Bringing movement and body into learning and living with animal kin.
Being Animal is a new blogspot written by Kerulos faculty and board member, Janet Kaylo. Being Animal addresses inter-species topics and relationships through interviews with artists, dancers, and others about their embodied experiences fostering trans-species communication, respect and well-being.
Janet holds an MA with Distinction in Jungian and Post Jungian Studies from the University of Essex, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, UK. She is also a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist, Somatic Movement Therapist, and Founder of Laban/Bartenieff and Somatic Studies International, which presents professional certification in Movement Analysis and Somatic Practice.
Here, in an interview by Kerulos executive director, Gay Bradshaw, Janet talks about the importance of bringing movement and somatic awareness into animal studies. She also discusses her work with Gay as co-authors of the book, Living Animal: Creating an Ethical Space and Episteme with Other Animals (Spring Publishers, 2015).
JK: Our bodies are organically linked to other animals: we share so much across species, particularly of course with vertebrate animals who express themselves in movement in ways very similar to our own. Because of this, non-human animals are generally capable of perceiving intentions of others very clearly – even more clearly than we might as humans. When our human movement expresses our intentions consciously it makes the communication more direct and immediate with other animals.
Individual and cultural neuroses are also expressed in movement, and when our movement is unconscious or fails to acknowledge the individual movement of animals around us, we create an overall environment that the animal has to accommodate and adjust to – adding another layer of confusion, miscommunication, or uncertainty that the other animals have to figure out moment by moment, or internalize as stress.
Awareness of our bodily movement is consciously integrated in our understanding of human-nonhuman animal interactions less frequently than it should be. I think perhaps for many people, their way of relating to animals comes from a specifically differentiated human construct, based on language and ‘ideas’, or sentimental emotions. Looking more closely at the way we move, and how other animals move, offers an opportunity to create relationships that are based on our shared corporeality – which is expressed continuously in movement, including how we occupy our personal space. Often, we forget to grant that same personal movement space as an important element of individual agency in other animals.
We adjust our movement to other humans all day long – because we are socially acculturated to do so. But with other nonhuman animals, we often neglect that same opportunity to share the space together, to move within the relationship itself on some kind of equal physical footing. When relating to other animals, the same thing applies as it does when adult humans relate to children – as well as to other adults. But while adults have perceptual filters that allow them to ignore a whole range of nonverbal disharmonies, allowing for all manner of individual variation (not to mention accepting a cultural bias towards language over other ways of relating), nonhuman animals generally ‘read’ what we do in movement with great precision.
If we recognize where another animal is in the space, including how their body shape and movement defines their personal space, and if we sense more closely what their movement qualities are like, we are more likely to communicate to them that we ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them, which enhances their sense of freedom and self-determination in the environment they are sharing with us.
Just becoming aware of our movement around other animals goes a long way towards improving our communication and sharing with them. It is not difficult to do – but it does require paying attention to what we do, and how we do it. Here is one everyday example:
If my cat is in the middle of the kitchen floor, while my husband and I are preparing food, do I move toward her space as if she isn’t there? Do I just expect her to scamper out of the way when I get near her? If I do, that communicates to my cat that my presence in the space is more important than hers is. This is a very simple exercise that anyone can try, who co-habits with other animals. Just start to notice how your relationship is formed in movement. Ask yourself:
- Do you make pathways in the space that include an animal’s presence and movement, or just expect that animal to accommodate you?
- Do you stroke an animal mindlessly, to calm yourself?
- Do you come into an animal’s personal space in a way that communicates an equal right to be there uninterrupted?
- Do you touch or pick an animal up from behind, unexpectedly or without their willing consent?
There are so many ways that we communicate a disregard for individual agency, individual need, desire, interest… And a good place to start with awareness of an Other – person or other animal – is looking at how we relate through movement. So much of what we do with animals regularly includes these not-so-subtle and regular ways of dominating and over-riding individual experience, through violating their bodies and their personal space, among other things. How about expressing general politeness? Would we walk into a room where another human was, without in some way acknowledging their presence? And yet we do this with animals all the time: moving into their space where they can see us, without acknowledging that they are even there.
Because I always acknowledge my cats, for example, whenever I enter a space where they are, they always acknowledge me as well. Oftentimes, they do this even before I do, making sure I know they are there. Because I speak to them and move in a way that includes them, they speak to me vocally and in movement to establish our corporeal and psychic connection. When other people come into my house, my cats do the same thing with them, because this is what they expect of humans – to be seen, acknowledged, and moved with as equals. Most people find this quite touching, being unused to social etiquette in cats, and certainly not used to a cat vocally answering their greetings!
Communicating through conscious movement awareness is actually more effective than unconsciously communicating dominance, or assuming that animals are embodied differently than we are, and therefore are not really paying attention in the way another human might. Being aware of our movement together helps create an environment in which we are reading each other – rather than just expecting animals we share a space with to read us.
