Thank you all for your comments following last week’s post. It’s lovely to hear everyone’s reactions to what I’ve written and reminds me of the importance of this ongoing research and thinking around my teaching. So this week’s inspiration came from my new-found hobby of swing dancing. It’s a step up from ironing, and somehow continues from last week’s post, which you can read here.

Swing is a social dance. You dance with a partner, either loosely facing or side by side. One person in the couple is the ‘lead’ and the other is the ‘follow’. This description is all highly simplistic I know, because you watch professionals dancing and they’re literally all over the place. But at a very basic level, your footwork and facings essentially mirror that of your partner.

Bare with me.

Following the usual set-up of the beginners class I go to, last night we first learnt a basic step, and then built on that into different variations. The lead dancer started by stepping back on the left leg, the ‘follow’ stepped back on the right. The pattern soon set in till it felt almost unconscious, which we only realised several variations into the class when we suddenly all found ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of our partners. Having to do the basic step on the other leg before we could get back to ‘home’ felt like picking up a knife in the wrong hand. Panic!

What we experienced was the surprise of having internalised a movement pattern.

Repetition has long been the main way of learning dance steps. We talk about ‘getting it into the body’ or ‘feeling it in the body’ so that it becomes imprinted to such a degree that it can be performed unconsciously. This is the result of neuro-muscular patterning, the particular organisation and co-ordination of parts needed to carry out the movement. The rate of encoding will depend on how practiced our neuro-muscular system is at adapting to the demands of this new circuitry and what other library of sequencing the body already has to draw on. If the basic scaffolding (an understanding of centre, full access to the peripheral joints and an ability to sequence from one to the other) is available, then building the sequence will take less time. Perhaps for those without a basic scaffolding, more basic patterns will need to be laid down first before the full co-ordination can be accomplished. Once a pattern is imprinted into the body, it then becomes the ‘easy’, most available option, which in turn makes us more likely to select it, leading to further re-enforcement etc.

OK so perhaps you have no interest in learning social dancing, although I highly recommend it, but this little unpicking of learning seems relevant to how we create movement biases just through living. As I struggled to get my left leg to start the rock step back, I was reminded of this remark by Liz Koch:

Unlike a machine, we are not symmetrical but bilateral – Liz Koch

We are literally composed of two different and complimentary parts that work together around a single central core. However, somehow, through conscious or unconscious learning, we have all internalised movement patterns that have led to more or less use of one side over another. Of course I’m not suggesting that we all become ambidextrous. We will always have a dominant hand / leg. However I wonder how much we tend to lean onto these dominant sides. Remember that the body will always default to the easiest, most available pattern which, whilst over-developing activity on one side, will equally reduce access on the other side. Injury, for example, can lock us into a pattern that is aimed to protect the injured part in the short term, but causes more imbalances in the long term. Learned non-use leads to functional asymmetry. The result is a metaphorical limp in the neuro-muscular system with various compensation patterns, stresses and strains on the joints that lead to pain and injury.

Perhaps the roles of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ might equally apply to two sides of our body? If so, the key to reducing this functional asymmetry is to somehow land up on the other side, to trick the body into stepping out of ‘home’ and remaining bi-laterally able.

The way towards bi-later-ability (my own word, not a technical term) is the ABC of better movement:

  • Increase Awareness: notice your habits.
  • Shake Things Up: walk around the park in the other direction, put your mat down on the other side of the room, start on the opposite leg, go to a different class (because teachers also tend to default into patterns of exercises and teaching techniques that come easiest to them), change the interlace of your fingers.
  • Listen to Feedback: Go to a class where a teacher can see what you’re doing and help bring your awareness to patterns that you are not aware of.

Be creative, let me know what other small habit shifts you’ve thought of.