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NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


The Possibilities of Somatic Ballet

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Katie Diehl, Assistant Professor of Dance, Idaho State University. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

In June 2019 I facilitated a movement session entitled “Somatic Ballet: Developing Awareness of Self, Other, and Community” at Emerging Pathways within Somatic Movement and Dance Education, a special topics conference presented by NDEO and the The International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association (ISMETA). While there are many possible definitions, I think of somatics as learning from the living, moving body to enhance overall functioning, personal expression, and wellness. As dance and movement educators are reflecting and re-evaluating how to be agents of positive change, somatics offers a progressive alternative to traditional ballet training. Some of these traditions have involved elitism and exclusivity that only celebrate a very specific body type and learning atmospheres that demand silence, extreme obedience, conformity, and perfection. I believe Every Body should feel invited to study ballet and have found that somatic practices offer a welcoming path of accessibility and create a space for continued evolution within the form.

In this blog post, I share three specific somatic concepts and practices that have been informing my ballet pedagogy. Additionally, you will find select movement experiences that can be integrated into your classes. Some of the language I utilize is derived directly from Bill Evans pedagogy, Laban Movement Analysis/Bartenieff Fundamentals, and Peggy Hackney’s Patterns of Total Body Connectivity. While I have integrated these ideas into primarily beginning ballet with college students, they are adaptable to various settings and class levels.

Connection to Self: Embodied self awareness is empowering. Connecting to self leads students to discover inroads and understand the power of choice. I invite students to explore:

  • functional anatomy (anatomical truths)  
  • individual body organization 
  • personal uniqueness
  • thinking, sensing, feeling, intuiting selves   
  • meaning-making relative to embodied practice  
  • motivational forces and personal agency  
  • learning styles  
  • curious inquiry and purposeful reflection
  • tools for perceiving change

Breath and Core-distal connectivity: Begin the class by inviting students to find a comfortable place to settle either lying down or sitting. Encourage them to tune into their sensing selves (interoception). After tuning into sensation, encourage students to notice their thinking and feeling selves. As they settle into the perception of wholeness from the inside out, invite an awareness of breath. While they explore how breath moves in 3 dimensions (width, length, and depth), suggest how this capacity to sense inner shaping supports the outer form/shape of movement. Invite them to tune into the growing and shrinking of their breath support and begin to gently expand and condense their outer shape, paying attention to open streams of connection between self and the environment (core-distal). As they reach out and then enclose, invite them to playfully explore, becoming more dynamic with their sense of time, weight, and flow. As the students gradually make their way to standing, invite them to walk through the space, opening awareness of their changing relationship to space and each other and welcome them into a gathering circle. 

Connection to Other:  The gathering circle is unifying, and represents the acknowledgement that ballet is social. As students see each other and briefly introduce themselves through movement and sound, their lived experiences are valued and honored. The circle conveys the idea that we are all in this together. 

Our understanding of ourselves is in direct relationship to our social experiences and environmental contexts. In Making Connections: Total Body Integration through Bartenieff Fundamentals, Peggy Hackney writes, “It is in our process of moving/changing that we become embodied by making connections both within ourselves and in interaction with the world.” (17) We develop a sense of self through the process of both differentiation from and connection to our world. The more we claim our bodily wisdom, the more we develop in regards to emotional and social intelligence. These various levels of connection create opportunities for meaning-making and intent.  I encourage students to explore and become more aware of:   

  • kinesthetic empathy   
  • aliveness    
  • emotional self-regulation and expression   
  • the practice of “witnessing” rather than observing, judging, etc. 
  • habitual movement and communication patterns   
  • how they offer and respond to feedback   
  • the power of language. For instance, the word “correction” implies something needs to be fixed, while “feedback” or “perception” is more neutral and constructive   
  • noticing personal strengths and perceived areas of resilience

