Developing your own outdoor dance practice
Information on developing a home practice of dancing outdoors/mindful movement in nature:
cultivating connection, being embodied on the earth and resourcing ourselves to become more resilient during covid-19 social isolation times by Tess Howell – Wild Moves outdoor dance events.
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So many of us have so much spare time right now! It is great moment to head outdoors in your garden, or to the nearest park and do an outdoor dance session with your headsets in (if you are permitted to go outside and do so right now….) If that’s not possible then open your windows and dance looking at the sky outside, or move with the moon one night. Exercise will energise you and lift your spirits.
Humans have danced outdoors forever- in community and out on the land. It is only in recent decades that we started reckoning that dance is something that should happen in a studio. There is great wonder and delight to be had in dancing in, and with, the natural world. Why not go forth and try it for yourself?
This article is mainly aimed at existing conscious dancers whom want to develop an outdoor dance practice. Newcomers to the dance are absolutely warmly welcomed to try it too- there is so much freedom to be found in dancing out of doors! Here is some basic guidance to support you in developing your own outdoors conscious dance practice:
I’ve been teaching the dance outdoors for the last 9 years or so; mainly using silent disco headset to facilitate groups moving together in extraordinary outdoor settings, with live DJ-ed music and light teaching delivered through the headsets to support everyone in dropping in. 7 years ago I qualified as an accredited 5Rhythms teacher to bring the vast wisdom of that body of work into the dance. Here are some tips for developing your own solo dance outdoors practice, may it deeply serve and sustain you in these times of necessary social isolation:
Part 1: Basic building blocks of an outdoor dance practice
First things first: feel into your feet
In the dance we most-always start with our feet. Surely that makes so much sense as first step! We begin at the bottom of the body. Finding the earth underneath us will literally ground us. The land holds us up, supports and sustain us.
When we move outdoors we no longer have a solid studio floor under us; we will likely have lumps and bumps to navigate! You will need to be way more mindful of how you move accordingly. At the start of every session warm up your toes, ankles and knees much more than you think you need to- they are the shock absorbers of the body and will keep you safe as you move across all of the wonderful uneven surface that we find on the forest floor/beach/street or wherever else you are moving.
Wiggle each toe, circulate your joints, flex and point each foot. “windscreen wiper” your ankles! Gently rotate your knees, let your whole leg warm up. Give yourself proper time to do this- not just a perfunctory few seconds!
The gift of giving your feet your own attention will firmly put your feet in “four wheel drive” at the start of the session! Our bodies own inner four-wheel drive mechanism is mind-blowingly sophisticated and requires no fossil fuels! Following our feet can take us off-road timing in some truly breathtakingly beautiful spots!
As far as getting into contact with our bodies goes the Buddhists have been doing mindful walking meditation for centuries. Feel into your feet, where your skin touches the socks or earth beneath you. Feel the rising and falling of taking a step. Slow it down to start. You can always speed up later when the music grabs you and your focus moves naturally moves to the rest of your body. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated as you dance.
Bothering with these basics will give you strong support for safely diving deeper into your dance as you move through the rest of your session.
Use headsets/earphones if you can
I grew up amidst the London illegal rave -scene in the early 1990’s. We had wild, wild parties out in the countryside around the city’s main ring-road with huge petrol generators and multiple stacks of vast speakers pumping out the noise from various sound systems. It was an incredible full-body experience that filled every pore of your being with a pulsing bassline, not to mention filling every field and farm for miles around with it too! It was an amazing initiation- and- now I’m an adult I really don’t want to work in that way!
Sure- you can put your speaker is your garden to dance but it’s helluva way to upset your neighbours. Same with the woods- you can put your phone on speaker setting-yet it seems to be to be mighty uncaring to the birds and animals there to do so. I so recommend that you put your earphones in to dance outdoors. Also the sound quality is substantially better via your earphones than on that tinny little phone speaker. A single wire between your pocket and ears won’t even impact your dance much if you have chorded ones. The better the sound quality the more likely it is that the music will seduce you deeper into the dance. It’s a win-win all round!
Come to your senses!!!
We are literally brought to our senses when we move outdoors; in ways that are way more than just a metaphor.
