Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Noodling: The Creative Power of Solitary Practice

Noodling: The Creative Power of Solitary Practice

Mastery and authority in dance do not  necessarily come as a result of perfection, or even consistent flawless execution, but from the confidence built by thousands of hours of practice in which exploration and discovery trump tension-inducing performance anxiety.

In  his book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000 hour rule", asserting that the key to success in any field is dependent on practicing a specific task for a total of about 10,000 hours. (For movement, in order to proprioceptively train an action correctly, a minimum of 7000 repetitions is necessary.) It means that for a dancer to acquire mastery, she/he must practice for about ten years. If you do the math, 10,000 hrs divided by ten years is 1000hrs per year, divided by 52 weeks is approximately 19.23 hrs per week,  which amounts to about 3.2 hrs/day of practice  six days a week for ten years.  (See note at the end of this blog.)

For most dancers, the bulk of this practice takes place in ballet classes. But I want to talk about the importance of practicing alone, without the eyes of a teacher or your colleagues on you - both can be inhibitng.  Mastery doesn't come from not making mistakes but from having the freedom to explore.

When I was 12, my first ballet teacher gave me the keys to her school - The Ballet Studio.  She'd known me for some 5 years and saw  I was completely dedicated and obsessed with ballet. I was desperate to practice, and had no room at home to do so, though at night while I was supposed to be in bed, I was using my dresser for a barre. Sundays, when there were no classes, I was driven to the studio by one of my parents, let myself  in, locked the door, and gave myself a ballet class for two hours. Just now I realize how extraordinary this situation was. Giving keys to a 12 year old, allowing her to be alone in a studio, trusting her - this was a great gift from my teacher. In those hours, I worked, puzzled, studied my line, steps, arms, turns, jumps. I invented choreography, cried, raged, and celebrated. I noodled, working to try to understand how classical ballet technique could be applied by my body.

This experience taught me that working by oneself is essential. Unconstrained by time, by the need to do certain sequences as given, you can surrender to a process that is completely organic and directed from within. Guided by curiosity, desire, frustration, determination, and the hunger to "get it right" working alone gives freedom to explore in whatever way is necessary, not dictated by the conventions or time constraints of a traditional class, or by whatever dogmatism may be driving your teachers. Imagination serves inquiry and can be used to invent exercises that facilitate kinaesthetic understanding or liberate the body from the tension born of expectations. Shame flees and is replaced by curiosity and discovery.

At eighteen, I became catastrophically ill and was told to ive up dancing. It was heartbreaking. It took nine years before a life-saving surgery changed that fate. I went back to my old studio. Though my teacher had died, one of her students had taken over. I was so weak, I could barely get through barre. That's when someone told me about Pilates. A year later, I had a tiny studio built in my basement, put a barre, mirrors, and a reformer there, creating a studio sanctuary. I practiced there many hours, and also took classes wherever I could. Within another year, I was performing at the Met Opera in NYC.

Now in my own Pilates studio in Portland, OR, working by myself is my principal practice outside of teaching. I use this practice to problem solve in my own body, and to help me understand the problems of clients and students. I experiment with exercises, stretches, different planes of movement, changing resistance, gravity, intent. Essentially, the studio becomes a laboratory where the purpose is investigation, not the accomplishment of perfection or some pre decided outcome. This freedom is precisely what drives private sessions. Here, in conjunction with clients or students, I allow their process, their needs, to move them, and together, we explore. I also encourage everyone to go home and work alone. Solitude is the mother of creativity, the incubator of discovery, and the cradle of understanding. Noodling is essential to success.

(Note: dancers, who usually begin studying around age 6, will not spend 3 hours  a day, 6 days a week,  in a studio unless they are part of a professional school. In-studio practice time increases as students get older and more proficient. It eventually evens out and does take about ten years, with the last 3-4 loaded with about 4-5 hours of dance six days a week. Master teacher Haydee Guttierez used to say that it takes ten years to make a dancer. She said this before Gladwell's book was published.)

