“Eighteen months on trapeze, and four or five Awareness Through Movement lessons later, I decided to conduct a simple experiment. Hang by my hands from a trapeze and observe what was going on in my body. I was shocked. The muscles I needed to hold me up were working. But, oh no, what about the rest of it? How could I have done this for so long with so much unnecessary muscle tension? And what could I do about it?
Since then my whole approach to performing, playing, and training on trapeze has changed. Rather than straining to force my body into traditional forms – trapeze has often been taught a little like ballet in that respect – I’ve been working to develop maximum ease of movement around bar and ropes.
Having removed the aspiration towards an ideal, forms look after themselves. And with ease of movement comes the freedom to do something else, like play a character, sing, or find forms which grow from the centre with emotions…making the trapeze into a stage.
When I began trapeze classes it soon became clear that a lot of the mystique of trapeze lay in the ability to overcome fear, and, more regularly, pain. Calloused and blistered hands and feet, rope burns on the arms and legs, are to some extent unavoidable – an analysis of the relationship between the discipline of trapeze and the masochism doesn’t belong here – but does the development of the necessary muscle strength need to be so agonizing?
Conditioning in my training was split between floor work – situps, back-raises, leg-raises, tuckups, and situps to the bar etc. Working with weights in the gym was also recommended. Targets were set and the pain set in.
As my body awareness grew through more Feldenkrais classes, not only was I finding it increasingly unfair to ask my body to do 150 situps, but it was also getting painful to watch others straining away with twisted spines and clenched teeth, becoming increasingly more muscle-bound as time went on.
I realized that muscle bulk was not the prime requirement before asking your body to do the ‘extraordinary things’ you ask it to do on a trapeze. More important was using muscles in the correct order. Economy of effort was the key. This suggested a relaxed state for muscles not in use and with that the possibility of freeing them to do something else.
Proof of this particular pudding was offered to me in my efforts to do leg-raises to the bar. I was just about managing one or two painful repetitions, and those with all my strength and a good deal of will-power too. But after a particularly profound Functional Integration lesson centering on the lower back, literally overnight I was able to do the required 10 without even getting out of breath. What clearly counted was becoming more intelligent in the use of muscles rather than making them bigger.
Out went floor-based strengthening exercises repeated quickly and inattentively with quantity as the goal, and in come slow repetitions of Feldenkrais movements with attention to breathing and quality as the goal. I stopped thinking numbers and pushed my body on within the limits until it said ‘Enough!’ In this way I could strengthen with awareness.
Out too went painful developmental stretching. With Feldenkrais I was releasing muscles instead. I now use gentle stretching to prepare for work and to see how much I’ve released lately.
Sceptics would comment that by pushing the body hard in strengthening, it would be more able to deliver when things came to the crunch. The ‘crunch’ was what I wanted to avoid. I argued that having done my Feldenkrais exercises the muscles would have a better chance of delivering extraordinary things with greater efficiency and less risk of damage. The muscles might head off into the unknown in the right direction at least.
I stuck with it and found that not only was I enjoying trapeze more in itself, becoming stronger and finding new things to try, but that I could do more of this before getting tired, and had awareness enough left over to sing and act and play the fool on trapeze while still being very much in control and safe.
(From FELDENKRAIS JOURNAL U.K. 1994)