Our physical senses are the gateway to the experience of being in the present moment. The sound/feel/taste/touch/smell/felt sense of the world is what anchors us here. It literally provides us with something to be with right here, right now. The added multitude of sensations that come from working outdoors is a wonderful way to be called back into the present, time after time.
Sunlight shimmering on water? A mindfulness bell to bring us back to being here.
Leaf brushing against skin as we dance down a narrow trail? A mindfulness bell to call us back here.
Smell of skunk? Yup- you guessed it- yet another mindfulness bell to bring us back to being fully here-now.
Feel the wind on your face. Reach out and touch moss and bark and water and stone. See what you smell as you dance through different areas-notice if it delights or repels you. Listen in to the music or unplug and hear the birdsong behind it all when you take your earbuds out….
Some of us were raise right off-grid, whilst some are born and bred committed city dwellers. Wherever you are at, it is all good. Your relationship with the natural world will grow if you do this often enough. As you come to trust in your own body you will become braver about heading into nature to dance. As our physical fitness increases we can trust in our own internal good guidance to show us the next safe-steps in increasing our comfort zone with dancing outdoors.
It is better to dance fully present (as best we can) for 30 minutes than “in and out” for 90 minutes. You may find moving on uneven surface more tiring than dancing an indoor studio session. That’s ok. Do what you need to.
Be aware of heat from the sun or the cold, depending on where you are working, and take care of what needs to be taken care of accordingly. The endorphins will hit after 20 minutes or so. Stay with it keep moving and see what goodness comes when you dare to dance a little deeper than your first impulse to move onto the next activity. An hour is an ideal length if you can manage it. A short session is still better than nothing- so do what you can.
Let the music move you
This may sound the most ridiculously obvious instruction of all! Yet it is also the superpower of the dance. Sometimes we will come across a piece of music that for some mysterious reason hits us hard in the heart and cracks open something inside of us making way for a wellspring of feeling. Bingo! We are brought into full-bodied feels, absolutely in touch with what is really going on within us. Let these moments move through you when they come. There is grace in getting in contact with our inner world. There are many inner landscapes to move through.
As Thoreau said: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”
Personally I dance for a deeper and richer experience of living life. Relish these moments of being affected when they come. Nature will nurture us through.
Sometimes the dance will show up more as a case of ”heck yeah-that tempo is pulling forth my most badass-moves and I just have to keep grooving and moving” Yes dear dancers -that is good too! Let that happen to you! We need to contact our potency and our power too in these times.
Choose music you love. The music is a strong support to our practice. Let yourself be inspired and move with what you love. Relish it and rock it out!
Our practice is letting the dance of life flow freely through us. It is learning to roll with what rock us. It is coming to be more fluid as we dance with the world moving around us.
So dare yourself to dance wider and deeper than you have before. Try out moving in new ways- maybe more fluid or more angular. Try out stretching-out, taking up space, sinking in and let it all shimmy and shake through you. No one else is looking-you’re either likely at home in the garden alone, or if you’re out somewhere then they’re most likely all looking down at their phones anyways!
If all this feels way too way out woo-woo for you no worries. View all of this as a part of an exercise regime in resilience if you must!
I swear on every bone in my body that dancing outdoors will transform your life, enrich it deepen it and bring more delight to it. Plug in and give it a go…
I’ll be offering regular Spotify playlists for you to dance to at https://open.spotify.com/user/p8m5wp9axfrew58lxg6ur6za9?si=twKjpnh0Qgabt9oTHdNBVg (please do take off shuffle mode or the track order will be odd!)
Part 2: Cultivating connection with the natural world
Relish relationship with specific parts of nature
We know that connection is a core component in developing and maintaining resilience. If Covid-19 is teaching us all anything -it is that we are indeed so intimately linked.
Many of us go to nature to look for a sense of a place where we can “become more one with the world”. Time outdoors will do so much to build our internal resources and resilience. We may well have less connection to our communities than we’d like right now- feeling a sense of connection with something outside of ourselves will do much to fill that gap and bring in a much needed sense of well-being.
