Rules and Freedom

The house I live in is shared with 6 other people. We’re all busy professionals. We’re not friends who knew each other and decided to start living together, although of course we are friendly. And we’re not family. We have a rota in the kitchen for who will take the bin out and pay the cleaner each week. Rules. There’s a part of me that resists the thought of having to pin myself down to petty rules. It seems unintuitive, manufactured, nanny-ing. Surely any reasonable adult knows how to empty a bin when it’s full. Think again. It was my turn to empty the bin last week. Saturday morning + a bin full of rubbish + late for work = an angry scribble on the rota pointing out that weekly duties lasted into the weekend. Oops!

Rules are by nature an act of control, whether self-imposed, tacitly agreed on or not. Having any kind of organisation requires rules, boundaries that protect us from ourselves, or at least from the worst aspects of our human-ness. Most reasonable people agree on this with respect to social organisation. We know that imposing some form of control does not necessarily infringe on freedom. If anything it protects all of our freedoms. The same is true of movement practice, training and choreographic practice.

The Problem with Contemporary Dance Classes

In the contemporary dance world there’s some confusion as to how you train the body without restricting it to one ‘way of moving’. Training involves internalizing a technique: a system with rules. It often generates a kind of aesthetic too. It seems completely contradictory to the idea of individuality and the industry’s obsession with ‘idiosyncratic movement vocabulary.’ In release classes we’re supposed to start each day by re-inventing the dictionary, wiping out centuries of evolutionary movement function and pattern in order to become completely unique ‘movers’. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that we spend 2 hour long professional classes rolling around on the floor like amoebae ‘visualising’. (Actually visualisation is an extremely powerful tool when working with the body, so long as it is grounded in function and is not just thrown around for its own sake. Creating pretty pictures in your head is all very well. But if it serves no purpose then you lose me instantly.) The alternative is to attend a class that is far more stylised, involves ‘exercises’ but is most often a confusion of ideas about how to ‘train’ the body. These classes seem to miss the point because they switch into ‘choreography’ before addressing the most obvious question: where does power and support come from? Learning someone elses co-ordinations is interesting and is useful. But it needs to form a part of a class that addresses movement in a less embellished and more functional format.

The truth is that being asked to do nothing, or to do what you want, leads to exactly the opposite of freedom! You might not be forced into some silly routine, but you’re undoubtedly regurgitating a lifetime’s movement pattern ingrained in your body and fixed as habit, even if you are not aware of it! Choreographers know this. It’s interesting that the movement aesthetic that has come to dominate in contemporary dance work, ‘Release’, has been attributed to a choreographer who still doesn’t ‘teach’ a ‘technique’ class to her company: Trisha Brown. When asked about this Brown’s reply was that she created ‘problems’ that required ‘movement solutions’. She didn’t go out of her way to develop the ‘Release aesthetic’. The aesthetic came out of the questions she proposed. In fact there is a kind of functionality to her movement vocabulary that comes from her adherence to the task at hand. Even the term ‘release’ is something of a misnomer. ‘Release’ is not about flopping around and relaxing, it’s actually about learning to un-embellish movement to create clarity in how you move through space, take or give weight or respond to choreographic structures and scores. It’s actually about efficiency. However, what developed as a functional response to a choreographic intention has become a ‘style’ with ‘moves’, a ‘performance presence’ and a bizarre aversion towards the idea of using muscles.

What’s Natural?

Let’s go back to habit for a moment. Something I am often asked as a pilates teacher is why someone should stand in parallel if their natural posture is turned out. It’s a good question. It’s the KEY question, because underlying it is the assumption that what feels ‘natural’ is ‘natural’. The truth is that what feels ‘natural’ is actually ‘habit’. Just to clarify here, the person asking is normally not actually standing in a ‘turned out position’ but is often standing with a collapsed arch and toes pointed outwards whilst their knee is rotating inwards. So my answer is that parallel is a quick way to align the ankle, knee and hip to spot poor alignment issues that lead to less efficient bio-mechanics in the lower limb and pelvis. Yes we can stand in turned out too. We can stand in a turned in position also, or with legs apart, or with one leg off the floor or any variation of the above, so long as we know that we are aligning ourselves in a way that respects the structure of the joints and most importantly, within a range of movement that we can control. So by gradually progressing through increasingly complex variations of the above, sustaining control throughout, we develop a physical ability to carry out any imaginable movement.