Working with Elders in Pilates

Life expectancy in the US is 76 for men and 81 for women, up eight years since the ’70s, according to recent statistics. In recent years my practice with elders has doubled. I call "elders" people 80 and above, of which I have four clients: My 91 year old clients began working with me when they were in their late eighties, about four years ago, never having experienced either Pilates or yoga. An 82 year old woman has been doing Pilates with me for six years beginning in her seventies, while another client who is 89 began in her mid-eighties. This is a brief overview of issues that have come up and not intended to cover specific exercises and practices. Further, I see each of these clients individually and not as a group.

Most come weekly. I have come to appreciate their challenges and strengths. What makes Pilates unique and successful with elder clients? How can we make the best use of our sessions to serve this demographic, and what needs must we be made more aware of?

It’s crucial to remember that each person is unique. A WWII veteran, pilot, and architect, 91, has severe scoliosis, a chronic sore left foot he favors, and very poor vision. These factors compromise his balance, stability, and mobility. His head tilts to the right 20-30 degrees unless he is thinking about sitting/standing up straight. He also wears hearing aids. Yet his attitude and mind are spry and engaged, and his ability to visualize his body as a three-dimensional moving structure puts him way ahead of the game.

One client, though not as compromised with spinal restrictions other than arthritis, has poorer hearing and is less outgoing. These factors alone radically alter the feel of our sessions and make it more challenging to keep her engaged. 

Another has been a life-long gardener and continues take care of her garden. Physically she is the fittest of the three. Her fitness means that she can get down on the floor and get up again with agility and no mishap. Being able to get up from a prone or supine position is one of the most important skills we can teach. Here are other challenges and things to bear in mind when working with this demographic. To help us remember, the first six points are alphabetically listed.

Arthritis/Agility: in hands it affects ability to hold things like straps and weights. in feet, it compromises stance and balance. I begin most sessions with a spiky ball, rolling under feet and between hands to help warm up the joints. Some clients will not be able to get down to the floor, or even on all fours on the table. Finding ways to subtly alter planes of movement is essential.

Balance and Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): the chance of developing vertigo increases with age, especially after age 60. Practicing the Brandt-Daroff exercises or the Epley Maneuver with them on the Cadillac can be an important part of their session. None of my elder clients is comfortable with supine back extension. 

Coordination and comfort: extra padding for bony backs and knees, making sure clients are comfortable and cared for throughout your sessions enables both them and you to concentrate on the work. Elders often rely on the familiarity of their routines and movement patterns to compensate for compromised function. Our job is to challenge and expand their capacity, but in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable. 

Deafness: even with the best hearings aids, you have to speak clearly. What appears as lack of focus is frequently the result of just not hearing. I find myself doing the flight attendant thing, making gestures to accompany my words, and making sure they can see my face so they can read my lips.

Energy: they tire more easily. Observing their color, breath (or lack of it) and demeanor will tell you if you’re going too fast. Pacing that requires pauses for rest and assimilation can be a real gift. They are more variable as well. A poor night of no sleep or a tiring previous day, and their capacity is very much affected. Ask how they are, how they feel, before you begin and as you move through the session so you can improvise accordingly.

Focus: repeating instructions clearly and with verbal economy saves energy.  Keeping an elder engaged who has a tendency to tune out due either to poor hearing or mental vagueness is important for both instructor and client. If you’re impatient, they will feel it, so keep it light and fun. Once, my very deaf gardener forgot to wear her hearing aids. Instead of shouting through the session, I mimed things in funny ways and got us both laughing. Finally, I put a tiara on her head to convey that she had to sit tall and straight. (see photo below) 

Rigidity/Parkinsons: lack of over-all mobility and coordination makes transitioning from one position to another difficult. Don’t take these transitions for granted. Talking through how to get up or lie down more efficiently is necessary and can be a teaching moment for both of you. For example, observing an inability to bend knees into chest can clue you into working on hip flexor strength and flexibility. Stretching is an essential part of every session.

