Waiting Off Stage: Somatic Lessons in Leadership

I have spent a lot of time waiting off stage, breathing easily (or not), heart full of suspense. There is power and mystery in waiting, and there is vulnerability. What will the next moments bring? Will I succeed in my entrance onto the scene. Sometimes I wait in a dream, hoping I will remember my lines or the rehearsed phrases of a choreography. I wait more at ease if I know I’m going to improvise and the results will emerge without too much thought or fear. The unknown is both fearful and beautiful to me. It is the beauty I most fear.


I have taken big leaps into the unknown in life, one of the biggest was the beginnings of what eventually became Eastwest Somatics Institute. When I began in the early 90’s to teach under my own name and not as part of academe where I had taught for many years, I sensed an open space and dive into the unknown. It was exciting and scary, all the same. What would come of it? Would I have any students? I wanted to share what I had learned and work with people and their potentials through embodied learning.


In the mid to late 80s, I had already started teaching somatic methods in my dance classes at State University of New York, and I understood the special nature of somatic movement perspectives for dance students and others who joined us, since the classes were open to all. Together, we began to develop somatic bodywork in unique directions through the lens of dance and yoga. As a teacher, I gradually adapted my study of Feldenkrais movement methods and Craniosacral Therapy to choreographic and improvisational templates.


I envisioned new connections in the field of movement somatics, or—somatic movement arts—as it grew in my own work. I saw that what we called somatics in university dance was bound up in teaching dancers, and I wanted to open the palette to be inclusive of more populations and of more movement means and arts. I knew somatics did not equate with Pilates, even as this form of dance conditioning, popular in academic dance, might be taught somatically. I had only a belief in myself as a dance teacher and author, and what I had accumulated as somatic skills and knowledge, which I thought would continue to mature, but I realized there were no guarantees. I didn’t even know what success might look like. I didn’t have a job description.


Now I realize that leadership came along with the job I was gradually creating for myself. The realization and the job emerged over a period of about thirty years, and is still evolving. What I have learned is that leadership can creep up on you, and is never quite complete. Rather the lessons are ongoing, and sometimes one needs to go into the forest alone to reset.


Apparently I had already been in leadership positions as artistic director for various projects, then as dance department chair, and eventually head of graduate dance at State University of New York, Brockport. All of these had been callings that I assumed, some willingly and some under duress, but in my understanding, I didn’t identify with leadership. Finally, I discovered that being the administrative head of something is leadership by any other name. Would I have done things differently had I studied leadership? I don’t know.


As the somatic institute that I envisioned gradually matured, I came to understand that I wouldn’t just be the primary teacher, but that I was indeed the director as well. Eventually, I became very invested in the meanings and matters of leadership, often through challenges. I developed a business plan, so that I would know what I was doing structurally and financially, and I had a flood of concerns surrounding operations of an institute in granting certifications through umbrella organizations, namely ISMETA, Institute for Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association, and YA, Yoga Alliance. I had entered on the ground floor in the formation of ISMETA and became chair of the language committee. I met other leaders in the somatics field. How would we find language for our work? What words would describe it? The documentation regarding certification had to have a logical flow, as did the educational program of the students. So I was certainly involved in more than teaching.


I had been a teacher for my entire university career which lasted forty plus years before retirement, and continues now these seventeen years after. At age eighty one, I am still teaching and directing Eastwest Somatics Institute for Yoga, Dance & Movement, where we develop Shin Somatics Methods. By now, I realize that I have worn the hat of leader many times and for many years.


Why didn’t anyone warn me that I might need to have some knowledge of leadership or some training for this? I have had many moments to ponder this, many situations where I didn’t know what to do, wading into the situational options or consulting a trusted friend or colleague. For one thing, I realized along the way that I am not a person who wants to be a “boss.” Well, some people do this well without thinking, and do a great job of hiding the fact that they are actually in charge. I have had to adjust to the fact that I make decisions, and will make some that not everyone agrees with. This means I have learned that being a people pleaser doesn’t work for leaders. But you can always listen, and be kind. What follows are five somatic lessons I have learned in becoming a leader (to be continued in several blogs coming weekly). Here is lesson #1.


Somatic Leadership Lesson #1

Making Decisions Through Ground, Center, & Balance


Passivity waits offstage with me. My decisions will be the wrong ones. Shall I do this or not? What will people think? Will my way work? Doubt grows as an entity within and beside me, a murky, debilitating creature I can’t see, standing there with me, nevertheless. When I have to make an entrance, will my skill and courage win over my doubt? What kind of serendipity might intervene? Chance is certainly a factor in what might be. Will I freeze or flow? Passivity is doubt by another name. Let me enter the stage with faith in myself and the goodness of others. If I am to enter at all, I need to cultivate attitudes of trust and faith. Otherwise, I might simply stay offstage with the monster beside me.


What if I leave it behind and move onstage with my feet feeling the ground, finding a fluid center through my spine, and balancing my head easily upward? Might I find such easy confidence? Leaders can’t be passive; they make decisions every day. They can make them better if they pause for breath, respect gravity, and find an embodied center that can move. Rigidity won’t work. They might not please everyone, but they can respect everyone, listen and laugh.


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