Options not Restrictions

Training should be about giving people options, not restricting. The aim of training, class or practice is to achieve a fully functioning, injury free body that is ready for anything, not restricted by habit or by an adherence to a particular style. As I was writing this article I came across a post by another Pilates Teacher Mike Perry, who says something quite similar with respect to Pilates:

“..Pilates’ intention was to create a form of physical training that, unlike the kinds of training he had done himself (boxing, for example), would ready one for any conceivable physical challenge. In a nutshell, General Physical Preparedness.”  – Mike Perry, read the blog here

Training, or any kind of physical conditioning, is only useful when its focus is to prepare the body, to bring the body to a point where it is ready for action, where it has options and can react to internal and external stimuli efficiently and effectively with no need to pre-rehearse. I feel that what is strongly needed in the dance world is an approach to movement development that safeguards the dancer from self-indulgence without enforcing any particular style. It should be a process that gradually brings the performer into themselves more fully, so that habit is replaced by options, providing an informed starting point for any movement exploration. As Gary Carter once said, a dog lying quietly on the floor, sees something worth chasing, springs up and runs after it. It doesn’t slowly extract itself from the floor, do some hip limbering, chose it’s ‘better leg’ and then spring. Similarly, our bodies should be ready for action. We should be able to sprint for the bus without worrying about our knee tracking. A performer should be able to change direction, transfer weight or get to the floor as and when the work requires them to, not when it feels right, or when they’re on their ‘good side’. That is what physical ‘freedom’ means.

Working inefficiently or restricting ourselves to one way of moving will often manifest itself in injury at some point. Problems happen when a ‘way of training’, ie: a ‘technique’ becomes a ‘style’ or worse still a ‘habit’. This is when choices are made not because they are functional but because they fit in with the particular look. This is how parallel position of the feet has become synonymous with the contemporary aesthetic, whereas a turned out position indicates a ballet aesthetic. One ex-royal ballet dancer turned pilates teacher once described how after years of stretching her hamstrings in a turned out position, she happened to step in to perform a piece that required parallel leg kicks and instantly tore her hamstring. Once again to quote Mike quoting Gray Cook:

“Every time we specialise we give up our adaptability” – Gray Cook, quoted in Mike Perry’s What’s Great About Pilates, Part 4. Read the full article here

Mind Training

Habit isn’t just something that the body does. We have thinking habits too. I’ve recently begun attending meditation classes with the wonderful Jill Setterfield. I’ll go into more detail on the content of the sessions another time. Right now I want to bring up a point that I feel is relevant to this discussion. The first step in meditation is to become aware of your thoughts and judgements, to notice what ‘gear’ your mind habitually shifts into. Meditation is not about doing nothing. Actually it often involves a lot of training to learn how to gain control of your thoughts. Jill suggests that allowing your thoughts to drift to where your mind wants to take you does not make you free. Rather you become a slave to a way of thinking or a frame of mind that has grown with you through your interactions in the world. Being able to control your thoughts allows you to become the person you really want to be. It frees you from impulsive actions that are rarely efficient or effective. But it does take practice and training otherwise it’s just a waste of time!


The most useful outcome of a truly holistic training structure is the development of awareness. Ultimately I think that this is what makes us free to control our movement, behaviour and creative choices. Being aware means being able to notice the difference between habitual tendencies and the other options that might be available. It is through rules that we become aware of the implications of our actions or the wider picture.

So the moral of the story is: don’t be afraid of rules, rights and wrongs, positions. So long as they are used appropriately, to expand the options available, and not simply for their own sake, then they are a vehicle to freedom and happiness. Don’t be seduced by what feels good. Develop a training structure that opens doors. Do things that you are less comfortable with. That is the only way to ensure that you are not stuck in one pattern but are constantly growing into your body.

… And don’t forget to take the rubbish out.