When I was ten, a boy at a party asked me to dance and I turned him down because I didn’t know how to dance. I told my friend about it and she told me not to be silly, that dancing was easy, “You just listen to the music and move around however you feel like.” I started dancing that night and have enjoyed just moving around however I felt like ever since.
There’s that old expression of “Dance like No One’s Watching” and it’s true that getting down on the dance floor is easier if you can forget about form or what you look like and just move how you want. As if no one’s watching. I thought a lot about this feeling of being able to move when no one’s watching, when I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in a swimming pool on my own.
As a child, I learned to swim at YMCA day camp. The learning was hurried and aggressive and I didn’t’ really get it. My memories of the classes mostly involved getting water up my nose and feeling like I was drowning. For many years, despite having the basic idea of swimming, whenever I had the opportunity to be in the water, I preferred to do a couple of strokes and then touch the bottom again. I never went to the deep end. I did a lot of bobbing in waves and floating. I felt I could swim if I needed to but had no desire to do it otherwise.
Then I had the opportunity to swim in a salt water pool on my own. With no one rushing me to get somewhere or judging the quality of my strokes, I was able to teach myself some strokes that could get me confidently through the water, even the deep end. By the end of my week there, I was swimming in the Mediterranean sea in a place where the bottom was very far away. And swimming with friends. I’d learned to swim when no one was watching and I mostly taught myself.
In the intervening years, I kept exploring my swimming and also became a Feldenkrais practitioner. And those two things began to compliment each other. In my Feldenkrais practice, I learned how to learn, how to do things slowly, easily and pleasurably, how to reduce the effort. I learned how to learn as a baby learns, playfully and with curiousity.I learned how to listen to my body and to the contact it makes with the world around it.
This all translated beautifully to my re-learning how to swim. Everything I did, I did slowly and pleasurably, luxuriating in the feeling of the support of the water. I recognized that putting my head in the water made me contract some of my muscles – so I gave myself permission to keep my head above the water, to do only what was easy. I began to pay attention to where I was using effort I didn’t need to stay afloat. In almost every stroke, I found I was gripping my neck, so I figured out how to release into the water and let it go.
When I swam in public pools, I noticed that most people threw themselves into the water and hurtled through it, as if they were racing. I resisted the impulse to try and catch up to them and let my objective be to stay with myself and move slowly, no matter what others thought of me. I let go of trying to achieve a particular form or speed.
I re-framed swimming for myself – thinking of it functionally as we were taught to do in our Feldenkrais training. This became a playful discovery of what was possible in the water, to learn as I did as a child. What could I do with my body that would propel me through the water most easily? Through this process, I discovered new strokes (or perhaps they were established old ones and I happily re-invented the wheel.) I named them (The Squid, The Indecisive Mermaid, The Flying Lazy Bicycle, The Log Roll) and made my way through the water slowly and luxuriously, always with my face above the water.
Then, after a while, I started to get curious about how people swim with their faces under water. I began to experiment with holding my breath, with discovering what was possible in this new formation. I quickly found that whenever I held my breath, almost every muscle tensed. I’d come up sputtering and exhausted. This made sense to me. My experience with the Feldenkrais Method has shown me what a difference our breath makes in movement. But I was baffled. How did so many people make such graceful movements underwater while holding their breath?
That’s when I found a video on The Art of Swimming. I knew of the Shaw Method, which was inspired by the Alexander Technique and figured there might be some tips on conscious swimming to be found in it.
In one video, Shaw explains how most people struggle with swimming due to fear of the water and that the breath was a significant aspect of how that fear manifests. He said that he taught people to focus on the out breath, rather than the in. He didn’t go on to say what that outbreath was but this new information was enough to send me back out into my laboratory in the pool to experiment and figure it out. I realized that I shouldn’t be holding my breath at all but exhaling slowly under water. By the end of the week, I was doing the Breaststroke full face in the water, gliding through it like a seal.
The water has been a great partner in learning this new way of moving through it. In the Feldenkrais Method, we are dancing with gravity, trying to reduce some of the pull of it in order to make improvements. We often use the floor or a table to provide feedback on where our bodies are. The water can function in a similar way. It can reduce the effects of gravity and it provides a tremendous amount of feedback. Lying on the water can be as informative as lying on the floor, though, of course, entirely different.
My opportunities to swim when no one was watching allowed me to learn to swim in the way I learned to dance. To simply listen and move however I wanted to. And that is a tremendously creative and rewarding practice. It has made me hungrier than ever to get back into a pool, to continue to explore, to keep dancing with water, like no one’s watching.
by Emily Davis, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner