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Using Dance Improv and Pilates to Integrate Body and Mind

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Pilates instructor Pat Guyton uses dance improv in conjunction with PilatesBy Pat Guyton

The longer I teach Pilates, the deeper I wish to journey into the principles Joe Pilates describes in his writings. I strive to allow the body and the mind to each have an equal opportunity of expression. Joseph Pilates wrote in Your Health, “neither the mind nor the body is supreme—one cannot be subordinated to the other. Both must be coordinated, in order not only to accomplish the maximum results with the minimum expenditure of mental and physical energy, but also to live as long as possible in normal health and enjoy the benefits of a useful and happy life.” (page 41)

In an effort to promote this harmony between mind and body I have been integrating the practice of dance improvisation at the end of some of my classes. I studied improv as a dancer for over a decade before I began teaching Pilates, and 11 years ago it occurred to me that my students might benefit from the practice, too.

Read on to learn why and how I introduced improve to my students—and how they responded.


The intention of this practice is the joy of discovery. The value is not based on virtuosity, but on authentic exploration of movement that is Pilates directed. In a class, many students are so focused on their limitations of performance within Pilates exercises that those with compulsive minds may leave with feelings of failure and self-judgment.

In improvisation, we learned to release the thought of the technique, to seek the freedom of exploring our own movement from feeling. We also learned to let go of any preconceived thoughts—we weren’t allowed to “plan” what we would do next. Of course, switching gears in a Pilates class—transitioning from following clear and concise instruction to utter freedom of movement—can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming.

To bring this to my students, I tried to create a supportive environment in the studio. Before delving fully into a practice like this, it may be worthwhile to warm your students to the idea by asking them to improvise for 30 to 60 seconds, or asking them to close their eyes during the first few times they begin to explore movement, hopefully eliminating any self-consciousness.

Once my students seemed ready to give it a shot, I began to experiment with adding 5 to 10 minutes of improvisation at the end of my 1-hour classes. Finding inspiration proved easy: each class was focused on one of the movement principles so I simply gave improvisation directions and suggestions inspired by the principle highlighted that day.

Keep in mind that improvisation for dancers will look like dance. Improvisation for Pilates students will look very introspective. It is not performance directed. The students will explore at different rates and within their own personal comfort zones. For example, if the theme for a class focused on how the arm and shoulder relate to exercises within the mat sequence, the suggestion for exploration during the improvisation might be: “Start seated. As the music begins, allow the arms to direct your movement from the center of your body.”

I’ve learned that some students will never leave the seated position. However, they’ll be exploring the relationship of flexion, extension and rotation with arm-centered initiation of movement. Others may come to standing and begin to explore change of direction, locomotion, and level changes with arm-centered initiation of movement.

The goal of improvisation is to free the critical mind from directing the process and allow feelings to merge with thoughtful movement. At the end of a session we do not analyze or qualify how the process went. Instead, we share how we felt and how those feelings related to our class workout.

Basic guidelines:

    • Find a piece of music that will evoke the feeling that you wish the class to explore.
    • Keep the piece of music to five minutes or less.
    • Allow time to share if they choose to do so.

Suggestions for themes to explore:

    • Moving from the center
    • Moving from the floor to standing
    • Focus on a Pilates movement principle such as control or precision
    • Move from the breath

The rules:
    • Wait for Pilates to happen (My newest motto!)
    • Nothing is bad
    • Exploration is good for body and mind

How does a typical class respond?

    • Tentative at first because they may feel judged by themselves and others. Keep it simple.
    • Later, they feel joy at personal expression.
    • They feel pleasure at integrating the class content into their own expression.
    • They feel deeper satisfaction from the entire Pilates experience.
    • They understand the principle of the day at a deeper level.
    • Peace and balance from intense mind focus and freedom of movement.

Pat Guyton, owner of Pat Guyton Pilates in Boulder, Colorado, is a Board Member of the Pilates Method Alliance. She has taught Pilates for the past 23 years to students, teachers-in-training and fellow instructors.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 04:36PM by Registered CommenterJessica Cassity in | CommentsPost a Comment

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