If I lean back in my train seat I can feel the edges of sensitivity on my shoulders. It’s a sensitivity that has built up from many impacts with dance floors and gymnastic mats over a very fun weekend with Tom Weksler.
Tom is a dancer and he teaches his approach to dance and acrobatics which he calls Movement Archery. Why did I go, and why do I want to review the weekend here? Let me explain…
My interests in martial arts go well beyond the limits of dojos, styles forms or combative methods. Martial arts are a subset of movement and expanding capacities to move is part of my research. Some movement skills and approaches are more interesting and fruitful for me than others. Dance is interesting on many levels, it is a form of corporeal communication, which often borrows from the raw language of violence, and the refined dialects of martial movement.
Tom also comes from martial arts, he has a long grounding in Capoeira and more recent research in BJJ with generous smatterings in Taiji and more, including some Bagua.
Seeing or freeing martial movements through the lens of dance gives another perspective that can feed back into the killer deadly street lethal world of ‘serious’ martial arts.
Secondly and on a very superficial level in the world of ‘movement culture’ there are a number of workshops and teachers that seem to stand out. Fighting monkey with Jozef and Linda and Evolve, Move Play with Rafe Kelley are in the list so now I’ve been to Movement Archery I feel like I’ve ‘collected the set’. Like I said, superficial.
More interestingly the three have different if complementary approaches to martial arts in their work. Fighting monkey uses martial based methods to develop bodies which can perform in chaotic situations, Rafe Kelley uses martial games because rough play is an integral part of the human physical and social development. Tom uses martial based movement more as a vocabulary for expression. This is an oversimplification and the three overlap in many ways – and they all know each other and have worked with each other.
The seminar was divided into warm up, patterns, improv and games.
The warm-up was silent and ‘selfish’ a chance to focus only on how the body feels and works, with minimal need to interact with an outside environment or force. It used a mix of flavours and shapes from shadow yoga, qigong and Taiji.
It was after the warm up that Tom exposed his approach to borrowing from other disciplines, which I appreciate. He acknowledges the sources of movements or exercises when asked, but as he does not either represent the disciplines, or claim expertise in them he lets the outer shapes vary and does not claim to be passing on BJJ/Taiji etc.
Tom explained that an important use of the warm up is as a way to divide everyday life from dance or performing, even if the ritual is just a couple of breaths before dancing with a friend on th street.
Patterns consisted of movements done alone or with the assistance of a partner. I’m including the acrobatics section of the seminar for this – which took place at East London Gymnastics centre. Gymnasts have great toys!
Tom did a great job of summarising acrobatics and especially adult acrobatics. On the physical side he gave us tools to explore the mechanics of the spine, and a conceptual frame for development. A handstand to eight directions. On the emotional side adult gymnastics are nothing to take seriously, if they are not fun for you they are not worth practising. Along with this idea was that we were free from the esthetic constraints and ideals of gymnastics for competitions.
The patterns built in complexity over the days, starting with simple open close movements and suggestions of what to do with the imagination. The moves would then be linked into given sequences, or sequences we could research ourselves. Though imagination was an underlying theme during the seminar it was mostly down to the participants to pay play with it, even though examples were given to explore ‘the lizard nature of the back of the body’.
The hardest part for me was solo improvisation (actually there were lots of tricky parts for me!). I had the pleasure of a mix of feelings. First I was self conscious and especially when I compared myself to what the skilled dancers were pulling off. Then there was a mismatch between what I wanted to do, and what I physically did.
This bit me in my sense of self too; in the past I’ve seen myself as a ‘good mover’. Age, or injury or neglect have made this self image a little out of date, clearly underlined as I struggled with moves that many members of the group pulled off with ease.
Finally I could feel my brain struggle with what to do next, like there was a matching atrophication in my mind as well as my body.
On the flip side I could feel that making myself do this was medicine for an aging body, brain and a great way to loosen self image.
Tom gave useful advice here – not to come to conclusions while improvising, to be in it not looking down on it. He related this to classical dancers, head position and the problems Yogis sometimes have to do handstands. Intrigued? Ask me or Tom
Finally we played partner games to develop qualities of listening, honest, discount free movement which also allowed us to incorporate our patterns while following (or breaking) simple rules.
So there you have a quite skeletal content summary with a few globs of personal disclosure. It’s not enough. It needs more…
First Tom as a teacher and group leader is a real pleasure. As one participant put it ‘I’ve never seen a teacher seem to have so much fun teaching a workshop’ Tom was consistently light and funny, laughing at his choices of names for ‘zen acrobatics` or the ‘endless eight’.
Some key messages he communicated was that you had better enjoy the process, because there is no end result, no final master sequence of moves to achieve. The metaphor that stuck with me was thit being a dancer is like being a carpenter – you’d better like hammering nails, because you’ll be doing that a lot.
I don’t know if it’s just me but Tom also has an ability to blend with the group. Some teachers you know where they are in the room all the time. With Tom I’d have to look around to find him, unless of course he was presenting. If not he would be observing quietly, or working with someone.
Tom welcomed questions whether in class or during the breaks. He answered simply, with humour and honesty.
For example Tom underlined the idea that ‘If it took me fifteen years to learn to do a movement the way I do it, do you really think you’ll be able to do it the same way in a weekend? Maybe I can save you some time, it will only take you eight years! Hey I saved you seven years! OK maybe I did not work as consistently as I could have, you could do it faster.’
This is pretty obvious really, but there are lot of people who want to sell instant results. Refreshing to get some reality there, and relieving too. It’s one way teachers maintain unhealthy power relationships ‘If you cannot do this instantly/in x time using my super method there is something wrong with you’
I’d say that I was lucky to practise with the group I was in because I liked everyone I had a chance to work with. Of the twenty five or so participants there were about four who were kick ass dancers. It’s generalising but the rest of us were from the broader movement culture working as movement-fitness teachers of some kind or just doing it for fun. We also came from a variety of age ranges. Quite a few people I knew already from different events – everyone I’ll be happy to see again.
Thanks also to Guillermo Just who organised the workshop and is responsible for getting Tom to teach outside of professional dance, and for his quietly keeping the group in the right places at the right time.
Of all the workshops that I’ve done recently this one is the hardest to describe, and much slips away from my attempts to write. Unlike the other teachers Tom is not on a mission of any kind. He’s having a lot of fun banging in nails, taking a step back every now and then to see what’s there. He has skill with his tools, knows how not to bend nails or make structures that just fall down when you don’t intend them to.
The nails we banged in over the weekend did not always go in straight, but there are patterns in where he told us to hammer that will only become evident with more research, and which I think will make me smile.
Thank you again Tom the enthusiasm, fun, challenges.
I’I’ll leave you with some more Tom…