Yet trying to dance with the “whole of nature” is way too much! The entire universe is just too big to build a meaningful relationship with in one dance (!) - that will likely take a while…
Start with relating with something specific in your dance session. Show up for some small part of nature. Become “friend” with that blackbird, or the cherry tree, or the creek- by giving it your clear focused attention. Look closely at the details of what you are dancing with. Notice the world around you - be it the way that the flower is wilting in the sun, or the veins of quartz that run through the rock you are holding. Pick up the rock, feel the weight and the texture of it, see how holding its weight changes the way that you dance. See how each and every bit of life can move us if we let it.
Cultivate you sense of connection with the world of nature around you.
Develop a renewed child-like sense of wonder for a few moments. See the tiny constituent parts of each of the things that we amalgamate together under a single name for each item. Noticing the thousands of individual leaves and branches and insects that make up the massively complex thing that we call a “tree” is an exercise in mindfulness that you could contemplate as you dance for literally days! Starting with the micro is an excellent way into the connecting with the macro.
It’s also an exercise in awareness, can you stay connected to your own dance, feeling your feet, being with your breath, and looking out at whatever it is in front of you? Can you widen your awareness to skilfully include self and other? Can you keep coming back to the present moment: the breath, the body moving, the bassline and the beauty of natural world in front of you?
Play with distance and height
We are fundamentally just animals with massively evolved minds! We will naturally respond to the different environments that we found ourselves moving in. Place will shape us, the way that we move, and even our own nervous system. Think about life-long New Yorkers versus someone who has lived alone off-grid in the mountains for many decades- their tempo of talking and walking will inevitably be different!
Get curious and see what various outdoor places cultivate within you.
Try out different things on different days. Maybe you could do an hours dancing on the beach (if that is permitted for you to go alone to right now..) What does moving on a sandy -surface do to you dance? How does a wide open horizon feel in your body? Sometimes we need to become “landscape-literate” with new places as we learn how to engage with the flora and fauna there. Dance amidst tall trees and see what does looking up do? Or dancing with the furthest point on the horizon that you can see? What about dancing with the sky-can you feel how that changes the way you move in comparison the way that you dance with your attention on the earth? When was the last time you moved with the moon?
What about dancing on your doorstep on a rainy day when you don’t want to move outdoors -or else do a session standing in your bedroom with the door open. How is it to consciously take time to literally “look outside” at the natural world every day; you may notice that looking outside at nature actually supports us in our own process of “looking inside” and tending to our inner world.
Develop a sense of place
Trackers and nature-connection-geeks have thing called a “sit spot”; a place in nature where they go to every day to check in. Having tried out a few different places it is likely that eventually we will find somewhere that works for us.
I know for myself in teaching large group dances outdoors that some spots become like old friends- the land literally seems to hold us as we dance there week after week, year after year. We gather at the same beaches, with the same community using the same technology to dance together - and that somehow “hold us” time after time, season after season. Having a familiar place in nature where our nervous system feels safe to “drop in” quickly will help us relax and release a little more easily each time.
Part 3 Dancing deeper
Permission to play.
Try out different dances- and by that I don’t mean learning different choreographed routines- Britney, Bollywood and ballroom? Nope! (though please do go ahead if that floats your boat…there is much good in all forms)
I do mean that we offer ourselves explicit permission to move in new ways and to feel into new ways of being- expanding our internal range of authentic expression. How does it feel to move large, livid, vivid, voluptuous, vulnerable, small, scared, strong, staccato, soft, fierce, feisty, gregariously, grieving or feeling the gifts of it all? We all have so many versions of ourselves that show up in different situations and it is wonderful to embody each of those different sides of ourselves. Move what is true for you in each moment - that is how we come embody our authentic experience, to move with the whole of ourselves.
We can also look to the dance to consciously cultivate different aspects of ourselves that we may want more of in our lives. What happens if you dance large-limbs spread out wide and see what it is like to take up so much space? Is that familiar on unfamiliar? Might that serve you if you did that in other areas of your life? Can you commit to cultivating that?
Or what happens if you slow down and stay close to the centre, making micro-movements and tuning into the slow-mo subtle sensations of that? Is that a new sensation to you? Where might more of that serve you?
We can be our own experiential researchers really digging into all the different ways that we can be human, being here, moving through it all.
Stretch your sensitivities
Dancing outdoors is like mini retreat. We get to slow down and open up more to the world around us, way more that we do when we are indoors and busy “doing” our dance. Our senses will get sharper and we will get radically more receptive to the sensitivities of the world and the subtle inputs that we may miss when we move at speed.
Our ancestors believed in the animate-ness of all life. That rocks and rivers and pine-trees and meadows have a kind of sentience to them. In effect that each place had kind of “personality” of its own. Most of us can indeed easily “sense” the different feeling in our body between moving in a place with wide open skies and a concrete carpark! Explore how it is to meet these different “personalities of place” in you dance and how your body responds.
Wi-fi and phone-cellar data is invisible but carries so much information between us all. Our own bodies cellular date is just as sophisticated and skilled and sending and receiving signals if we develop the somatic-sensitivity to do so. Neural networks running between the internal and external worlds via our amazing sense modalities. What information might we be able to pick up with our “internal antennae” if we let ourselves listen in a little deeper? I promise you that if you unplug and go to the forest you’ll have better connection to life than by looking at it online!
Try moving with the unseen- for example the wind that can only be “seen” in the way that the tips of the tree-tops are moving. Or move with the arising of spring that can only somehow be sensed by the exploding of a billion buds bursting forth.
We are nature- how is it to dance the body electric?
How is to interact with these invisible forces nature that so impact all of our lives? How is it to dance with the deeper currents of the natural world?
”Let life in”- building bridges between inner and outer worlds
In time when we dance, we will naturally all get to drop in deeper to that somatic sense of self and the wonderful wellspring of wisdom that lies there. As we bring our attention inwards we may experience a deeper sense of ourselves, somehow feeling closer to our own experience of being alive, breathing and some subtle sense of being able to witness all that arises within us.
When we move in nature we are inevitably more open to the elements of the world around us. Don’t try and stop this sense being touched by the world and by all that has happened to us. It is totally OK feel life a little more (or even a lot more) in these moments in these moments of relative privacy. Trust that you can skilfully move through the landscapes of the heart as they arise.
Reality is rocking us all right now and it’s fine to feel the feel associated with that. By letting our emotions move freely they will actually pass through us quicker than when we try and think our way out of them,
As Gabrielle Roth the founder of the 5 Rhythms says “the only way out is through” s o let yourself be touched by it all my darlings. Things will arise and pass in their own unique times. Trust in that…. Let life and your own internal process have their own timings.
And, I’d acknowledge too that for some folks our inner world may not always be the most comfortable place to hang out sometimes, particularly if we have trauma in our physiology. We may struggle to be fully with our inner experience. Nature is great safe space outside of us that we can put our attention in. This “outer world” of nature will serve us way better than mass media, social media or screens as a place for our attention to inhabit. It is OK if sometimes our own internal experience is too much to be with. Let nature hold your gaze, be a safe place to out your attention in and come fully into contact with. In time we can come to be present with both inner and outer experiences and to skilfully choose where it will best serve us to put our experience right now.
Turn towards what you want to turn away from.
To state the obvious-when we dance outdoors we can no longer control the environment around us the way we can inside of a studio. Notice when the wind blows and chills you. Notice when the dark comes and “interrupts” your evening. What are the sensations of these happenings. can they too be call to presence. What happens in your body when you don’t like something. Do you automatically turn away from discomfort? What happens if you stay with it a little longer? Can you soften in to the fact of the world is often not being/behaving the way we want it to?!
What we learn dancing outdoors is a potent practice for the rest of our lives, we get to build our abilities at being with discomfort and to learn about our own emotional responses to that. We may see we react in ways that may not serve our best interest. Do we feel like life “victimises us” when it rains and “ruins our day”. Maybe pessimism is our go to; or anger for irritation arises when the world doesn’t do what it “should”. Look carefully and see if this response serves you?! How is to get curious to our own reactions. With awareness comes the possibility of choice and conscious change. Choosing to mindfully meet discomfort is great way to grow our self-awareness and to literally choose new ways to respond. Working outdoors in an amazing laboratory of opportunity. Pop your headsets in and start on this path of transformation. (NB this advice in this point obviously doesn’t apply to bears, rattlesnakes, poison oak or similar! Physical safety should and must always remain your priority…)
Being with something bigger than us.
