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Dancing For Life

Reviewed By: Nele Vandezande

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Nele Vandezande

Language availability: English


“I can go wild inside even if I’m not moving much at all.”

Do a quick search for “conscious dance” in Google, the images and pictures that will fill your screen will all be of agile, lithe, youthful and athletic bodies. The conscious dancer is shown leaping energetically, gliding gracefully; twisting and turning, bending and swaying; head thrown back, arms and legs arranged in expressive shapes. Based on these images, we’d be forgiven for thinking that conscious dance is only for the fit and able, the young and healthy.

But what happens to these bodies when they stop being able to move fluidly? To those that break… or were never able to move much in the first place?  What about our dancing bodies as they age? For many injury, disability, chronic illness and ageing can mean an end to, or a withdrawing from, the communities and activities that we love.

As a menopausal dancer approaching 50 with a dodgy back and asthma, I know how challenging it can be to keep on moving when the going gets tough. It’s the days – or weeks – when my energy levels are low, when my spine is aching and my lungs are doing their rattle and wheeze thing. It’s the times when it feels like my body is refusing to cooperate and that dancing, of any kind, is impossible. These are the times when I tell myself it’s better to stay at home than face the frustration and disappointment of going to dance and not being able to move as freely and expressively as I want to. And mostly, I go anyway.

One teacher who has inspired this commitment to my dance practice is Nele Vandezande.  She led one of the sessions on the teacher training and profoundly changed the way I think about how I move my body. What I took away was that, I can dance, not despite but with my limitations and impairments.

When we meet again on Skype, Nele is in her kitchen in Staden, Belgium where she’s having a rare morning off from her busy work schedule. She tells me more about her mission to offer every body a way to move and to dance to the “changes and turmoil of life” as she puts it.

“I originally trained as a physiotherapist. I was working with cystic fibrosis and post surgery patients and I had to really push people beyond their limits – even hurt them a bit – to recover, or just to survive…. I realised after a while that I really didn’t want to do that…this way of treating people didn’t take into account their personal stories, their inner and emotional lives.  I wanted to work with their possibilities.”  Nele, went on to train as a relaxation and breath work therapist to bring a more holistic focus to her work. “But I hated that too!” she says laughing, “I was in my twenties and full of energy…I just wanted to move!”

This is when she discovered conscious dance. “I did a 5Rhythms® workshop and I loved it! The connection between the mind, the heart and the body, it was exactly what I was looking for and the real start of my journey with embodiment work.” But there was still something missing. “When I stepped onto the dance floor, I saw that it gave so much to people but when they got old, or sick, or they hurt themselves, then they’d stop coming. They thought they needed a healthy body to go wild, to step in deep and to take part fully in the dance. It’s hard to do when you’re in pain.”

Then, one day in 2012, Nele experienced this first hand when she suffered a freak heart infection which put her out of action and made movement as she had known it no longer possible. “It took me some years to recover and dancing like I always had just wasn’t an option. I had to find another way,” she says, “For myself, and for all the people I worked with who had injuries and disabilities…all those who thought they were too sick or too old to dance. I wanted to find a way for everybody to move.”

I ask her how that works at a practical level. How does she get people who have difficulty moving their bodies to dance?

She tells me about Bodyspirit, the body of work she has developed over the past 20 years with her husband, Kurt Pattyn. She also teaches Bodyspirit as a series of Open Floor workshops which explore what she calls the the “wisdom of living anatomy” . “And that is what’s so great about Open Floor,” she says, “It’s a like a map or a framework to which you can add a lot of other skills and combine it to explore many new possibilities…it’s very healing.”

The key, says Nele, is to redefine what “dance” means within the limits of what is possible for each of us.

She explains that our bodies become fixed where they hold pain or are shut down, they contract around those areas…and that we tend to focus on those, forgetting the bits that do work, that aren’t in pain. Nele says the trick is to open our attention to those parts of the body…and to see where we can add more movement. She talks about how the physical body is a tremendously wise and unbelievably intelligent piece of art. “We need to learn how to use the wisdom that anatomy has to offer us,” she says.

“But the workshops aren’t about learning how many bones you have and how muscles and joints work,” she says, “These are only the basics. Everything we do… act on and relate to, as human beings, resonates with a part of the body’s anatomy. And each anatomical layer is a gateway connected to specific emotions… thoughts… patterns. It’s a kind of creative intelligence and spirit” she says. By implementing the knowledge of these systems and by becoming aware of these processes in the background, we can make huge shifts in how we move and dance.

She adds that these skills are valuable for dancers with healthy, fit bodies too. As movers we can all benefit from more body wisdom. Embodied skills to tap into and manifest in our lives – on a personal level, as well as in relation to others and the larger whole.

“We don’t only work with the body,” she adds, “we look at making the mind and the heart more fluid and expansive. We can change the way we think about dance.”

Instead of saying: ”My body isn’t the way I want it to be. Something is broken so I can’t move the way I want to move. We can learn to move and include whatever the body is able to do in the moment. We are constantly being pushed and pulled, drawn down and lifted up, being thrown off balance and finding it again.The goal is a body that moves with it all and tells the tale.”

We talk about the use of chairs on the Open Floor. How rather than being pushed back against the walls and being on the perimeter of the dance, the chairs are set right in the middle of the floor so that anyone who needs to sit down can fully belong in the dance rather than watching all the action from the sidelines. “And it’s not just chairs,” adds Nele, “We bring beds and mattresses right onto the dance floor too.”

We end our conversation talking about what it’s like to dance as we get older. Nele’s take on old age is refreshing. She talks about the contrast between ageing bodies that shrink and the vastness of the wisdom they hold. “Older people are welcome on the Open Floor,” she says, “We can all dance until we’re a hundred!”

So here’s an invitation to you, dear dancing reader. How about taking a few minutes now to put on your favourite track and let Nele’s words guide you to finding what’s ready to move in your body right now. Pull up a chair, curl up in bed, get up, dance, even if it’s small…moving can look like anything.

Attached media files:

Vimeo: Dancing For Life

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