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Somatic Leadership Lesson #5: Falling Down, Getting Up, letting Go, & Breathing Freely

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

What if I fall out of the neutral space I so prize? If I don’t forgive myself, I freeze, and the creature waiting beside me growls impatiently. It might lumber out onstage and embarrass me.

I sit down, lie down, roll over, get up, stumble, and begin to walk onstage. After all I have learned through butoh that being awkward is just fine. It happens to everyone at certain points. There can be beauty in awkwardness when we move on through the difficulty of it. There is forgiveness in moving on and letting go of what others think. There is mystery and beauty in awkwardness, and community can arise in light of those who give up perfectionism to be themselves. Everyone can be their dance in owning the dance, whether in ballet, West African or ballroom forms. Each dance and every gesture has its own somatic essence. People want to gather in the generous space of letting be, getting on with things, letting go, and being in the moment of what is. They don’t need to pretend to be perfect, and thus, their light can shine without stress.

Leaders don’t have to know everything, but they do have to be able to adapt and forgive. They let the back body speak to the front body through the middle body while freeing the appendicular body in all dimensions. They learn the value of falling, failing, and recovering. Our Shin Somatics curricular model developed in just such ways: through gradual gatherings, some sedimentation, and much experiment, finally manifesting in a spiral. Eastwest graduate, Karen Smith assisted me with the one you see at the end of this blog entry. I share it as a relational concept. Imagine that each layer could move, and as it moves in relation to other layers, new meaning emerges, and new processes appear.

If somatic education is not simply about self-expression, neither it does it begin with self-focus or stay there in a singular way. The field of somatic studies is essentially relational, and embodies an ethos of care. If I could reduce the large concerns of somatics to a single aspect, it would be breath, and in particular the quest for breathing freely. My husband is 95 years old this year in 2020, and breathing is very difficult for him. So I appreciate how breath manifests differently throughout life, and becomes an orchestra of colorations according to circumstance. It isn’t easy to say what breathing freely is experientially. I imagine it is not just one thing, but many, and that we know it when we feel it, sense it, name and value it.

Breathing freely comes from several places in the soma-psyche. For me, it begins with letting go of seriousness. Freedom in breath comes from a play of exchanges in the organism, the lift and rise of the breath, followed by the fall into nothingness. Then it begins again, just a pleasant cycle and continuity. Nothing fascinates me more than breath and what it means to breathe freely.

Good decisions and relationships come from such a place of ease in the person, a breathing that is relaxed and composed. It stand to reason that good leaders practice leadership. They might in the process practice breathing consciously, attending to the ideas and feelings of others, while not forgetting to breathe themselves. Somatic lessons of leadership look inward toward breath, as they move out toward others. Leaders serve others and look toward the well-being of the whole. This is what leadership is about. Thus, leaders are relationship and community builders, moving the lessons of somatics from immanence to communal manifestation while attending to the progress of individuals.

Freedom is a word and concept that takes on meaning in context. Existential freedom is basic, a given according to Jean Paul Sartre. His existentialist philosophy holds that we are condemned to be free, and don’t have a choice in the matter. Individuals can however choose to ignore their state of freedom by not taking responsibility for their choices. Sartre called this “bad faith.”

Freedom lives first in breath and good faith, as I felt when I first saw my baby’s face immediately after birth, and watched the nurse free her nose from blood and mucus as she struggled to take her first breath. Feelings of being free live in breath and consequently in movement. We might think of these feelings as somatic, since somatic fields of movement and dance in both education and therapy ask into valences or qualities of lived experience. What feelings are elicited in the movement, and what is the importance of these for the mover? Autotelic dance, done for itself, not for an audience or for extrinsic purposes, gives explicit attention to dance in relation to self, others, and the environment.

