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An interview with Amanda Williamson, editor of Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities

Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities negotiates the influential, yet silent educational presence of spiritualities within the field of somatic movement dance education internationally. We asked Amanda some questions about the book and what inspired her to do the project.

1. What first attracted you to dance, somatics and spiritualities as an area of study?
 
When studying my undergraduate degree I was struck (a little amazed) that our lecturers didn’t talk of spirituality or religion and dance. I remember entering a dance studies programme because dance felt utterly transcendent to me at that age. I worked out quite quickly that dance in the University (at that time) was heavily influenced by researching dance through discourses of power; dance was a cultural product/artefact, and body politics and cultural materialism were the order of that era (still are in part). I also worked out this was an important paradigm to lecture through because as a community of scholars working in self-reflexive university contexts dance needed to be critically discoursed – dance in the university was taken seriously as reflecting, engaging perpetuating, antagonizing, transcending and producing cultural values, and on…. And of course from an arts health perspective, dance was integral to community, culture and society (the human spirit). I was taught by two of the most eminent historians, and in those lectures dance was heavily shaped by, and actively immersed in all sorts of dominant and marginal discourses. I am still grateful to these historians. However, at university I felt the most important elements of dance (its’ transcendent and/or immanently spiritual qualities), were not given visibility. I was curious, but not really educated enough to articulate the feeling of the spiritual short fall in my Higher Education experience. Later, when I wrote dance degrees of my own (of course writing to, and checking for national and international disciplinary parity), I was reminded of the secular nature of dance studies. Additionally, when interviewing undergraduates for their chosen degree route, they would often say something like: “I don’t know why I love dance, or want to study dance – it just makes me feel like ‘me’, or whole, or happy or something”. Trying to catch the experiential feelings that dancing gives us is hard. It’s slightly ironic though, because dance of course has a long-standing relationship with the ancient sacred and the medicinal properties of movement/dance are widely documented. However, in saying all this, one could see (in all those years) how the spiritual elements of dance were discoursed in the areas of dance and health, some of dance history, Dance, Movement Psychotherapy, contemplative mindful practices, and archetypal, more Jungian and Somatic dance discourses. So spirituality was present, albeit discoursed through more secular avenues. As I grew as a scholar I, of course, realised that discourses of power are central to spirituality/religion and dance, and one’s spirituality in dance is as much a cultural product/artefact as any other element of the dance. So, I saw how Dance Studies could critically discourse spirituality in socio-economic, cultural, gendered and historical contexts.  This appealed to me – melding cultural studies and critical theory with spirituality in and of dance.
 
However, and in relation to all of the above, while studying and leading dance programmes for nearly 17 years there has been a growing revolution in body consciousness/awareness and health and healing through the integration and application of Somatics into Dance Studies. I have been part of this movement and it most certainly heightened my interest in spirituality in and of dance academically. I’m going to quote ‘The International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association’ (ISMETA) here for readers, because I think they offer a good definition of this field:
 
The field of somatics has developed over the last century through a process of inquiry into how consciousness inhabits the living body. The term is derived from the word “somatic” (Greek “somatikos”, soma: “living, aware, bodily person”) which means pertaining to the body, experienced and regulated from within. According to Thomas Hanna, who first coined the phrase, “somatics” is the study of self from the perspective of one’s lived experience, encompassing the dimensions of body, psyche, and spirit. 
 
The field of Somatic Movement Education and Therapy represents a variety of approaches to the process of awakening awareness of the human body, or soma, in movement. Registered practitioners guide individuals and groups into inner experiences of their bodies, deepening the clients’ understanding of themselves in motion. This transformational learning process can include sound, breath, touch and imagery in addition to movement.
 
I trained as a Somatic Movement Dance Educator and Therapist in Massachusetts (a melting hot pot and spot for consciousness studies and movement awareness), and then wrote an international MA programme titled: MA Dance and Somatic Well-being: Connections to the Living Body (New York/UK). It was during this period that the academic study of somatically experiencing spirituality in movement intensified in me, and reflecting my experience straight back, many students came forward asking if in fact they could research spirituality in and of somatic movement studies. There was a short fall of texts in this area; many texts in religious studies and the body, but nothing really fulsome in our field.  There is certainly a strong relationship between embodiment and spirituality and Somatic Movement Dance Education and Therapy, although it’s only recently being tackled very openly. The link is strong because we facilitate a deepening into body-life-processes through sensory-perceptual movement exercises. Students sink into their sensory-perceptual and imaginative body experience, and inevitably during this depth-experience, students may touch into physical pain and/or emotional pain (areas of life that need attention and healing in community or in dyadic work), but also may touch into easeful released movement articulation and experience – experiences that support sensory/emotional balance (ease and connectedness), and increased consciousness about one’s embodied life journey. Contemplation and reflection on life experiences, sensed through a deepening and listening into the body’s story brings forth a clear relationship to spirituality (life-journey) and embodiment.
 
