in one of Cuba’s many examples of public art

The environment was hard. I learned to be soft.


 

 


P.S. On the flight home, I remembered to melt in the airplane seat, and fell into a deep, loose slumber.

 

BodyProject Blog ~ Elyse Shafarman

 

 

Just call me a body nerd

Dancing in SF Carnivale 2018

I crossed some boundary in minimalist footwear yesterday. I clambered over Bernal hill in my flimsy sandals, whilst purposefully stepping on rocks to massage the stiffness out of my overtaxed dancer feet. Back when foot reflexology was in fad, I remember reading advice to hike barefoot. The rocks and gravel were supposed to stimulate key meridians. I thought this was nuts, but now, I’m not far behind the trend. My feet felt fantastic this morning, and body nicely tuned up for dancing. Obviously, the Body Nerd meridian was stimulated

Noticing that my Central Nervous System (CNS) finally stopped throttling my movement range. For months, hip pain and low level depression stiffened every part of me. I couldn’t get low in plies or high in jumps. I thought my age was catching up to me. But the brake is off. Elasticity is back.

Picking up my handstand play a year after elbow injury. If I include a tiny pelvic pendulum as I kick up into handstand I have much better balance and control. The pelvic pendulum is the figure eight motion the hips make in gait. My hips felt free to adjust to the balance vs locked and rigid, as they do when I, on purpose or due to stress, employ the more common handstand cue to, “Squeeze the butt.”

Yes, injury and pain is somewhat a theme in this post. As I dance, I am in constant conversation with my body. I use the Alexander Technique, and everything else I know to keep learning and moving.

Shoe talk

Getting minimalist shoes is something to think about – but certainly not a requirement.

I wrote this for a student with osteoarthritic knees. We’ve been working on correcting the way her leg bones spiral when bending and straightening. The correct direction of spiral removes the pain completely. This has been going well, so I felt it was time to address the subject of her so called “healthy shoes”, ultra padded running shoes replete with motion control, arch support and a hidden 1.5-inch heel lift.

To get the knees to work better, it’s going to help if the feet and ankles can do their job in the most unfettered manner possible. When we go barefoot, the foot can change shape and adapt more flexibly to different surfaces and different physical demands. The intrinsic muscles of the foot get strong and flexible. The forefoot and rear foot have the freedom to counter twists appropriately between inversion/pronation and eversion/supination, depending on the stage of the gait cycle. This means that ground reaction force moves up through the body in a way that creates powerful stored elastic tension and spares the joints from pain and wear. Restrictive shoes might jack up the heel, limit foot motion via arch support, control pronation, squeeze the toes, among a few of the  impositions on natural movement.

We tend to think of our hands as sensitive intelligent instruments and our feet as bricks that we shove into padded casing. Your foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. The sole of the foot is a rich landscape of sensory receptors. Our feet have evolved to move in a myriad of directions and relay a rich schema of environmental data to our brain. In shoes with very padded soles, our sensory feedback is diminished. In the absence of good data, the brain protects the body by tensing the feet, ankles, knees, and everything above.

You can test this out. Wear only one sock and have one barefoot foot. Walk around your house. Notice the difference in how your two legs move. Which leg is freer and more fluid? Which foot feels secure? Which leg do you trust? Which limb feels pleasurable to use? If your answer is the side that’s barefoot, you have just discovered the impact of better proprioceptive data on physical movement.

You can assist this process by using a foot roller or other implement to wake up the sensory receptors in the skin of your feet. If you google wooden foot roller, you’ll get dozen’s of results.

Minimalist shoes offer less support and protection to the foot, and can take a while to get used to. I recommend starting with only an hour or two at a time to help the intrinsic muscles of the foot adapt to the new level of work demand.

Personally, I like
Vivobarefoot
Earthrunners
Softstarshoes
Xero

Flip flops, although they appear minimal, can be a problem because it’s necessary to squeeze the toes to keep the shoe on. Same thing with clogs. You want your toes to only have to do the work they were meant to do.

And hey, summer is coming. Time to go to the beach and feel the sand between your toes.

P.S. As a final note, it is possible to use your feet well, or at least better, while wearing fashionable shoes. This is the sort of thing that I help my acting students work with. It’s reasonable to choose aesthetics over function to survive in our culture from time to time. I tend to save my fashionable shoe time for tango or the occasional date night. The rest of my life, I like to let my feet roam free.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash