Do you know that a slight change in your thoughts causes an immediate response in your skeletal alignment? Listening to your body gives you clarity and helps you regain balance. Dolores Hirschmann’s guest today is Laura Donnelly, founder of Dancing with Ease. In this episode, Laura explains the body-brain-business balance. When you listen to your body, you understand your thoughts. When you understand your thoughts, you’re better able to respond from an energy of possibility. Tune in and discover the simple process of listening to your body!
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Dancing With Ease: How Listening To Your Body Gives You Clarity And Helps You Regain Balance With Laura Donnelly
Laura, I am excited to have this conversation. As we start everything here in this show, tell us a little bit about your clarity journey. Have you always been this clear about the work you do and if not, how did this come about?
They have come together in a wonderful way. Very strangely, the intensity of the COVID times gave me the opportunity to look at the collection of things that I have done and learned over my life. How these fit together and create an all-encompassing way for people to work with themselves, and to heal things that have been problems in their life for a long time. I started out as a dancer and I did a whole lot of bodywork, performing and training. I was mostly ballet and a modern dancer in terms of concert stuff. I did a whole bunch of historical dancing, and then I started to choreograph to make my own dances. It caused me to work with all kinds of different people like musicians, set designers and costume designers. It expanded my ability to communicate but also this idea of collaboration, and how you create things with another person in conversation with another person that you wouldn’t make by yourself.
This is a big element of the work that I teach, which I call body-brain business balance. It’s a lot of different things, but our human-self unites all these things. We have emotions, physical bodies, dreams, aspirations, and millions of thoughts every day. All of these, when we bring them together in one place, and then when we share with another person from an authentic center, we create connection, growth and healing. That was wonderful for me to figure out that I didn’t have to stop being a dancer, a mover and a creator to help people on a healing journey that it’s all combined. I was super happy.
There are a couple of things here. In these conversations that I always have, I love asking this question because my readers are in some part of the journey that I am or my guests are. What I’m hearing is that it’s almost a requirement to go on this clarity journey and arrived in a safe harbor where you’re doing what you love and you’re having an impact. It’s the requirement of open-mindedness and an open heart. There’s a process which you shared about the role and the journey of being a dancer, where it was all about your move as dictated by a plan that the choreographer or whoever was in charge of the overall performance. You were one player in that performance, and there was perfection needed in your performance.
Also, there was a plan that was not yours. It’s part of what we do. We’re going to talk about perfection, but in the journey of you embracing your own movement and dance under the supervision and plan of others, to then shifting to moving beyond that, to owning and leading the moves as a choreographer, and becoming one voice in a collaboration of voices that make a performance. As a choreographer, you’re working with a production team on the stage and all the players that come together. Now you’re co-creating a performance versus being someone following someone’s rules.
When you work with other people, you have to listen to other ideas and you have to be open.
The analogy that you’re bringing in, that led you to the path of bringing healing as you help someone collaborating their own internal elements. We all have inside of us performers, choreographers and costume designers. All of us are inside of ourselves as well. Talk to me about this permission or journey of opening your heart and your mind beyond that dancer’s perfect move and seeking that perfection to seeking the liberation of creation. Creation has no perfection in it because it’s messy, fun and vibrant.
It’s interesting in terms of a journey because I think that all of the things that I learned affecting a type of performance gave me skills. It helped me learn to analyze and to move exactly in time with another group of people. The negative side of this was I learned to be hyper-critical, “This wasn’t good enough. That wasn’t good enough.” This is the truth. You’re either on the beat or you’re not on the beat. There is a definite black and white thing. I internalized a lot of that. I discovered it was making me more tense and more bound energetically in my body. Since what I needed to do with my work as a dancer or a choreographer was my body, this tension I was putting on myself to be a perfect size or whatever it was that I thought I wasn’t because that’s a place where our thoughts come in and that self-critical piece. I think I’m still working on this. How do you get better at what you do without beating yourself up for what you don’t know how to do yet? I think that is a lifelong journey of healing.
It’s a lifelong dance.
Yes, it’s a dance and there are lots of steps to it. Starting to collaborate when you make your own thing and you do your own thing, you have control because it’s you or you think you have control. It’s more like that. When you start to work with other people, you have to listen to other ideas, you have to be open. This openness is the antithesis of perfection. Perfection is a specific thing. This is perfect. Everything outside of this is not perfect. That’s limited and limiting. When somebody says an idea and you’re like, “I never thought of that but that’s cool” or in the dance studio sometimes, I would make a problem and I would have an idea of the solution like a movement problem.
I would set my dancer and I say, “Here’s the problem. Let me see how you solve this with movement with your bodies.” Their bodies are different from my body. Suddenly, they would come up with stuff I had never imagined. That was interesting inside. If I had the rule that I had to make every step, then I have eliminated all of those co-creations that came out of the time, the place, and the sharing of all of us in the studio. That was the beginning of unraveling this. I did 3 or 4 years’ worth of improvisational performances where I would work with a musician who was improvising and I was improvising movement. We had a starting place and an ending place, but we had nothing in between. He was a brilliant person, a wonderful composer, musician and visual artist. His name is Philip Corner. He said, “We’re going to do this and we are going to perform these live for an audience but we are going to practice every day for two months with no audience, then we will bring up a small trusted people into the studio.”
This was permission to make a mess of things. We weren’t doing this the very first time for a ticketed audience where we had to have certain goodness. We were just communicating. For me, this is a big part. You mentioned that communication of the parts of ourselves with each other in ourselves is the micro version of the macro version of how we work in the world. Working with Philip, we gave ourselves the time to explore, to buy all kinds of things that we might not have tried in front of an audience with hesitancy.
We got a huge vocabulary of possible options so that when we did go live, we still had a beginning and an end and nothing in the middle, but we knew that we would come up with something good because we had come up with something interesting several times. Bringing that back, that trust in not knowing is a huge step in unraveling perfectionism. That perfectionism comes from a desire to do our very best. I don’t think it starts from a rigid and bound place. It gets rigid and bound often as people misinterpret what perfect is.
I know those many layers can also sometimes come from fear or the consequence of imperfection. Everybody has different journeys and this perfection-seeking for our self-worth place, as a perfection-seeking from a safe place, depending on people’s past experiences. Let’s talk about this journey and I’m fascinated. I was a tap dancer, never professional, but I understand the language and the art of dance and the process of recreating with our bodies someone else’s vision. A dancer led by another choreographer, you’re interpreting an intention from others. Depending on that choreographer’s way of communicating, it could be a beautiful process or a very painful process. If someone doesn’t communicate properly and they have a way of imagining with a performance in their head, and when you, the dancer, show up to interpret it and not exactly what that person thought off, sometimes that can be tricky.
We translate all this conversation to your work because I think there are a lot of elements in the work that you do on helping people manage their own emotions, their body connection, and balancing stress. All of these are things and experiences you had in your life as a ballerina, and that you now are translating your insights into helping everybody, not just about arenas. Who are the people you love to work with? If our audience is reading, I want to make sure that they can identify that they are the people that should call you.
The people I love to work with are people who know things can be better. They usually are passionate and strong-willed. They are dedicated to improving themselves, their lives, their families but somehow it’s not working. The harder they try to make things better, the more things feel off, out of balance and out of sync. Those people are banging up against the wall of their desire to be a better mom, wife, businessperson, and they don’t know how to do it. The work I teach about balance and coming into balance with your body and your brain is to admit this. You talked about fear being a driver of perfectionism. It is when things don’t work right.
Perfectionism comes from a desire to do our very best.
We usually do what used to work in the past more and faster and harder. We forget that this isn’t the quest. This is right now. It’s like an improvisational dance. What we need right now is different from even our most successful thing from the past. The people I like to work with are curious. They’re frustrated because things aren’t working, but they know that things can work. They’re like, “How could I make this work? There’s got to be an answer.” There is an answer because that’s what I have as an answer. We then start a journey of observing our thoughts.
Let’s talk about that. If I say, “Laura, I want to work with you.” Walk me through what happened from the moment you and I connect to the next moment.
I would say, “It’s great to talk to you. I’m so excited to meet you and to explore what kind of journey we might go on together. We can think about this as a trip or a creation journey. We are going to make a project together because it’s a collaborative journey. Tell me a little bit about what’s going on in your life. What are a couple of things going well and what are some things that aren’t going so well for you? If you would tell me those things, we will celebrate the things that are going well. I will say, “Let me know how you felt when you tell me those things.”
Even now when you’re thinking about some things that are going well and even if I say to you, “What are some things that aren’t going so well? Your smile slightly goes away. The whole body a little bit pulls in. That is pulling out. It’s our body sharing with us that it feels better when we think about the things that are going well. It doesn’t feel as good. Energetically, it doesn’t move as well when we think about what’s not going well. Our whole life is built on identifying what’s not working and trying to fix it. If you start with what’s not working, you already start with that baseline tension.
Part of the work I do with people is to say, “We want to work on opening up this thing that’s not going so well and that’s cool,” but we’re going to leave it over here on the side for a minute. We’re going to come back to what’s going well for you. What’s something that makes you feel happy or joyful? Something as silly as you made fried eggs and you didn’t break any yolks when you turned them over. We get a few more simple wins and then we circle back to this thing that we might want to do differently. We circle from this energy of possibility instead of the energy of, “This isn’t going well and I have to fix it.” That slightly larger focus puts this thing in balance for one thing because some things are going well. This certainly is not so big. Our mind is in a more open and creative space and that’s a simple way with a simple issue, but it works on deep emotional issues. It works on creative blocks. The process is the same. It’s just what you apply it to.
It sounds like what you do is you help your people and your clients get into that intuitive flow, which is at the core of every good dancer. There’s the choreography and then there is your throughline of movement. I’m understanding that you help your clients reconnect. Sometimes connecting for the first time was the throughline of intuition, which is also the throughline of our creation, our movement and our soul.
It’s so lovely to hear you say this.
Most of the people I work with, most of the guests I have in my show are people who have turned their passion and purpose into their life’s work. Sometimes even throw in there their pain because if the pain is part of the purpose and passion, it’s definitely part of the past. We give ourselves permission to integrate it all with a shared purpose for bringing forth our life’s work to have an impact. The beauty of people like us in the work that we do is we serve, in many cases, with our past pain.
That desire to be better was the thing that set me on the path of learning and I wanted to dance better. I started to not just take technique classes, but to take the Alexander technique. To learn how I’m thinking either helped me dance better, get into that zone of flow and movement or you can imagine doing the wrong step right now. From that slightly frozen place, it’s twice as hard to move. That’s part of where I started with, “My body is so responsive to my thoughts on every level. I did a lot of somatic work, craniosacral work, and movement fundamentals. How does the body communicate with us?
The body has its own language. A lot of times the language is mysterious to us, but pain is one of the key messages that comes from the body. It is a sign that things are out of balance. The simple thing is if you eat something and you have a stomach ache, that’s a sign that your body doesn’t find that food to be nourishing. That’s a fairly simple message. If your feet start to hurt, that’s a sign to look at what you’re doing. How are your shoes? Maybe your shoes are worn out. Maybe you forgot to check and you wore the heels down. You’re walking funny and this is making your feet or your back hurt.
Focus on the energy of possibility instead of the energy of “this isn’t going well, I have to fix it.”
A lot of times people are like, “Pain is bad. I want to get rid of it.” I’m like, “Pain is a messenger.” It’s bringing you information. People think pain is one thing. I say, “Maybe your pain is trying to tell you something. If you ask your pain, what it’s trying to tell you? Suddenly, the pain softens because the reason it’s and loud is you’re not listening to it. It’s like a person when somebody doesn’t listen to you. He said it again and again, and louder and louder.
Do you work with people through conversation or there’s movement integrated into your work as well?
Honest and truly, it’s total improvisation. It could be either, both, none or maybe people want to journal. It’s what comes up on the person. I do a lot of work online because I’m in Kansas. I’m far from everybody but through the internet, I can connect to everyone. We start and then we are making like a dance. Body-brain business balance is what you get. The process is dancing with ease. The ease is this energy in yourself. This awareness that we all have but we forget it a lot of times of that flow, inspiration, creativity and not just being right where you’re supposed to be and enough right now.
Let me ask you a question. In 2021, we’ve finished a hefty dancing year. What are you most excited about in the next few months?
One of the things that became important for me during the whole strange and interesting times of COVID is people were like, “This is a bad day. This is terrible.” I’m like, “Okay, it’s not cool. I’m down with this. This is not my first choice of things to have happened. What if we look at it through the lens of very strange and interesting? What happens to all the things?” I ended up doing 230 conversations online about strange and interesting times. Whatever came up from COVID sometimes, my audience members would write things in that were bothering them. I would say, “This is not perfect. It’s not great, but what if you look at it differently?”
One of the things I realized is how damaging fear is for everybody, the emotion of fear. I’ll talk to you like I do not know what work does, but I think that’s a part of the process of clarity. By doing things as I did with my composer friend, Philip, by doing our improvisation, we revealed to ourselves what the improvisation was. That is the same that happened to me. By doing these conversations and changing the perspective on things, I realized how powerful that is and how that is a choice everybody can make at any moment. They have the ability to make the choice to say, “How is my thinking of whatever I’m thinking about affecting me? Is how I’m thinking making me feel tight, confined, constricted and angry?” You can hear it in my voice right away even when I say those words. I come back to myself and then my voice changes all by itself.
I then say, “Now I feel differently.” What did I do? I stopped thinking about constriction. I didn’t think the opposite, expansion or anything. I just said, “This thought is causing me pain.” I’m going to listen to my body tell me that this thought is causing me pain. I’m going to make a different choice. That choice changes everything. It’s how my body feels, how I lean forward or back from the screen, the pitch and speed of my voice. I’m like, “This will help people in all areas of their life to choose acquaintance that brings ease in yourself.” Suddenly your body’s like, “Yes, we’ve been calling you. We’ve been telling you this.” Your body suddenly is happy. You’re like, “That’s so easy.”
At the same time, the reason I work with people is because it’s hard to remember at the moment. You get so caught up in the moment of what’s happening. Let me see if I can do something quick and think of an example. After we finish the interview, I have a thing to write and it’s big and important. I’m suddenly gone to what’s going to happen after this. I realized that and I hear the voice in my ear. I say, “I don’t have to worry about that. It’s not here yet.”
Subtle changes in your thoughts also change your skeletal alignment.
It’s not at the moment. That’s the beauty of improv in general. This whole series of conversations you’ve been having and this thing you’re tapping into, as far as helping people be so aware of what’s here, what’s now, what is that thought? To choose a different thought is partial. Let me ask you a question. If you were to invite our audience to take one action, what action would you invite our readers to take right now?
This is funny but I’m going to ask them to do a little experiment so that they have some immediate feedback from their body. They can start going forward to steer the messages from their body a little bit more clearly. This action is to take one hand and make a fist and squeeze it tighter and tighter, and see what you feel. Did you hear my voice? It’s so funny, and then stop squeezing. That is that choice. That’s that thing. That tightness, I could feel it in my voice. All my arm muscles were tightened. Your body will tell you different things about squeezing that fist. When you stop squeezing, that’s that instant decision of release and not continuing down the path of increasing the tension in your system.
Make that fist, be aware of that tension and then release and feel the release. That is true whether you’re holding your fist, your thought, your anger or your pain tight. Wherever it is that you’re holding tight, just test. What does it feel like to release it? Thank you, Laura, for that simple but powerful metaphor and exercise at the same time. One more question, if there’s one book we must read, what is that book? One of the things you mentioned that you and I discussed was the Body Awareness In Action, which I think he changed the name to Freedom to Change by Frank Pierce Jones.
For me, that was a profound-looking book. I’ve read it early. I was probably still in my late 20s. It was both scientific like, “Why the changing happens?” We experienced this with the fist, but the other thing that happens is when we have tension in our system or have fear, the back of the neck collapses and it interferes with everything, breathing, moving and speaking. That guy was amazing. He did this early before there were computers. He has x-rays and all kinds of things that show the human body, which was my passion. He gives proof as to how something so subtle as changing your thinking changes your skeletal alignment and your physical posture. This freedom to change is everyone’s choice to stop squeezing. You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t have to stretch. You don’t have to sit up. You don’t have to do anything differently. Just stop that one thing.
Where should people find you if they want to work, release and find balance with you?
Laura, thank you so much for your time. Any parting words you want to share with us?
It can also translate to “in joy,” stay in joy and the joy of that flow that we were talking about. Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to be with us. I will check out your website and learn more about your work because I think it’s fascinating, your journey and the work you do. Thank you so much for coming.
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and a joy to speak with you.
- Freedom to Change
- Body Awareness In Action
About Laura Donnelly
Laura Donnelly is a teacher, mentor, choreographer, dancer, and writer. She has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe as a professional dancer, and she currently teaches Dancing with Ease: Body-Brain Balance, a process to improve communication in life and work, based on her 35 years as a performer.