Opening/Closing, Core-Distal, Embodied Witnessing: After brief introductions and sharing, invite students to find a partner for the class and discuss their response to the initial experience. Consider questions like: What did you discover? What were you curious about? What was challenging/enjoyable? After practicing active listening, begin to guide students through an embodied witnessing experience. This is designed to give students the opportunity to explore their personal uniqueness in a non-threatening performance experience. Ask one partner (witness) to stand behind the other (mover) and the partner in front begins to explore opening and closing their outer shape in any way that feels interesting and enlivening, but also allows for the witness to mirror the motions. They are not imitating, but rather, responding to the essence of the mover, joining them through kinesthetic empathy and without judgment. Gradually, welcome the mover to explore more balletic shapes and qualities and notice their thinking, sensing, feeling selves. What comes up for them as they move in a more codified form? Switch partners and then encourage a brief discussion sharing what they learned from these shadow duets. Ask those who are comfortable to share their take-aways with the larger group.

Connection to Community: I generally teach a flowing sequence to shift into more structured rhythms and movements through space. Demonstrating with minimal ballet terminology, but vocabulary that is easy to follow, contributes to a sense of community. We may not have the same command of the language, but we can all relate through our bodies and movement. I encourage students to notice how movement feels, rather than how it looks. This allows for them to trust their choices, embrace diversity, and feel more vibrancy and aliveness.

Proprioception, Exteroception and Cross-lateral connectivity: Teach a short waltz sequence in which rhythm (3/4 time) and the sensation of spiraling are emphasized. After exploring the specifics of the sequence, invite students to improvise through space, finding moments of connection with each other. While students may be initially trepidatious about improvising, you will eventually see creative ballet play emerge. When students feel comfortable enough to trust in their lived experience, they continue to reveal their uniqueness and find their own inroads into ballet vocabulary. Remind students that improvisational experiences enhance our ability to adapt, problem-solve, collaborate, and clarify our intention in an ever-changing world.  Ask them to share their take-aways with their partner. Invite students to conclude in a final acknowledging circle, seeing each other, sensing community, and closing with a cleansing, grounding breath.

The scaffolding of each experience (breath, circles, partners, listening, kinesthetic witnessing, etc.) reduces apprehension for beginners and enhances the possibilities of artistic expression and connection for those more experienced with ballet. Students learn that ballet can be about connection, not correction, and awareness, not perfection. Somatics within ballet creates a space for empowerment, meaningful discoveries, and a deeper sense of connection to self, other, and community.

Some recommended reading/sources:

  • Making Connections: Total Body Integration through Bartenieff Fundamentals by Peggy Hackney
  • Creative Ballet Teaching: Technique and Artistry for the 21st Century Ballet Dancer by Cadence Whittier
  • Your Body is Your Brain by Amanda Blake
Kathy is a white woman with short blond hair, smiling for her head shot

Kathy Diehl MFA, MSW, Assistant Professor and Director of Dance at Idaho State University, began her professional dance career as a founding company member of Rochester City Ballet under the artistic direction of Timothy Draper. Kathy has danced with Bill Evans Dance Company, Present Tense Dance, Biodance, and Anne Burnidge and Dancers. She has performed works by Larry Keigwin, Mariah Maloney, Marina Mascarell, Paul Selwyn Norton, Doug Varone, Mark Morris, and Heidi Latsky, and has appeared as a guest artist with various freelance artists. She has choreographed works for several universities and has presented work nationally and internationally at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, American Dance Guild Festival, WAXworks, RADfest, American College Dance Association, Rochester Contemporary Dance Collective, Body Mind Centering Conference, Fort Worth Contemporary Dance Festival, Body Logic Festival, and others. She has been on faculty in both full and part-time appointments at Cleveland State University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Webster University, The College at Brockport, Nazareth College, and University of Rochester. Kathy is a Certified Laban Movement Analyst (CLMA), a Certified Evans Teacher(CET), and a Registered Somatic Movement Educator through ISMETA. Please visit for more information.  Headshot by Madeline Brenner. Above photo by Michael Diehl.


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