For those who care for animals in a shelter or sanctuary, being aware of their own and other animals’ movement qualities helps to create environments where the animals feel safe. Our quick unexpected movements, loud voices, pounding feet, waving arms, and general unawareness of proximity and personal space with nonhuman animals is part of how we terrorize and subordinate them – even without knowing we are doing so.
GB: What is the difference between embodied communication and not?
JK: Embodied communication is communication where the quality of our bodily presence and movement is congruent with what we mean to communicate. It is a consciousness that includes all of ourselves, including our sensations of temperature, sound, what we see, how we experience the weight of our bodies and the space we are occupying. It includes our gestures, posture, and our spontaneous movement that communicates being together in that moment. In a simple way, it is about being consciously, in our senses and our proprioception, where we are and what we are doing at that moment in time and space. It is a clearly focused, aware experience.
In contrast, dis-embodied communication is communication that does not include the other person’s corporeality – or our own. That is, when our words, thoughts, or feelings are not contained and shaped by our physical experience in the moment we are communicating.
GB: Dance is a human enterprise, no? So how does it connect us to other animals? How does it bring greater depth of understanding? How does it help dissolve the barrier between humans and other animals?
JK: A wonderful question. Well, dance itself needs a definition, even in our human terms. What do we call dance? This is something I am particularly aware of now, as I have begun doing Public Moving Art projects that are based on awareness of place, sensation, imagination, and present-moment experience. It is not dance as it is commonly understood, but would probably be fairly well understood and accepted as normal behavior by non-human animals!
Typically, we think of dance as something that falls into recognizable form – something we can name, or study, or identify. And these are very valuable experiences, for humans to experience the connection between nonverbal, expressive movement and the state of our own quality of existence. A Butoh master once said that the dance already exists, and the dancer’s job is to find it. I think a lot of what we call dance, is just rehearsed movement design. But dancing as an act of perception, which includes the perception of our own bodies moving in space, is a celebration of what we can experience as sentient beings. I am not so sure we don’t share this kind of dance with other animals. Perhaps they just do it differently.
GB: Can movement inform a trans-species ethic? How?
JK: From my point of view, as a person for whom movement reflects every experience of life, yes, I think movement can inform a trans-species ethic – perhaps more ably than most anything else.
If we put ourselves bodily into the bodily experience of other animals – which means the site of their cognition, emotion, bonding, families, sense of place, exercise of agency – it makes things quite clear. Unfortunately, embodiment has not been traditionally included in our policy or cultural attitudes towards other animals.
It doesn’t take much analysis to know when an animal’s individual agency and right to self-determination has been breached, if we look at it from the point of view of that animal’s need and desire for movement. What would I know of myself, if I were confined to a 10 or 20 foot square enclosure, and never allowed beyond its boundaries? What would I know of myself, if I couldn’t create and move in my own place of safety, away from others, towards or away from sound, light, or touch? Who would I become, if I could no longer move in the wind, or smell the sea, walk in the wet grass, or stretch my neck and back to see the moon rising in the sky?
These are the kinds of things we take away from other animals systematically, as if movement were not an intrinsic part of their identities and experiences, just as it is for humans. What we take away from any animal’s natural movement repertoire shapes how the animal experiences itself. If all I can do is stand up, turn around, or lie down, on the same surface, day after day, then all the areas of the body/mind that are explicitly present for the purpose of sensing, perceiving, feeling, and action essentially turn off – they ‘go dark’, so to speak. But before just shutting down our perceptions and feelings, our needs and desire for movement are frustrated to the point of madness, I would expect. Small wonder both human and nonhuman animals get depressed when they are cordoned off, if their initiative is stifled, their senses under-stimulated, and their movement agency denied.
The more we constrain an animal (human or otherwise), the more we distort who the animal actually is: controlling the psyche by controlling movement. That is exactly how it is done. Preventing an animal from being itself, apart from being an object for human observation, as in a laboratory, is a perfect example of the connection between movement and ethics. Even collaring, tagging, and otherwise tracing the movements of so-called wild animals, brings up ethical questions for many, for this same reason. Impact the movement of the animal, and you have impacted that animal’s experience of itself, distorting its individual agency, cultural belonging, and sentient right to move fully in the world.
GB: You have recently moved to Savannah, Georgia and started up SMAP? Can you describe what it is and tell us why you started it?
JK: I have been in the professional dance world, and later also in dance/movement therapy training and degree programs, for over 35 years. I began in New York City as a professional dancer, formed my own dance company in New Orleans, and even before I knew what embodiment was, as a subjective, first-person based experience, I wanted to take people places they hadn’t been before. I felt in my bones, so to speak, that movement could transport people to a collective truth: truth of love, beauty, angst, sharing, and even power. In my work as University faculty in London, and in the extensive teaching I have done in the US, Europe and Canada, my goal has been to encourage people to own their experiences, through expanding their personal knowledge and expression of embodiment. To claim, and utilize, what it is to be embodied. Because in doing that, in giving people back their own embodiment, they become much more sensitive to the embodiment of others, and what it means to be a part of the living, organic movement system that our world is.
