Atrophy of the Common Dancer

September 16, 2011

“The instructors amuse me. They’re not used to speaking in English, so they’ll once in a while say a word in Hebrew and then survey the class for translations. It really is something observing their English word choices. Aya had wanted to explain something the other day about articulating our feet. (A perfect lesson for me.) After she surveyed the class, she landed on the word ATROPHY.”


Overly Philosophical Introduction

Having done colorguard for seven years, my movement background has been highly shape- and timing-oriented. The technical goals of the activity are unison, accuracy, and severe detail; and I was trained well in those arenas. I found these skills highly transferrable to dance. At Mason Gross, each new professor and choreographer has given me a taste of their own aesthetic, and I grow from each encounter. It’s truly amazing to see how much your body can change in such a short time. Just when I think I’m about to plateau, a new experience presents itself, and I change again.

Each semester, winter session, and summer intensive of Dance study so far since I started at Mason Gross has taught me new things. I’ve learned the value in muscularity, physicality, intent, fluidity, release, and gesture. But all of these things were still related to my simpler movement origins in that they were based on control. How abruptly can I begin and stop? How softly can I land? How slowly can I move? I’ve until now been refining my ability to control my body.


Gaga and Aya

Gaga, had come into my life on a whim. I had taken a one-time-only Gaga-style dance class last summer at Dance New Amsterdam with Yarden Raz, and participated in an audition and a warmup during the year at Mason Gross with Danielle Agami. The movement language was something I had greatly admired for its organic nature. The few tastes I had during the last academic year were a part of what drew me to study abroad.

This article from the New York Times (Aug 2011) paints a great picture of Gaga.

Aya Israeli, of the Batsheva Dance Company, is our official ambassador to Gaga. In class, we’re taught to be alive, present, and (quite importantly for me) to participate in a serious practice without taking it too seriously. Best of all, the style transcends control. Yes, I do manage what my body does with my thoughts. But the movement comes from a place of imagination and intuition, and not invention. I don’t enter a Gaga class to choreograph, or to improvise. I aim to visualize, and to simply “let go.” It’s the correction I get the most. And that’s not to be confused with release! Yes, it’s as mind-boggling as it sounds, and that’s what piques my interest.


Noa and Rina

The work I’ve done with Noa Wertheim and Rina Wertheim-Koren of the Vertigo Dance Company allows my body to explore control. Our technique classes with them are always well-grounded, literally. There’s much attention to how we approach the floor with our feet and how we move pelvic and shoulder girdles, with release-based, improvisation, and even tai chi-style movement. The class lives in an honest aesthetic that communicates openly with gravity.

Much in the style of Brian Brooks‘ Improvisation II course I took last year, we do studies with Noa and Rina. We play with simple ideas, like rolling, flexing, and extending; then bring our attention to isolating and experimenting with individual body parts. In this place, I can study my habits and inhibitions. By the end of the studies, with a finale of accumulated isolations, we’re improvising in ways that are focused and surprisingly inventive. I’ve got to remember this stuff when creating movement.


Atrophy of the Common Dancer

I am officially midway through the four-week “DanceJerusalem Intensive,” as I like to call it. Though half of our dance sessions have been spent with Aya, and the other half have been spent with Noa and Rina; my entire dance experience so far has been deeply rooted in reevaluation, questioning, and experimentation.

The instructors amuse me. They’re not used to speaking in English, so they’ll sometimes say a word in Hebrew and then survey the class for translations. It really is something to observe their English word choices. Aya had wanted to explain something the other day about articulating our feet. (Also a perfect lesson for me.) After she surveyed the class, she landed on the word atrophy. She continued by pointing out that there are so many muscles in our feet, and different, unusual ways to move them. She said that we forget or simply don’t know we can move our bodies in these ways, and when we don’t exercise those muscles, we experience atrophy.


ATROPHY (n):  (figurative) the gradual decline in effectiveness or vigor due to underuse or neglect.


This term, in my opinion, serves as a metaphor for life, and for movement. The common dancer gets stuck in their ways. The common dancer decides that one technique is superior to another. The common dancer may prefer one or a few of these in their dance studies:  unison, accuracy, severe attention to detail, muscularity, physicality, intent, fluidity, release, or gesture. The point is, our aim should be to transcend by embracing all these qualities, and asking for MORE. Get into a studio and do something different! Take a Gaga class to explore new ways to move new parts of your body. Take Pilates to understand your torso’s muscular structure better. Take hot yoga to work on your respiratory endurance (and patience!). Try hip hop. Or breakdancing. Or ballroom. Or capoeira. Or ballet. Or running. Or all of them! And more!

In a discussion about our understanding of pushing and leaning, Rina had said something along the lines of the following:  “None of these are better or worse. One isn’t better than the other. But it’s the understanding of both or all that makes us richer as dancers and as people.”

Escape atrophy not only by trying something new, but being open to what the experience can teach you.



No really, try something new.

Gaga at Peridance, Manhattan

Dance New Amsterdam, Manhattan

Princeton Dance & Theater Studio, Princeton, NJ

Pilates and Company,  Highland Park, NJ

Be Evolution Hot Yoga, Montclair, NJ


  1. salut and namaste, carlo.

    that’s a lotta body/mind/soul wisdom right there…


  2. […] Anyway, Natalie Portman knows exactly how I feel here in Jerusalem when I’m battling my own perceptions of physical and conceptual reality, in terms of moving the body (especially in Gaga class) and approaching choreography (especially in Melanie’s class). It’s about breaking habits and releasing yourself from mental and physical (and emotional?) atrophy. […]

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