Finally, knowing what we may and may not improve through our work with elders is important. With my scoliotic pilot, I will not be able to erase a lifetime of scoliosis. But I can keep him from deteriorating as rapidly as he might without Pilates. Slowing degeneration IS progress. Let’s face it - the body will continue to age, but it can do so with less stress and debility. Many elders are more isolated, less stimulated, and so less engaged than younger members of society. Don’t underestimate the impact your relating has. This may be the one day they get out - only two of these elders drive. Pauses in sessions can be moments of connection. Ask them about their lives. This can be rich and fulfilling for both of you. They’ve lived almost a century - their experience is valuable but under-valued in our culture. When I work with elders, I feel honored to host them. It’s a joy to help make their experience a safe adventure in conscious and embodied movement. I’ve learned to trust my intuition and imagination as I explore ways of better expressing movement instructions and create sessions that are nourishing, educative, and restorative. They have taught me to savor time and relish physical capacity in any way it shows up. I am a better teacher thanks to our interactions.

Lavinia Magliocco
Equipoise ~ enlightened exercise LLC


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ten Strategies for Bouncing back from Surgery, Part 2

Eighteen months ago I had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. This has been my fourth surgery in 24 years, and of all the surgeries I've had - see Part 1 - this has been the easiest recovery yet. In my previous post I mentioned five things to do to prepare for surgery, assuming you're lucky enough to know ahead of time. Sometimes that can't happen. But if you haven't done those things, now might be a good time to implement them. Below are five strategies that really helped me bounce back from this last adventure.

6) Enjoy taking it easy, and let others help you!  Relax - what a concept! As a self-employed person, I rarely take more than ten days off a year. What a girl has to do to get three weeks off, huh? How about a double mastectomy? LOL! The point is, if you're recovering from surgery, don't fight it. Enjoy the time off. Read books, watch movies, do nothing. Just Be. And don't feel guilty or worry about it. Let people help you. It gives them a good feeling. Relaxing will help your body heal.

7) Start moving right away. (In hospital, they will make you do this.) At home, you can start by taking some full, deep breaths that expand and lift your ribcage on the inhalation, and let it drop and relax on the exhalation. Do this lying down, seated, and standing. Stretch like a cat when it's  been curled up a long time - you know, where your toes spread and your muscles contract and vibrate. Even if this makes muscles that have been cut suddenly hurt, don't worry about it. It's getting blood to those muscles that helps them heal.

8) You have a new body. It's changed and it will feel different. Be kind to yourself. This is a tender time.  Don't be afraid of this - even if you're now missing parts, or have new parts. Try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and inquiry rather than aversion and hostility.

9) Be real. If you're a type-A energizer bunny, lower your expectations a bit. For God's sake, your body has just been cut and invaded! Give yourself a break. You're probably going to overdo anyway, so back off already. You'll slow yourself down with setbacks if you push too fast. If, on the other hand, you're a slug, then you need to move more than you want. Movement circulates blood and lymph and helps the body heal. Capisce?

10) Prioritize during your recovery time. As you start to feel better, you'll find yourself staring at a pile of bills, laundry, and other tasks, but you won't really be up for much. Put aside time in small bites, like fifteen or twenty minutes to deal with a bill or a phone call, then rest. You're taking time off, remember?

Surgeries are not often experiences we're delighted to have, but they can be uplifting experiences. A surgery may save your life, give you renewed capabilities, or buy you time. These are all gifts. If you enjoyed reading this, pass it on to a friend. If you've recently undergone surgery and need some help getting back your physical strength, contact me.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ten Strategies to Prepare for Surgery, Part 1

In the last 24 years, I've had four somewhat major surgeries: two bowel excisions and resections for Crohn's disease, an ankle tenosynovectomy, and 18 months ago, a double mastectomy without reconstruction.

I guess you could call me a comeback kid - if "kid" applies to someone fifty-three years old. :-))  With each surgery and rehabilitation, I've learned some very important lessons.  Here are Ten Steps to Bouncing Back. The first five deal with before the surgery. If you have the luxury of planning a surgery, these are important. If you don't, think about not being able to take care of these in an emergency and get busy. Preparation wins this battle.

1) Create an exercise program that appeals to you that includes strength and resistance training, stretching, and coordination and balance challenges and stick to it. Even twenty minutes a day - five minutes for each of these skills - will pay enormous dividends the day you find yourself incapacitated from surgery.

2) Consult with a Naturopath or Nutritionist. Some supplements should not be taken before surgery, like Vitamin E, because it can cause bleeding. Plenty of supplements can help with the healing process after. Alternative medicine is being used more and more in conjunction with allopathic (western) medicine. Get a team together: acupuncturist, massage therapist, chiropractors can all help get your body in could shape before, and get you back on track after.

3) Line up help form friends, partners, family for the first week or two after your surgery. Try not to rely on only one person. My partner was a dream and totally there for me, but it made him feel better having my sister there as well. Many hands make a light burden. Let people know ahead of time so they can prepare. Have people bring food so you and your caretakers don't have to cook all the time. People really do like giving a hand.

4) Get the down and dirty info on your procedure and condition. I know - this can be scary. But it's better to know and be prepared so you can make the best decisions for yourself.

5) Set your affairs in order!  Do you have a Living Will? This tells your doctors what you want should you be become unable to communicate, as in coma. Do you want to stay plugged in indefinitely? Do you want hydration only? Tube feeding? You get the picture. Most hospitals have these forms handy. They need to be witnessed though. And you will need to appoint someone to take responsibility for you and advocate for you if you're not able, so get a Durable Power of Attorney. Have you made a will? Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney can be downloaded from Stevens-Ness (  for a small fee. Before my surgery, I bought a small notebook and listed all my bank accounts, numbers, passwords, utility accounts, landlords, etc. so that if I kicked the bucket, my dear ones wouldn't be left with a mess. It gave me peace of mind and them as well.

Stay tuned for the next five pointers on how to bounce back!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Breaking Holding Patterns: What's Keeping Us from Freedom and Spontaneity?

In the body, as in life, often what begins as an adaptive response to a stressor becomes a habit or holding pattern. This expresses itself in several ways. Chronic pain and tightness; a feeling of impingement, ungroundedness, unevenness, clumsiness, chronic fatigue. This physical imbalance may be expressing a psychic or emotional imbalance, a trope or tendency to think, lean, or act in some habitual way. These tendencies and habits prevent spontaneity and may actually be the culprits that keep us repeating patterns of relating, and finding ourselves facing the same issues again and again. Habits expressed in chronically tight areas may take years to uncover, explore, and resolve, but the time and effort are well worth it, and the journey can be as satisfying as the resolution.
Rigid (left) and Collapsed (Right) postures from Emotional Anatomy, by Stanley Keleman.

Ask anyone what makes humans stand upright, and most answers include some direct or indirect reference to gravity. Most people think of gravity as a force that must be “fought” in a continuous struggle in which - obviously - we are bound to lose. And the postures which express this belief are generally along a continuum between rigid holding or collapse - see photo, above.

We forget that what goes down, must come back up; and forgetting that rebound, we get stuck in holding patterns that keep us either up, or down. The effort involved in staying put is greater than that which would allow for a rebound, or for a continuous flow between down and up. This flow - imbued now, rightly so - with an almost mystical reverence - is nothing other than a continuous energy exchange.

Like the medieval Tarot symbol of the The Star, in which a woman holds two pitchers from which there is a continuous flow back and forth - when we are “in the flow” we partake of stream of energy which makes all effort seem effortless. This is because when we don’t hold on, we neither block our receptivity, nor our outpouring of energy, and there is a continuous refreshment.

 Three Steps to Connecting

1) The first step in finding the flow is acknowledging that it exists. A surfer stepping into the ocean is not in doubt that there will be waves. A key point here is trust. If you miss a wave, there will be another. That’s the nature of Ocean. Getting lost in regretting a missed wave, or nostalgically replaying a wave captured - either of these states will assuredly result in missing the next wave. This is a practice in continually letting go and staying alert and relaxed in the present. In the present is all the information you need.

The waves keep coming!

2) Next, noticing where you are and what’s happening opens you to receive information. Whether standing or sitting, notice where you are receiving support. Support is continually there in any point of contact. Support exists even from something you are holding. Changing your relationship to the point of contact so that you are “receiving” it, not pushing it away, changes the energy flow between you and it. The point could be the ground, a chair, a steering wheel, a weight or cup, a person’s hand. This awareness is a place where you are relating to everything through your senses, both inside you and outside you simultaneously.

Support exists even from something you are holding.