Sometimes we need to feel held by something bigger than us. The whole natural world can so hold that role for you when needs be. Maybe you find your faith in the ever returning circles and cycles of the seasons. Maybe you find refuge in relishing a spring bulb blooming. Maybe nature can hold some sadness for you if you let yourself tune into it a little deeper with the support of being outdoors?
We literally get attuned to place in which we are. Seek out beauty and be fully with it; it will fill your attentional field and offer some respite. Let yourself take the time to be fed and nurtured. We respond better when we are relaxed.
Nature nurtures us. Get yourself out there as often as you can!
Pause for presence.
Most of us are fairly used to the relentless tempo of these times. We may “do”our dance practice the same way: yet another thing to get through amidst our list of daily to-dos. It it ok to stop and pause, to look at the natural world that is all around you. I’m not talking pausing to /space out/- to let our dance dribble away into disconnection! I am talking about pausing to travel inwards, to slow down so we can sense deeper, feel it all more fully, maybe making space to slowdown and move mindfully with whatever is flowering and fruiting in our inner experience.
Be with the before and after.
We can sometimes get lost in the group in regular conscious dance indoor sessions. That is part of the delight of it! At the end of the session we may go straight into conversation with others and loose some of that deep somatic sensing that we can gain by doing deep into the dance. Check in before a session to see how you are feeling. Then check in after your dance session and see where the dance has left you. Many of us will be listening to the music on our phones -do your best to not check social media during or after your dance session. Sometime off-screen will serve us greatly even if we are still streaming the music via a phone data connection. Similarly at the end of a session don’t give away all the presence that you have gained so quickly. You can post your tree pictures later! It is hard to capture and nuances of the light on the leaves on screen, maybe it’s better to just stay still for a moment longer than your meddling-mind suggests and soak in the goodness of the great outdoors before you head back home….
Finding pleasure in your practice
Dance is a discipline - and yet a daily practice will undoubtedly transform your life. I’d encourage to take pleasure in what you can during this pandemic. You have explicit permission to feel pleasure! There is enough suffering out there right now- it is absolutely OK to take an hour each day to tend to our physical spiritual and emotional heath.
So enjoy this eco-somatic experience. It is reassuring to regularly orient ourselves in a familiar place in nature and to feel the familiar coming into contact with some deeper sense of self that can follow. Pleasure will sustain our spirits, it will also likely let us be in deep service to those in need; as we will feel more “filled up”- we will naturally have more to give…. This is a long-dance my dears. Practice bit by bit day by day...go forth and try it….
Here are few Spotify playlist’s that you can do solo in your own outdoor (or even indoor) space: https://open.spotify.com/user/p8m5wp9axfrew58lxg6ur6za9?si=tiBzXPgORsSNzcs5U5UN2g I’ll be adding new ones regularly. So pop in your headphones, take Spotify off shuffle (or the order will be weird) and enjoy!
If you appreciated this article and the practice playlists offered then your support via paypal is very warmly welcomed! You can contribute at https://www.paypal.me/wisdomnwonder
Due to “remain in place restrictions” in the San Francisco Bay Area we can no longer gather together to dance outdoors right now so I’m now teaching vis the screen/page! I’m hoping that sharing my experience in working in this way will touch and inspire you. Facilitated one on one zoom sessions garden to garden/bedroom/street are available right now!
For more articles and video prompts, and audio meditations on ways to live life fully check out The School of Wisdom, Wildness and Wonder on Patreon.
Dancing Outdoors Teacher Training and Coaching Sessions
If you are an existing movement facilitator wanting to set up classes using silent disco technology to teach outdoors then I’m running a training in working outdoors and all of the associated technological/ space-holding/ facilitation specifics in the autumn of 2020 in San Francisco. We are planning on still going ahead with this and also exploring an online version sooner. The world will likely need more of this outdoor work through the months to come when we can begin to gather outdoors safely, with space between us again. Message me for info:firstname.lastname@example.org
Coaching on setting up outdoor session via silent disco headsets is also available online right now. Be warmly welcomed to come dance out on the beach with a group of us when all of this is done and we will shake it off.
Stay safe y’all. Go forth and dance…..
Entire article copyright Tess Howell 2020 and no reprinting for anything other than personal use permitted without explicit permission. http://www.wildmoves.org/