 
2. What drew you to the idea of editing an edited collection?
 
I wanted to bring the founders of the field of Somatic Movement Dance, Education and Therapy together in one volume to create multiple perspectives and to share their practices of spirituality in the field. The aim was to create a fulsome resource for students in this field. Our students are so immersed and passionate about this area of study, I guess I felt they deserved an honesty enquiry into this area. Often spirituality in this field is discoursed through deep-ecology, phenomenology, and humanistic Jungian post/Jungian research approaches. While all tangible and vital and integral, the spiritual nature of the work remains a bi-product, or one might say negotiated indirectly through secular arts discourse.
 
3. Approaches to dance and spiritualities within academia have changed in recent years, do you feel this has been reflected adequately in academic output?
 
I feel we are on the brink of something – I’m unsure what it is. I see through the journal and book, a real desire to now articulate the spiritual aspects of being (personally/culturally/historically and in terms of gender) in the face or more secular perceptions of the world. Perhaps I see some new research into Somatic experiencing and cultural context and values.
 
4. Where do your personal research interests and background lies?
 
In the spiritual of ethnographic and feminist honesty, I recognise I’ve always been an intensively spiritual person. My father was an Anglo-Catholic priest. As a young women I was not happy at all with the male-centred androcentric God I was presented with, nor was I happy with New Age discourses that I consumed to find something of meaning. However, I deeply appreciated my Father’s long investigations of mystery around the table, and his love of poetry and Celtic prayer. I’m particularly interested now in women’s stories, herstories (the “what about us stories!”) and my research is wading more deeply into this area.
 
 
5. You also edit the journal Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, what new areas do you hope the journal will explore in the future?
 
Because my daughter (Tala) has Native American heritage, and because much of my own research is US-centric, I would be very interested to see in this journal have some research into the influences of Native American beliefs and values in Western Somatic Movement Dance Modalities. Equally, I would be fascinated to see articles dealing with postmodernism and post-structuralist enquiry into spirituality, dance and performance, as well as more emphasis on gender, sexuality and spirituality, and indeed dance and new technologies. In fact, the research realms appear limitless, and I am curious to see what avenues Volume 2 will follow. Of note, our forthcoming issue 2.1 is a special issue on Dance, Movement and Buddhism, guest edited by Harrison Blum, which will, no doubt, broaden our understanding and widen our appreciation of the integration and application of Buddhist principles/values in western dance/movement contexts. Notably, 2014 and 2015 have seen the arrival of three prominent books in the field of dance and spirituality –Dance, Somatics and Spiritualities: Contemporary Sacred Narratives (Williamson, A. et al., 2014); Dance, Consumerism and Spirituality (Walter, C. 2014); and Why we Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming (LaMothe, K. 2015). While different in methodical and theoretical orientation, all three books provide new perspectives (and indeed new research avenues) into spirituality and dance in our contemporary and wider historical milieu. They notably all share common ground with deep ecological concerns; and within this issue, I interview Carla Walter about her new book Dance, Consumerism and Spirituality. In view of lay spiritual dance practices existing and growing beyond the realms and strictures of the University, there is a growing movement in the world that appears to combine various ideas from indigenous cultures and tribal dance (however appropriated/misappropriated) with notions of embodiment today. For example, if you visit ‘Dance and spirituality meetups’ (http:// dance-and-spirituality.meetup.com/), you can view, to name just a few here, the following movement classes and modalities: Dance Soul, Freeform Dance, 5Rhythms®, Mindful Movement Meditation and Dance, Danceitation, Soul Motion(TM), Shiva Devi Ecstatic, One Spirit Ecstatic Dance, Transformational Dance, Drum Circles, DRUM ~ DANCE ~ CHILL, Sacred Dance for Women, DevaGnosis, Magical Heart Adventures, and Drumming/Dancing/Flow-Arts/ Chanting. Internet searches reveal many other spiritual movement forms (the list would be too long to publish), such as the following: Spiritual Dance and Sufi Meditation (http://philipodonohoe.com/); and Shamanic trance dance (http://www.shamanic-trance-dance.co.uk/). Tracing the intricacies of this revival on a broad scale is an enormous task; my hope is that we start to gather more information and documentation on these phenomena, through both interview material and/or documentary-style pieces, as well as traditional academic papers. As such, we are introducing interview and documentary style pieces in relation to these phenomena in Volume 2 of this journal.
 

Amanda Williamson has a website which covers both her book and journal projects http://www.dance-somatics-and-spiritualities.com/ 

To find out more about the book click here, and to find out more about the journal click here.

Posted by Jessica Pennock at 09:48 (0) comments
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