Thus concerns for what cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser calls “the ecological body” enter into the picture. This is the body oriented in its immediate environment, a concept that bears somatic attention, since dance is consciously oriented movement that contributes to agency, freedom as lived, and self-knowledge (Fraleigh, in Neisser 1994). Dancing of any kind can be oriented indoors or out, always in relation to affordances of environments and what they allow or prevent. Natural environments can be healing when we orient in connection. Connecting with inspiring environments aids feelings of well-being. Leaders might well take time to be in places of beauty and mystery to learn lessons of being part of something larger than self. When someone in your group has a bad day and freaks out, or you yourself, lose equilibrium, perhaps it is time to take a nature day. Being with and in nature can bring one closer to emotional resilience, and leadership requires emotional resilience.

Leaders are people. What a surprise? And they make mistakes and have feelings like everyone. But the mark of a leader is how they rise above their own mistakes, as in a dance improvisation, and turn them into the dance as a whole. Leadership is not about being a bulwark for everyone, it is about becoming increasingly compassionate toward yourself and others. Breathing into freedom helps, and accepting help also helps. When I started Eastwest, and it seemed so daunting, I was ready to give it up, when my daughter said: “People will want to help you mom. Say yes to them.” So I did. Since then I have found that no one does the tasks of leadership successfully alone. We all need help, and the sharing makes everyone stronger.


Last night I dreamed I was waiting to go on stage to perform a strange dance which was immense and outdoors. The audience was also large, sitting on a hillside on blankets with their cucumber sandwiches and champaign. I had my crimson costume in my dance bag and was waiting to go underground to change. When the time came, I realized I would never make it into the costume and back up overground in time to perform. But I kept going, anyway, down and down.

Oops, no costume in the bag when I looked inside. So I wore what I had on, which was a bouffant skirt and blouse in my favorite color, black. I was told it was too late when I came above ground and was ready to go on stage, that no one would pay any attention. So I was ready to give up... but then Ruth Way appeared. She was also in black, which I liked with her jet black hair.

I forgot all about the monster mocking me when Ruth led me out onstage. Rather I felt impelled by her clear directness, and was grateful for the help. Performers and leaders don’t do it alone, I think. They get help to go on stage. Suddenly there were about 30 maidens in white gowns, somewhat Botticelli-like, who ran onstage with me or rather surrounded me. They had garlands in their hair. (Yes it was a complex dream. and I’m not catching all of it here.) Immediately I thought of the hundreds of dancing maidens symbolizing maidenly grace at Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I blanched and winced at the thought. What are these maidens doing here? I hope they are the Japanese dancers who wore white and joined my choreography of SUNY Friendship Dancers when we performed in Yoyogi, the Olympic arena in Tokyo in 1990.

I remembered Frau Mathilde Thiele my teacher at the Wigman School in Berlin telling me about the spectacle of maidens in the dance of her friend Gret Palluca at the Olympics. It was choreographed as a spectacle and Palluca was told she was to perform the solo in a red dress. Mostly I remember Frau Thiel's stories about her life in dance and war, especially her dinner with Hitler. He called Palluca and Thiele to his table one evening at the Olympics. They were mortified because Palluca was Jewish, and they didn’t want Hitler to find out, so they kept kicking each other under the table. Thiele lived out her final years not far from me in upstate New York where we became friends. Consequently, I listened to her stories often, and wrote them down. She was dying and letting go, and I was holding onto the stories.

The sylphs in my dream (I call them this, as they appeared so young, diaphanous and somewhat Isadora-like) ran in a great spiral, which I was grateful for, since it gave my improvisational dance a wonderful pathway. It all started to fade then, as I woke up, saying, “everyone is here” and breathing freely. But who is everyone? I asked myself this on waking. Everyone in this dream? I didn’t see them all. Well, everyone I imagine, everyone I can hold onto in dreaming, the unknown everyone, both fearful and beautiful.


Fraleigh. Sondra. 1994. "Agency, Freedom and Self Knowledge in Dance," in The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge. Ed. Ulric Neisser. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

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