When I moved to Savannah, GA, where my ancestors started life in America 100s of years ago, I founded SMAP – which is the acronym for Savannah Moving Art Projects. It is partly my way of establishing ‘place’ through embodied, moving narratives in the landscape.
SMAP is a site-specific, improvisational dance/movement process that brings an expression of embodiment into public spaces. The primary objective of our public moving art works is to arrest attention and interest in the experience of moving that arises out of awareness in the present moment, in perception, imagination, and spontaneous expression. It is a joining of the environment and embodiment, through the art of movement. Though it is only for a human pedestrian audience (and whatever birds or other creatures might arrive), we are being human animals in the space – noticing what is there, engaging with immediate sensation and perception, and responding to that experience in movement exploration and expression. After working in theaters, classrooms and studios for decades, I wanted finally to go directly to the public’s experience, to make some kind of impact on what humans choose to perceive in a passing moment. That is, to give them an opportunity to awaken to themselves through the dancers’ willingness to demonstrate what is there in the space all along: embodiment and movement. Here is the dance, if you will only arrive to find it.
JK: I ran a pilot workshop in the Czech Republic, called Being with Other Animals, which was inspired by my work with Kerulos, and by an arresting experience I had after doing a module of training in Equine Somatics. When I returned from the first module, I was astonished to discover that I could communicate my intentions and even my thoughts, it seemed, to other animals I was around, with very little effort.
The horses I had been working with at a therapeutic riding facility were suddenly cooperative, attentive, interested, and relaxed when I was around them. I could communicate – without ever pulling on their lead ropes – when to stop, where to go, how far to back up. They followed me for the sessions, and we danced together non-verbally – in a shared, three-dimensional, non-dominating space. They gathered around the fence to see me, sniffing the air and whinnying when I drove up in my car. It was like I had become another person to them – one who they could sense, hear, and even trust.
The fox that lived near my house in the woods, would sit down to take stock of me, instead of high-tailing it up the hill when we ran into each other. Other animals that would appear at night out of the woods, while I was sitting on my porch, came close to me as if I was as natural in their landscape as anything else. I was even able to make an agreement with the wasps around my house, not to dive-bomb or sting me, in return for being allowed to nest in my laundry room. The truce was never broken.
There were many examples of unusual and delightful human-animal experiences that happened for me as a result of working with clear intentions and hands-on work with horses therapeutically. I didn’t know what had happened, I just knew that several layers of my own perception had shifted, and I could see other animals more clearly as they actually were.
At that point, I decided I wanted to teach other people how to get to the place of acceptance and cooperation that had occurred unexpectedly for me. I knew through my therapeutic work as a Dance Movement Psychotherapist and Somatic Movement Therapist, that somatic modes of perceiving were very different than how people generally perceived, and that it created important bonds of trust and acceptance between a therapist and a client. So this is where I started.
In the Being with Other Animals workshop, I first taught participants how to ‘attune’ with other people, how to experience other people’s bodies as something like their own (mirror neurons must be the seat of these possibilities), which immediately created greater empathy and rapport between them. Then I set particular movement tasks for them in pairs, that were something like the movement they might have to accommodate or sense with another animal.
After these exercises and practices, we worked specifically with animals that were in a small sanctuary in the countryside, attuning with them through their corporality – consciously setting aside our thoughts and ideas, and sentiments about them. We did this by bringing our attention initially to our own breath, and our sense of weight, and then extending that interest and awareness to another animals’ breathing, sense of weight, and finally taking our attunement into the other’s quality of movement in time and space.
In summary, I outlined a process of attuning that becomes an embodied way of observing, communicating, and sharing the space with another animal – which necessarily includes how that other animal responds to our presence in this process.
Extraordinary things happened, for participants, and even for some of the animals who became so relaxed they lay down right where they were, stopped pacing or jostling about, or chasing each other off. Or, as with some horses we were near, closing in together as they would in the wild, front-to-back, heads and eyelids lowered, a big sigh, and then going to sleep – in the middle of the day with a group of strangers standing with them in the space.
It was very exciting to see how quickly the human participants learned to sense the other animal’s body, as if from a first person position – and then how immediately empathy, safety and caring was communicated for the other animal. In simple terms, it visibly diffused fear, nervousness and unease, opening the opportunity for an easy interaction, for both the humans and the animals. Being with other animals is more harmonious and reciprocal when we first create a corporeal rapport. This is something you can see in film and photographs of people who form special, embodied relationships with other animals – there is an undeniable, mutual corporeal rapport present.
NEXT ISSUE of Being Animal features Janet’s interview of photographer Gina Easley