Stories the Body Tells

I walk onto the stage. There are twenty people in the audience, or a hundred, or four hundred, or two thousand. I have not rehearsed lines or choreography– I am an artist who improvises. For the next hour, I will rely on my body to fetch stories from my subconscious; I will rely on movement to lead me to matters of the heart.

For nearly thirty years, improvising has been my practice. As a performer and a teacher I have studied the workings of the body, mind, emotions, and spirit through the medium of spontaneous performance. And yet, despite all that I have learned and understood, the moment when the subconscious delivers its wealth of knowledge through me is still a moment of surprise, delight, and awe. And before that moment of delivery, I am terrified; terrified that I will stand there in full view suffering abject humiliation as I meet the unarticulated void; not the emptiness of pure and ineffable light that all being arises from, but the white-out of a stupefying blankness. I have learned that to perform well, it is not my intellectual process– thoughts flooding the mind – that holds the key to knowing; but it is the body–the grand cluster of physical sensations and impulses that arise moment to moment–that leads the way to the heart’s release.

Backstage, I have stretched and vocalized, done pliés, rotated all of my joints, rolled on the floor. And I have paced in my dressing room, the way a polar paces in a cage, back and forth, movement dictated by nerves and confinement. In the privacy of my room, I have been woozy with fear and adrenaline; a state with which I am intimate. And then it is time. The moment to move from seclusion to public display happens in an instant. Nothing in the psyche feels prepared, ready, secure–the stroll from backstage to centerstage is an act of faith.

I begin with stillness. I feel the audience watching me, focusing on what I am focusing on–my body standing still in space. We are all scared; the audience and the performer alike. We are afraid that we will be uncomfortable, that we will be moved in ways we don’t expect, that we won’t connect, that we will connect too deeply, that we will be bored, that we will cry, that we will laugh alone, that something will be revealed we would prefer was kept hidden. And in the way a child is delighted when the iron bar of her roller coaster car is pulled closed and terror mingles with the welling of confidence that she has the mettle to enjoy the ride ahead, I am enlivened by fear as the lights come up.

I concentrate on emptying, letting go of thinking, planning, even praying. I sense the temperature of the room, the way the light hits my skin, the distance between my feet and the first row, the last row of the audience. I hear the hum of heaters and the sound system, the coughs and sighs and rustlings of the audience. And I feel beyond this room: the phase of the moon, the politics of the moment, the weather, the particularity of the place I am in–Prague, Killarney, Bangkok, Amsterdam. The silence is teeming.

Then I direct my attention to the sensations in my body. The body is always calling our attention through the language of sensation, but most of the time we don’t listen. Now, I listen, until an impulse becomes so strong that I begin to move in response. My shoulders, perhaps, begin a roll, or a lifting, out of necessity. And the circling of shoulders turns into a fling of the arm. I look up. Suddenly, my elbow falls and carries my spine along on the descent until I am bent over, and my feet jump off the floor. Because they need to.

And images arise; they do not present themselves like vivid hallucinations or technicolor movies, but are subtle, quiet, and totally present. Perhaps my arms move in loopy gestures in the air and I am reminded of the massage I had the night before. I am not pretending to be the masseur or intentionally trying to convey his strokes. That would be mime, working from a preconceived idea and demonstrating it to the audience. Instead, I am letting my body lead and registering the images that arise. Probably no one in the audience is seeing a masseur; they are seeing my arms waving in space; but I am reminded of his hands moving on my belly. And I name what I see, finding words for the story the body wants to tell. Stories emerge from the subconscious the way a dream unfolds. My job is to dream on my feet.

Sometimes the images that emerge are from childhood, sometimes from the week before, sometimes from the past hour. Sometimes the images seem utterly insignificant, but always if I follow them they deliver a story that is rife with vitality and meaning. Through the demand of muscle and bone, a memory with all of its layers intact, rises to the surface of awareness and forces itself into recognition. The body knows more than the intellect and when we allow physical impulses to be expressed through movement, and then give voice to what we see, we give the body a medium for revealing its wisdom.

Moving to the Heart of the Wound

While I was leading a five-day course at Esalen Institute recently, I had a student whom I found particularly challenging. Mary was overweight, her skin was scarred from acne, her hair unkempt. Although she was in her late twenties, her behaviour was classically adolescent: She came late to class or skipped sessions altogether; she made snide comments while I was giving instructions; she refused to follow my directions. When it was time to pair up for partner exercises, the other students tended to avoid her. Yet while Mary’s attempts to disrupt the class were unnerving to me, I found her feistiness appealing and I detected a warm and playful spirit hidden underneath her sulky demeanor. When the group danced to lively music, I joined Mary in her awkward movements as if they were the finest choreography; which they in fact became as we both committed to the unpredictable and gawky gestures and took pleasure in them. As I found ways to compliment her on her work, the crust of her attitude softened and a gentler persona began to reveal itself.

