Who would have thought a chair could dance? Actually, some of our great current choreographers, like Mark Morris and Roni Koresh, use chairs to sit on, stand on or somersault across. They use them as props for dancers to drape themselves on or over. They use them as percussion instruments with dancers flapping their seats up and down or beating the whole chair on the floor to the rhythm of the music.
But chairs are also invaluable in a dance class for people who have difficulty standing, walking, leaping and running. This includes the elderly, the wheelchair-bound, and individuals with Parkinson’s disease. I owe my use of the practice to my training with Dance for PD®. Some 15 years ago, Mark Morris and David Leventhal (one of his premier dancers) got together with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group to create a dance class for people with movement disorders. The class was not intended as physical therapy, but rather a vibrant, fun experience for people with certain physical restrictions to use their bodies and move in adaptive ways. The chair was a natural starting point and has been a standard in all these classes ever since.
In my ANYONE CAN DANCE classes, I begin every session with dancers seated in a circle in straight-back chairs without arms. I sit in the center and change the angle of my chair frequently, so that dancers can see the front and back of the choreography as they move.
Ideally we use steel-case chairs, with enough weight to support a heavy person without making them feel the thing is going to tip over when they lean forward or to the side. A person in a wheelchair can flop the foot-rests down if he/she is able to manipulate feet and ankles. Here are a just few examples of the ways I use the chairs in my dance classes:
Put your back against the air, not against the chair
This is my mantra to students to get them to sit forward with their thoracic spine unsupported by the chair back. The more they can move to the very front of the seat and perch on it rather than sit, the better chance they have of swiveling and lunging from the sides of the chair. Their arms also have greater range of motion if they hang straight down and don’t touch the front legs of the chair.
Divide and Conquer the Movement
I want my dancers to feel comfortable and settled before they start to move. I want them to be able to find their center of gravity and not worry about losing balance or figuring out how to shift weight from side to side. The chair is a great equalizer, because it gives everyone a head start on grace and style. Imagine, for example, the lift and twist of a Flamenco dancer as he curls his wrists and fingers overhead and starts to do some intricate heelwork.
By placing them in a chair and teaching first the arm movements, then the heel taps, and finally putting them together, I get my students to concentrate more on their attitude and flare than on whether they can manage the coordination of upper and lower body. If they choose not to do any heelwork, fine! The configurations and architecture of the body vis a vis the chair is so interesting and so adaptable.
How a Chair Can Assist with Fear of Falling
Many of my dancers are terrified to get on the floor because they’re certain they could never get back up. (One woman told me her daughter has made her swear never to get into a bathtub for the same reason.) I don’t even suggest doing this until a class is well established, and my students really trust me. It is scary, particularly for older, heavier dancers, to think about a fall. I have to convince them that the chair is their friend—as is the floor.
I ask my students to perch at the front of the chair and put one foot behind the other, toes curled under. I have them test the strength of their arms as they push themselves out and off the seat and onto their knee. The first few times we do this I tell them just to lift off the chair but not put their knee down. If they never actually get to the floor they are still working on arm strength. (It’s helpful to have yoga or exercise mats next to each chair as cushioning for the knees.)
For those who are able to get down on one knee, I ask them to stay there as long as they want and at last, come onto both knees. Students with knee replacements can come onto a foot and then sit on one hip. I then have them pivot around to face the chair. Both hands go around the sides of the seat cushion so they can anchor themselves as they put one foot flat on the floor and push up, rear end in the air. Now they can pivot back around to take their seat. [To see images of this sequence please visit Judith’s blog.]
Chair dancers are amazed at their flexibility and grace
A few of my dancers come to class with some body awareness left over from a childhood spent at a ballet barre or in front of a mirror at modern or tap class. But most are newbies to dance, and have been discouraged by the gyrations they see on TV shows like Dance Mom or So You Think You Can Dance. So there is nothing as satisfying as watching them finish a rousing chorus of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” in a chair, reliving their own Motown era and moving with one another just they way they used to on the dance floor as teenagers.
Recently, a couple of my dancers participated in a photography project called How Philly Moves, where they danced while photographer JJ Tiziou shot dozens of pictures. Of all the 125 dancers in the project, they were the only 2 in chairs.
The photographs of them show their pleasure in moving as they are framed by the light. The shots also capture the blur of their motion—just like the young hiphop and tap kids, just like the wild pole dancers and the sexy Latin couple. The chairs have given them the opportunity to jump and jive as only they can.
Photos of Steve Weintraub by Judith Sachs
Photos of Maggie Fields and Alice Bell by J.J. Tiziou