‘Storytellers have only three things to work with: body, voice and imagination,’ observe storytellers Ashley Ramsden and Sue Hollingsworth in their book The Storyteller’s Way.
As a relative newcomer to story performance, I have found unexpected joy in the physicality of storytelling - in tapping my body’s full intelligence to tell the story. As a writer who often works with academics, I find I can sometimes get lost in the head space, forgetting to connect with my body.
Telling a story with the body brings the immediacy of the tactile, sensory world to the fore. The story comes alive as much in the body as in the mind. You might say that it becomes integrated in the bodymind.
The first story I ever performed was the Selkie Bride (see this pdf version told by Bea Ferguson). The Selkies are mythical, magical creatures of Gaelic folklore who live mostly as seals, but at certain times come up on the land, shed their skins and assume a human form, often dancing in the moonlight.
I’ll very likely write more about this richly poignant story in future, but what stays with me now is the feeling of embodying this half-seal, half-human woman and shapeshifting through my own imagination to ‘become’ her, morphing between different forms, ‘experiencing’ those changes in the qualities of my own skin and the physical environment.
Our skin, of course, is that tactile, permeable organ that both forms our physical boundary as a distinct organism, and also joins us in a physical, tactile sense with the rest of the world. It is our membrane - our boundary that both integrates and separates us, as we move our bodies through space and encounter sensations and other entities - hot air, cool water, silken fabric, the fur of a puppy, the knobbly bark of a tree trunk.
Telling the selkie story, my imagination brought to vivid life the feeling of gliding through the water in my thick seal fur skin. The mysteries of metamorphosis: slipping out of that heavy fur skin to assume a thin-skinned human form on land, moving between the different mediums of the cold salt water and the dry (though of course probably still damp - we are talking about Scotland here) land and air. Through the story, my body could feel the deep sorrow of losing my seal skin and being trapped in the human form; and then the sheer animal joy of finding it again and returning home to the water.
I marvel at the power of the imagination to join with the expressiveness of the body and bring forth deep qualities of the story that transcend words. The body is our tactile, moving, feeling sensory interface with the world. Through the imagination, its rich expressions can travel unbounded to places never before experienced.
As Isadora Duncan, that innovator of freedom of expression through dance, put it: ‘The wind? I am the wind. The sea and the moon? I am the sea and the moon. Tears, pain, love, bird-flights? I am all of them. I dance what I am. Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea? I dance what I am.’
Through storytelling, as through certain forms of dance, one revels in the utter freedom to embody whatever it is you can imagine. From one moment to the next, you can be muskrat or otter moving sleekly through the water. You are an eagle soaring high above the clouds. You are an ancient tree, stretching your branches up to the heavens as your roots dance in the richly composting soil of the Earth. Your body holds the fluidity of the salt water ocean.
Tapping this deep intelligence of the body is also tapping into the wider source of life’s interconnectivity and interrelatedness. In a virtual Mind & Life conference earlier this year, I was struck by the words of Kelley Nicole Palmer: ecology begins with how we live in our own bodies. Honouring our bodies, listening to their innate intelligence and wisdom, living by their natural rhythms with an accepting and dynamic but not forceful attitude, we learn to live in right relationship with the wider living world. Breathing fully and deeply into the riverbeds of your lungs. Sensing the way our bones and muscles want to move. Sensing the right balance of stillness and movement in the moment.
Living in the body means connecting, integrating, flowing - always sensing, gathering information, registering feelings - tuning into the body’s intelligent language that asks for the same kind of deep listening, turned inwardly, that I wrote about last time.
Tapping that bodily intelligence is a lifelong practice. The way our gut tells us when a situation is not right for us. The way we hold the tensions in our physical bodies when experiencing, remembering or telling the story of an event that has upset us. For example the other day, I was describing to a friend a moment when I had been triggered and felt conflict in an interaction with another person. She and I both noticed how my body tightened and constricted as I related the moment to her.
In this fascinating episode of the Mind & Life podcast, Peter Wayne - a tai chi teacher, Harvard-based researcher on integrative medicine and body-mind connections, and a trained evolutionary biologist who once studied trees and climate change - discusses many different aspects of the bodymind in a wider ecological context. His conversation with Wendy Hasenkamp covers holistic perspectives on mind-body systems, Chinese medicine, trauma and healing, the wisdom of the body and the interconnectivity of all life. And much more!
Many of us seem to do our best learning and thinking, integrating and healing, while our bodies are attuned and in motion. Which should come as no great surprise - living beings are always in movement. As the wonderful systems thinker and writer Meg Wheatley reminds us (drawing on the work of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, in her book Who Do We Choose To Be?), cognition is a common survival skill of all living beings. In one way or another, we all perceive our environments and decide how to respond. Yet it seems that some of us are particularly endowed with body intelligence - or perhaps have particularly finely developed ways of accessing our own thinking and intelligence through the body.
I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s classic 2006 TED talk on education: Do Schools Kill Creativity? In it, he tells the story of the choreographer Gillian Lynne - who was taken to the doctor at a young age because she couldn’t sit still at school. Her body just wanted to move.
You’ll find her story towards the end (14:40), though it is well worth listening to the entire talk.
Fortunately, as Robinson relates, the doctor recognised Lynne’s compulsion to move for the gift that it was. He advised her mother to take her to a dance school, and from there she grew up to become a world-renowned dancer and choreographer.
This week, I am feeling more deeply into my body’s intelligence, and I invite you to do the same. What stories are living in your body? What dances are you dancing? Where are you connecting and flowing in movement, and where are you stuck? What can you discover, or come to understand on a deeper level, by really paying attention? Do you see new possibilities of living more ecologically in your own body?