Towards the end of the week, I invited my students to do full-out solo improvisations.

“Start with a simple movement you can repeat,” I instructed. “Commit to that movement fully. Notice what images arise, and then tell us what you see; tell us the story.”

Mary was reluctant to go out on the floor, but finally managed to muster the courage. After a series of exploratory movements, she settled on a waving motion of her arms. I guided her to continue the gesture with more commitment, and pay attention to the images that arose until she could name them.

“My mother and my little brother and I are running through the hills,” she said. “The hills are green and it is afternoon, late afternoon.”

She was jogging around the room now, her arms still making waving motions in the air. She told us that the sun was going down behind the hills and the glow of the evening shone on her mother’s face. Suddenly, Mary burst into tears and fell into a heap of the floor.

“What are you seeing?” I asked her. “What is sad?”

“That was the last moment I remember my mother being happy.”

“What happened after that?” I asked.

Mary was frozen, unable to speak. Gently, I guided her back to movement. Movement impulses arise moment-by-moment. Usually we repress not only responding to these impulses, but we actually repress feeling the impulses. We have been socialized to refrain from bursting into dance and song in “inappropriate” situations: lines at the grocery store, airport waiting rooms, elevators, symphony halls. We have trained ourselves to be so well-behaved that many of us cannot even respond freely to movement impulses when we find ourselves on a dance floor. When encouraged to move freely, we commonly meet great resistance. Yet when we are able to move with abandon, we encounter a vast inner landscape of characters, stories, memories, and images that encode the core issues of our process towards freedom.

Mary rose to her feet, and began a slow circling of her arms and hips.

“I was nineteen,” she said, her voice soft and vulnerable. "I was working as a waitress in a cafe. My mother called and asked me to come meet her on a corner about a half-mile away. I was still wearing my uniform when I parked my car next to hers on the side of the road.”

“What kind of car did she drive?” I asked Mary.

“The detail seems unimportant, and if we were doing therapy, the color of the car would be irrelevant. But we were not engaged in therapy. We were composing a story, and to tell a story well, the details are essential. The storyteller must paint a picture so that the audience can see what the character in the story is seeing; so that the audience can smell, taste, hear what the character is smelling, tasting, hearing. The artist must move the audience from observing the story from outside to living the story from inside.

“A Mustang, red,” Mary said. “It was shining. She must have just had it washed. I got out of my car, an old Volkswagen bug, and walked over to her. She rolled down the window. ‘No matter what happens,’ my mother told me, ‘I want you to know that I love you.‘“

Mary’s voice had become nearly a whisper. But the whisper was so clear, everyone in the room could hear her.

“Then my mother drove away. I walked back to my car. I was dizzy. I knew I should do something but I didn’t know what to do. Driving back to work, I realized I was driving on the wrong side of the street.”

“Do it with your body,” I suggested.

Mary lurched around the room, as if drunk.

“I was in my apartment in the evening when the phone rang. It was my little brother, Sammy. He told me to come over right away. When I walked in the door, Sammy pointed to the basement stairway but he didn’t move. I found my mother hanging from a rope she had tied to a beam. I never even knew she could tie a knot.”

Tears rolled down Mary’s face as she stood swaying in the middle of the room. Tears began to fall from my eyes as well, and all around the room people reached for kleenex. Mary’s story had broken us open, had allowed us to touch her grief and our own heartache. The story that had lain hidden in Mary’s body, that had hardened her so severely we all shied away from her, that very story when revealed made us fall in love with her. She had transformed in our eyes; she was no longer a troublesome character who we wanted to avoid, but a young woman emanating an unspeakable courage who we wanted to hold in our arms.

The recently evolved field of Somatics includes body-based psychotherapeutic methodologies that have emerged from the understanding that trauma is stored in the body and therefore can be brought to awareness and healed through physical touch, movement, and breathwork. While the physical improvisation I teach is related to somatic-based therapy, it is not another psychotherapeutic methodology. The primary goal of psychotherapy is to heal a client from the ongoing pain of psychological wounds. The primary goal of improvisation is to make good art. Yet when following the demands of the art, which are precise, rigorous, and distinct from the demands of therapy, the improviser often experiences profound therapeutic effects.