3) Realize that the intention to rest into the point of contact is what creates support. Resting is not collapsing, but a subtle relaxation into the feeling of the contact. Relaxing increases sensation, that is, neuromuscular feedback. Muscles are wired in both directions; by allowing your weight to ‘fall’ into a surface, you create an automatic push back - that’s gravity. This is rebounding and creates reciprocity and flow.

Energy is flowing in all directions, down, up, out, in. He is in Equipoise.

Quads: To lift the leg with, or not?

Invariably, almost every dancer has gotten some version of this admonition when lifting their leg: "Don't use your quads!"
Quadriceps group: Vasti Lateralis, Intermedius, & Medialis plus Rectus Femoris.

Since the action of the quadriceps muscle group - the four major muscles on top of the thigh - is to straighten the knee and lift (flex) the leg in front of the body, how in heaven's name are we supposed to subvert nature and lift our legs?

Enter the next myth: "Lift from underneath."  Another miraculous subversion of nature, whereby the hamstrings, the long muscles group behind the thigh whose action is to bend the knee and extend the leg behind the body, are now supposed to do what the quadriceps do - a kind of anatomical inversion.
(check out this blog:

These well-meant and sincere corrections from excellent teachers confuse dancers. Let's be clear: you cannot dance classical ballet without using your quadriceps since the function of the quads is to straighten the knees and lift the legs. Nor can the hamstrings, which, in a front leg lift, must lengthen in order to permit the leg to go up - and those with tight hamstring know this because the tighter the back of your leg, the lower your leg will be when you try to lift it - serve as leg lifters.

I think teachers are trying to describe a subjective sensation: that a leg lift does not come from muscling or tensing the front of the legs, but from a feeling of release in the back of the legs. This release creates a feeling similar to a rush of wind under a skirt - a sensation of lifting from underneath. It might be more helpful to try to describe this than to perpetuate confusion with inaccurate statements about the function of muscles.

View of hamstrings, rotators, IT band from the back.
These inaccuracies simply point to the fact that teaching dance is difficult. We try to put into words subjective feelings and sensations in order to evoke those sensations in dancers. Still, it behooves us to be precise. Make no mistake: Quads straighten the knee and lift the leg to the front and also to the side. But they don't work alone to do that, and a lot of other actions are happening at the same time involving the core & the standing leg, so perhaps better to say: "Don't over-focus on the quads and lifting the leg. It's as important to feel a sensation of lengthening down into the floor while floating the rib cage above the hips."  Well - here we are again in sensation land! See what I mean? (For more on topics like these, please visit my colleague, Monika Volkmar, on

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Beyond the Barre: Why dancers need cross-training.

I want to talk about ballet training beyond the barre. Of course the barre is where it all starts, but it cannot end there for many reasons. First because doing barre is not dancing, it's a preparation for dance, but many dancers get stuck there, in a fixation on perfection and perfecting technique. Second, because in fact, just using barre work to train the body is no longer enough. This  may be controversial still for some teachers. So I want to spend some time explaining why I've come to this view.

The exercises ballet dancers perform at the barre are a series of very specific movements, shapes, and coordinated sequences that form the lexicon of classical ballet choreography. They include a kinetic and verbal vocabulary requiring flexibility and strength in extreme external rotation as the impetus for every single gesture. If performed correctly, this builds a body that contains a great deal of kinetic power in the implicit coil of the spiral called turnout.

Training is all too often aesthetically driven, not anatomically nor kinaesthetically driven. This means dancers are trying to make themselves look right without reference to whether something feels right, or without a reality-based accurate view of their physiology.  Herein  lies the root of most future problems.

At the very least, training beyond the barre informs dancers intellectually and experientially about their physical anatomy - how it works based on functional reality and not aesthetic ideals. Paradoxically, when the body is functioning optimally, movements are always balanced and graceful.  In other words, an optimally functioning body is beautiful.

When a dancer becomes overly preoccupied with their appearance in a mirror, breadth and depth of sensation is muted in favor of heightened visual feedback. This visual preoccupation, because its focus is so narrow, is often completely distorted, producing a negative feedback loop. Force of will used to accomplish a desired line creates tension, which interrupts freedom of movement. The result is a dancer working against themselves, which can be likened to when the immune system begins to attack the body.  For more on this subject, check out my colleague, Monika Volkmar's excellent site To be continued......