Dance has been a way for people to connect with each other and the environment around them for many years, but what can dance teach us about our relationship with nature? Gemma Collard-Stokes, Research Fellow at the University of Derby, explores how forms of dance, especially the newly emerging ecosomatic dance, can help us connect more frequently with the nature around us.
Dancers experience body and place in a profoundly different way to non-dancers. Through their training and practice of particular forms of movement, dancers develop highly attuned, conscious bodies that read, respond and acknowledge the interconnections between body and the natural world. The field of dance has largely remained unacknowledged in discourse about the preservation and cultivation of human relationships with nature. This may be due to a lack of awareness outside the field, or dance’s failure to communicate the depths of its knowledge in this area. Nevertheless, there is a lot we can learn from the ways dancers come to know and work with nature.
The intensity in which we are experiencing global environmental challenges – climate change, Covid-19, mass extinction, increased human suffering – has energised activists and scientists alike to consider new ways to strengthen universal environmental consciousness. At present, it achieves this by urging people to [re]establish a connection with nature based on evidence of its power to improve wellbeing, social connectedness and encourage pro-environmental behaviour.
Fostering meaningful connections with the natural world
As lockdown continues, social segregation, isolation and restriction contributes to growing levels of inactivity and increased mental health concerns already prevalent in our culture of sedentism and digitalisation. This reminds us that further action is required to help people find ways of fostering meaningful connections with the natural world. Many of us do not realise that our bodies already hold the key to achieving this.
Research exploring the benefits of nature connectedness informs us that observing and appreciating nature has multiple positive dimensions. Affecting mood, energy levels, concentration, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours, our connection to nature facilitates a sense of something greater than ourselves. As poet Mary Oliver identifies, we come to realise our place “in the family of things“.
Environmental dance artist Andrea Olsen (2014) argues that it is time to shift focus towards “experiencing ourselves inside rather than outside the natural world”. During this time of “disembodied rhetoric and environmental destruction”, our best hope of bringing about change, inciting action and healing, is to listen to the experiential knowledge of the body.
Listening and receiving: dance, healing and ecological consciousness
Ecosomatic dance is an emerging interdisciplinary field connecting movement and healing with ecological consciousness. The ecosomatic dancer is able to tune into and listen to multiple layers of information, sensations and impulses from both inside and outside their body. Ecosomatic dancers work in both a bodily and embodied way. They build a kinaesthetic understanding of their surroundings by moving in response to the felt sense of their bodies in time and space. This often requires the dancer to explore ways in which they work with or against features of the landscape – natural objects, diverse terrain and adverse weather conditions.
Through dance, we can experience a renewed sense of self and a radical change in the way we view our relationship to the environment. For example, different elements offer us different possibilities in movement:
- Working in rocky terrains, brings our awareness to the strength and versatility of bone and the body’s capacity for endurance and stability.
- Our relationship to blue spaces speaks to us of the tides of change, of the 60% water that makes up the average human body, of the rhythmic pulse of our life force and the flow of bodily fluids.
- Plants and trees support us to work with concepts of verticality, the cycle of life and the connection between the earth and sky.
- Air reminds us of our vitality, our breath and the flow of energy required to fill space with full-bodied expression.
Nature offers us a freedom and playfulness reminiscent of childhood and an uninhibited use of body, unapologetically moving through and with the land. Dancer Steve Paxton (2011) believes the natural world teaches us about our bodies and their capacity for movement, empathy and reciprocity. What happens between our body and its physical negotiation of nature is an education in itself; we just need to learn how to listen to it. Ecosomatic dance aims to respond sensitively to the Earth by listening intently to the body as the meeting point between inner and outer landscapes.
Environmental movement practitioner Helen Poynor has worked with dancers and non-dancers for many years. She claims that people who experience ways of moving in relationship to nature realise the importance of both sensory and bodily immersion to building strong connections. She observes that participants who do not have movement backgrounds “perceive the environment differently after moving in it rather than simply looking at it“.
These are not just concepts understood in the field of dance. Nature literature, for example, demonstrates a profound level of immersion, as writer Robert Macfarlane illustrates through his interpretation of the Henry Williamson’s life changing commitment to writing Tarka the Otter. Macfarlane writes about how the relationships we develop with landscape shift and shape us, heal us and offer us a sense of self and significance. Williamson’s lengthy and intense period of preparation leading to the crafting of Tarka the Otter is described by Macfarlane as an act of ferality.
Macfarlane points out that not only was the level of intensity in Williamson’s nature immersion vital to knowing and expressing the landscape, but also it became Williamson’s “salvation through art“. Creativity exercises us spiritually resulting in a cleansing of the soul that directs our attention positively towards healing. Macfarlane notes that Williamson’s immersion in nature was an unconscious act of repair following his service in the First World War.
Ecosomatic dance teaches us how to connect kinaesthetically, imaginatively, spiritually and experientially with the natural world, bringing us more powerfully into our bodies, awakening our aliveness, creativity and wellness. Movement is a unique opportunity for personal development – to feel whole and in dialogue with the world through receiving the moment-by-moment changing form of the body. When our impetus to dance comes from explorations of our surroundings, it has the ability to demonstrate the value of our intrinsic relationship with art and nature. Ecosomatic dance provides rich feedback within which the dancer can feel their connection to nature.