The Impact of Fleeting Impressions

As movement invites the subconscious to release whatever lies in wait, we find it is not only the big stories of our lives that rise to the surface of awareness, it is also the incidents of a day that appear to have been mundane. These experiences, which are unlikely to arise in a therapy session, expose their inherent profundity when given the light of our attention.

I improvise on a regular basis with my actor friend, Corey Fisher. Occasionally, we rehearse for public performances. More commonly, we get together to improvise with and for one another so that we can discover what it is that our psyches crave to express. We warm up physically and vocally together, and then we each do an improvised performance while the other witnesses. Neither of us ever wants to go first. If it is my turn, I go out onto the floor and my mind goes blank. It does not matter that I have been teaching and performing improvisation for nearly thirty years, my mind goes blank.

“What do I do?” I ask Corey.

“Begin with movement,” he says. “Add sound. Don’t know where you are going. Allow the story to arise from the body.”

Once I began with a slow limp across the floor. An image of a man I had passed earlier in the day, an unshaven man with long stringy hair, wearing baggy and torn clothes and pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk, came to my mind. I had looked away as a feeling of disgust flashed through my mind so quickly it had gone nearly unnoticed. But the image had carved its way into my body and now was resurfacing. I continued to limp across the wooden floor, as he had been limping on the sidewalk, and I invited the feeling of his body to enter mine. I began to mutter out loud in a deep and snarly voice.

“Goddam if ever the out there! Ha, ha! Oh no, she did, she did, oh yeah. Bullshit! “

I was enjoying the tight anger that spit out of the words, and I began to punch the air with my elbows as I slumped my spine, turning quickly to face on direction and then another. When standing still and speaking, stories often emerge quietly, politely, and while perhaps important to the teller, can be somewhat flat or predictable to the listener. And the person listening has permission to interrupt, to offer his own story. But when the teller is moving freely– leaping, falling, flailing, spinning– and the audience is giving their full attention, the emotional power, the humor, and the depth of the story are given the space and support to be fully unleashed.

“They always you’d think. Off, off! I growled. Needing to nobody’s gonna, nobody ever, oh yeah.”

Images of Vietnam surfaced in my mind so I named those.

“Monks on fire, monks on fire, ashes, ashes. Your head a berry pie believe me, a deep dish and red, red, red.”

Of course these were not the words the man was speaking. I hadn’t heard the man speaking. These were words that were coming from my subconscious, leading me somewhere. I didn’t know where I was headed, and that is the point, not to know. “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be,” the painter Juan Gris has said. The creative process is most authentically dictated by what we don’t consciously know. But to rest in not-knowing requires courage, a courage that an artist cultivates day after day, year after year, by placing herself in the middle of the void–an empty canvas, a blank page, an untold story.

Limping and muttering across the floor, I surmised that the homeless man, who had seemed to be in his late forties, as I am, was likely to have been a Vietnam vet. A shuddering happened in my limbs as images of the horrors he might have witnessed, and perpetrated, rose in my mind. And I understood in an instant that this man’s breakdown was a symptom of his sanity. If our hearts don’t break and our minds spin out when we witness and commit unthinkable violence, then we would be crazy. But I didn’t want to interrupt my day with grief as I drove by this man. I was on my way to my studio; to make art. I didn’t want to be confused or depressed. All of this came to me in a flash as I limped and muttered gibberish. It was not the suffering stranger who was insane, it was me, the woman who had looked away, stepped on the gas, closed her eyes as if she could ignore what she saw.

“I’m an artist, I’ve got my socks on right, I do, I said as I tap-danced around the room. My shirt has no holes, my underarms are clean, clean.”

I moved my feet faster and faster.

“I’m busy, oh yeah, doing my part. I’ve got my clothes on straight. I’m making art.”

What choice do we have when we come across the victims of our culture, our history? The paradox of complicity and the impulse for compassion settles into our bodies even as we turn away. Yet I didn’t consciously sense any of these aspects of my experience when I drove past the man. Had I not improvised in the studio, the incident would have slipped by, unacknowledged. It is the stories we hide from that draw us to them; these are the stories that ache to be told.

“I drive by fast,” I said, racing across the room on tip toes. A longer look and I would see into his eyes.

Then it is Corey’s turn. He walks out onto the floor.

“What do I do?” he asks, because now, standing out there on the empty dance floor, his mind has gone blank. It does not matter that he has performed for thirty years. The future gapes with its terrifying emptiness, freezing the mind.

