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Dance Education Blog

NDEO's "Dance Education" 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.


What is Somatic Movement?

As a dance educator, you might be familiar with the term somatic movement. You may have seen social media posts extolling the benefits of trendy somatic workouts, you may even have some experience with somatic movement practices, like Alexander Technique. However, you may be curious about what the term “somatic movement” actually means, or how to incorporate somatic movement practices into your dance lesson plans or personal practice.

According to The International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association (ISMETA), somatic movement is a term for a range of movement practices that “enhance human functioning and body-mind integration through movement awareness.” The term is derived from the concept of the soma, or an individual’s own first-person, internal perception of their body, rather than what is observed or described of it by external sources. In somatics, there is an emphasis on internal sensation and perception of how movement feels and is experienced.

Four adult dancers lay on the ground with one leg in the air looking to the sky.

Examples of somatic movement practices include tai chi, Body-Mind Centering ® , Bartenieff Fundamentals, Alexander Technique, The Feldenkrais Method®, and Rolfing Structural Integration. While these and other somatic movement practices differ greatly in their origins and approach, they do share common underlying principles. ISMETA identifies some of the shared intentions of somatic movement practices as increasing awareness of the sensations of the moving body, recognizing habitual patterns in the body, and discovering new possibilities for movement, posture, and perception. In each somatic movement practice, the focus should be on how the movement feels and is sensed in the body, not how it looks.

Depending on your dance background, the concept of moving based on perception instead of form may seem foreign to you. In many genres of dance, such as ballet, the focus is on the outward form and aesthetics of the movement as viewed by an audience. However, somatic movement practices prioritize the mover’s experience, sensation, and perception of the movement over its appearance. There are some dance forms, sometimes called somatic dance, that derive from the principles of somatics or have their roots in a somatic approach to movement. These include BodyMind Dancing developed by Dr. Martha Eddy, Skinner Releasing Technique developed by Joan Skinner, and Contact Improvisation originated by Steve Paxton. Somatics-based approaches to movement have influenced many dance styles, including creative, post-modern, and contemporary dance.

Dance and somatic movement practices have been interconnected in many ways since the early 1900s. Early modern dancers emphasized the sensation and expressive potential of movement over strict adherence to codified postures and techniques. In doing so, dance artists such as Isadora Duncan tuned into the somatic aspect of dance movement. Duncan’s focus on natural movement, improvisation, and the bodily expression of emotions all helped to pave the way for a somatic approach to dance technique. Educators like Margaret H’Doubler, choreographers like Mary Wigman, and innovators like Rudolf Laban would further explore approaches to dance that could be considered somatic in nature. Laban Movement Analysis, developed by Laban as a way to describe and document human movement, is used today by both somatic practitioners and dance educators.

Four adult dancers pose in various shapes during a session at NDEO's national conference.

As a dance teacher, you may be incorporating some concepts or ideas from somatics in your classes without even realizing it. Somatic movement principles have influenced teachers of many dance genres, from postmodern movement to classical ballet. There has been a movement in dance education to integrate somatics into dance training. In some instances, this may mean the inclusion of somatic movement practices, like Alexander Technique and Gyrotonics®, as part of students’ dance training. Other teachers are including concepts from somatic movement practices into their lesson plans, such as using concepts from Bartenieff Fundamentals in their warm-up. Still others are teaching from a somatic perspective, with an emphasis on kinesthetic awareness and internal perception rather than or in addition to the outward form and appearance of the movement.

Students can benefit from a somatic approach to dance training in many ways. Focusing on the feeling of movement rather than its appearance can be empowering for students. It can validate the way that they experience dance, not just how they look performing a certain movement. In particular, incorporating somatics into dance training may prove helpful for students who are experiencing body image issues or low self-esteem, or those who are processing trauma. For all students, infusing somatics into dance training can increase kinesthetic awareness, proprioception, posture, and movement efficiency. They can be used to inform improvisation explorations and help students discover new ways of creating movement and choreographing.

As a dance educator, as well, you might find somatic movement practices beneficial in your personal practice. They can be used as a warm-up or cool down, as recovery on days that you don’t teach, as part of your creative exploration and choreographic process, or to help facilitate creative rest, relieve stress, and fight burnout. Learning more about somatic movement practices and finding ways to explore them in and through dance can be transformative for you, personally and professionally.

Interested in learning more? Join NDEO and the International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association (ISMETA) this summer for a Somatics Special Topic Conference in New York, NY at Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center from July 19-21, 2024.   Register by July 10th: Register by Clicking Here!

Advertisement for NDEO's Somatics Special Topic Conference from July 19-21 in New York, NY
All photos by Noah Gelfman from NDEO's 2023 National Conference


Thank you for the informative article. I question, though, labeling some movement practices as somatic and others as not. The description provided above -"“enhance human functioning and body-mind integration through movement awareness” - could possibly be applied to any practiced movement. When my son goes to soccer practice he and all the other kids kick the ball around to enhance their functioning and to integrate their bodies and minds through an awareness of their limbs, the field, the ball, each other etc.If somatic is about "discovering new possibilities for movement," then what technique class isn't somatic? Each time we learn a new choreography, we are learning new possibilities for movement.A few years ago, I took a workshop from Erik Franklin. He was talking about the experiencing the psoas and extending the leg. Which led to a tendu. His point, as I understood it, that ballet can be seen as a somatic practice.Which leads to my thought that somatic is not a set of specific practices, but rather an approach to movement practices. Lifting weights, dealing playing cards, chopping onions, standing in space can all be somatic practices, if the soma is given attention.When we label certain practices as being somatic or not, we (unintentionally) limit those practices. When Contact Improvisation is labeled as a somatic practice, it becomes limited to soft and flowy. We dump all the aesthetic baggage associated with somatic practices and their relationship to performance onto CI. CI ends up lacking initiation and compositional awareness, any edge. People end up with the Contact Zombie face, because they turn inward, and aren't challenged to sense inwards while relating outwards.Conversely, (is that the correct word?), I would say that somatic practices sometimes cease being a discovery of "new possibilities for movement" and end up being something that people are trying to replicate. That we end up simply repeating how the teacher moves using the anatomical/imaginative prompt instead of really finding out how we move inspired by that prompt. In other words, the somatic practice becomes a style, a choreography, and cease being a discovery.
4/23/2024 2:48:13 PM |
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