“Begin with movement,” I say. “Let images arise from the body. If you get lost in words, go back to the body.”

Tickling the Funny Bone

One of the most marvelous aspects of improvising is that what has caused us pain can unpredictably reveal its comedic side. Our lives, full of betrayals and disappointments, suddenly appear funny, and we giggle at our hard grip on grief. For a wondrous moment, the comic and the tragic merge, and we rest in the non-dual reality described by the great saints, a terrain where all of life is seen as a great play of images and experiences, emotions and perceptions; where joy and sorrow are equally vibrant and profound.

During the final session of a weekend workshop, I asked my students to do solo improvisations, finding a story about something that had occurred in the past week. Everyone groaned. Nothing interesting had happened, they protested. Nothing meaningful.

“Okay,” I said, “then do an improvisation about something that has happened in the past twenty-four hours.”

The groans thickened and deepened.

“Trust the body,” I said.

Sally, a woman in her mid-sixties wearing loose brown pants and a color-matched T-shirt, walked onto the floor. I knew from experience that her mind was either desperately generating a mad rush of ideas or going blank as an Arctic white-out.

“Respond to movement impulses as they arise in the body,” I said. “Don’t pay attention to your ideas. And don’t be afraid of the blank spaces. Simply let your body move the way it wants to move.”

She began rolling her hips in a sensuous motion from side to side and she strolled across the floor.

“I live in San Jose,” she said. “Which is a two-hour drive from here so I used that as an excuse to stay in a hotel and spend the night away from my husband.”

Sally turned her head towards us and flashed a mischievous grin. Rocking her hips with vigorous exaggeration, she told us that the bellboy who carried her luggage wore a T-shirt that showed off his biceps and tight jeans that hugged his hips. Ripples of excitement moved through Sally’s shoulders, her belly, her knees. Alone in her room, she decided to disrobe for her shower in front of a window with a sheer curtain. She wondered how just a corner of a breast might look through the window, a certain angle of buttock, of thigh.

Before our eyes, Sally performed a series of fluid, sinewy movements, jutting out a hip, then a shoulder, then a breast, her hands caressing her body. We were gasping with surprise as this intimate confession of a middle-aged woman unfolded. She told us that in the morning, she had peeked through the curtain to see exactly what the view from the street might have been. The view was not a view. The window looked out onto a flat, white wall. Sally let out a deep groan and threw her arms in the air. But she surfaced from the moment of disappointment, telling us that a man’s voice had called out to her in the morning as she walked down the hall.

“Miss, Miss.”
She turned around. He was wearing a beautifully tailored suit, and a tie, had silver hair brushed back off of his forehead. She flashed him a flirtatious grin.

“Miss, excuse me,” he had said, “but your label is sticking out of your collar.”

Sally lit into a tap dance of frustration and we all burst into laughter.

Each student was convinced that he would be the one to fail to find a story to tell. And each student found a story; an incident that had happened in the last twenty-four hours that was redolent with the mystery and contradictions of a lived life. Life comes in stories, hour by hour, minute by minute, and by honoring the experiences that life gives us, we are in turn gifted with the richness of our lives. Our daily experiences, which so often seem insignificant because we have so few opportunities to behold their exquisite complexity, become delightful with insight and humor.

Improvisation as Satsang

In responding with movement to impulses that arise free of preconceived ideas, in responding to what is necessary, we express what the body craves to express. Movement leads us to images that unveil whole stories one image at a time. And when the stories we have tucked away are spoken aloud, the heart sighs with relief. It is not that what troubles us ceases to be disturbing: heartbreak, loneliness, grief, jealousy, fear. But the stories, freed from their hiding place, reveal their inherent wisdom, their concealed humor, their poignant insight. The events that take place in the realm of time, in the realm of emotions, in the realm of human relationships, when exposed through performance, show themselves to be moving, wonderful stories about being alive as embodied beings. And when a story is told well, truthfully, from the body, it is not only the artist who experiences relief, but the audience as well. This is the alchemy of performance; when a performer is witnessed in the skillful execution of art, even as she reveals her clumsiness, grief, and frailty, the performer and the audience are both healed. When the performer drops her mask and becomes transparent, the witnesses see the truth and fall in love. This is the satsang of improvisation: meeting in truth. And it is our body’s hunger that leads the way to the telling of the very story that is both the heart of our wound and our remedy. Since we are in fact not separate beings, but intricately interconnected, healing does not happen alone. Healing happens together, in the light of our stories being told and being heard, in the spinning of the tale, the web of our connection.


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