Migrating Gestures: Body Weather as a cartographic process within interdisciplinary pedagogy

Rachel Sweeney


This paper investigates a range of somatic educational tools as applied to diverse disciplines, focusing broadly on the education values of somatics placed within an interdisciplinary embodied approach. The paper will draw on two recent pedagogic case studies: first working with students enrolled on a Masters program in Sports Management at the University of Auvergne, for a residency program titled ‘Shifting States’; and second as part of a research team of health science and early years psychology researchers on ‘Wild Walks’ – an interdisciplinary project assessing the educational aptitude of early years pupils at an outdoor Forest School in Merseyside, UK. Both projects promote artistic dialogue across somatic, science, sports and education disciplines, in order to apply new modes of critically readdressing themes of holistic education. Both case studies are heavily informed by my own dance ecology practice, formed as part of Orr&Sweeney Dance Company (2007 - 2014), whose work was used somatic education to address topical issues surrounding land management and climate change both in the UK and Australia (www.orrandsweeney.com).


This paper will locate my somatic research in an applied context, identifying resonant themes of sense perception, cartography as choreography and migration and adaptation, as pertinent to the concerns of those diverse communities I engaged with (ie. Sport Science disciplines and Early Years outdoor education). My proposed methodology will be based on a participant-observer role, effectively both directing movement workshops and collating participant responses, and also working with a tripartite somatic approach using visual, verbal and tactile imagery to explore gestural vocabularies as they relate to individual and collective expression. Within the given scope of the proposed writing, the term somatics will be repositioned here as sense-oriented negotiation of one’s direct environment, taking as a prerequisite the notion of adaptation1  within both individual and group movement directives, as capable of identifying and reflecting wider environmental and political concerns. 


My own dance practice is situated in language exchange directed across the diverse disciplines of cultural and physical geography and contemporary choreography - the latter located as primarily a cartographic practice. The research methods presented here advocate a sensuous scholarship that phenomenologically frames dance and science discourses surrounding materiality, corporeality and spatiality2 . My ethnographic approach to movement is informed by the related movement practices of Butoh and Body Weather, which I locate here as ideographic-somatic languages, and which share a socio-historic root in late twentieth century Japan. First termed by Japanese dancer Min Tanaka in the late eighties, Body Weather is an acknowledged sister form to Butoh, and operates within a movement training system based on the walking body, presenting a holistic movement approach to integrating dance and landscape. Butoh is presented here as a performing entity containing its own existential movement aesthetic as well as reflecting social, political and cultural debates which surround the body in performance. This paper will approach Butoh and its related form Body Weather as migrational subjects which, though initiated within post war Japan, can be viewed as constantly evolving movement systems that directly oppose gestural literacy, maintaining their own agency within dance scholarship where the movement system is governed by translations between verbal and visual imagery, as opposed to kinesthetically-bound technique. 


The following three movement proposals underscore my approach to facilitating dance methods for non-dance participants. Significantly, all three approaches presuppose that space is already embodied, identifying choreographic practice as primarily concerned with unpacking definitions of dance processes to do with sensory perception, responsiveness and adaptation. To date, much of my collaborative performance practice is generated out of a close dialogue with land and its related linguistics, incorporating choreography as a strategic navigational tool to approach wider issues surrounding climate change and land management. In separating out stage based craft from movement processes, there is a conscious shift generated out of the urge to use dance as a political tool to actively participate in the land and to creatively interpret and reflect certain macro and micro changes, through enabling the choreographic process to operate as a kind of living map3 .

Recent movements directed within dance scholarship have repositioned the role of the dance body in direct relation to practical sense-led interrogations of environmental studies located within geographic, ecological and other social science models. These and other dance ecology practices can be argued to locate movement research in situ in the interface between the body’s own self-regulating exploration of land, gravity and sense perception4 with the metapractical aim of refining certain somatic and sense-led responses towards distinct sensibilities shared within diverse disciplines. In choreographic terms, such sensibilities offer a dynamic methodology, through utilizing specific movement responses that might be further repeated, crafted and refined, and articulated through distinct motifs or phrases that might yet further be incorporated into a larger movement design. Choreographic practices surrounding site responsive somatic approaches therefore, can be seen to operate as ‘a new emerging, aesthetic discipline concerned with the workings as well as governance of patterns, dynamics and ecologies5 .’ Somatics practitioner Sandra Reeves considers the ecological position of the body as a lived entity that experiences its surrounding as part of a holistic and interpretative environment, supporting a phenomenological view of the role of consciousness as an interplay between body and subject: where the ‘experienced body is not an object for the abstractive gaze: it is the body as lived, as lodged in the world as a base of operations from which attitudes are assumed and projects deployed6 .’

The common aim of both case studies reviewed here is to deploy certain shared pedagogic objectives, by highlighting the role of the senses as a strategic navigational tool. The following three proposed movement initiatives are therefore designed to facilitate group work, emphasizing an open and available collective space and following clear ethical guidelines for participatory practice.

1. MB – MB  Mind-Body – Muscle Bone

My own body mapping practice is distilled from physical training principles founded in the MB (mind/body muscle/bone) techniques derived from the Japanese training practice of Body Weather. I draw from this shared bodily practice a cultural spatio-discourse that is open to non-trained dancers and is designed to facilitate open language exchange across diverse disciplines. MB holds as its core the idea of proximal relations and spatial navigation between diverse bodies.  The embodied method supports an independent anatomical exploration of muscular texture, weight and condition, while extending a parallel environmental investigation of spatial depth, dimension, temperature and distance. This facilitated practice provides the basic anatomical tools to further examine and assess current cultural placements of individual and group body through both macro and microcosmic studies of relations between internal anatomical structure and external architectural/environmental design7 

The MB training approach offers a form based progressive training practice open to both dancers and non-dancers which is based on the applied mechanics and dynamics of walking collectively to include spatial aptitude, momentum and ensemble techniques. It is a unison rhythmic practice that operates in uniform lines across the space, with participants moving at equidistance to one another. The spatial structure (which, in Min Tanaka’s original derivation echoes the cyclic patterns found in rice paddy fields), encourages a democratic cultivation of a series of ‘walks’ using adapted coordinate movements and moving both forwards and backwards. This spatial patterning provides a baseline inquiry for the individual’s peripheral awareness as also the group’s own collective sense of intention and momentum that is then further applied in improvisational form.


I locate group improvisation as an atomistic practice and a proliferating choreographic space that presupposes a wider ecology of movement placements within social groups, and that can ‘dwell in the space of collective imaginaries as a participatory space of transgression and innovation, triggering social and cultural boundaries8 ’. Borrowing from choreographer Michael Klein’s position that ‘(d)ance is a matter of thought pointing towards the possibility of change as inscribed in the body9 ’, the movement proposition that I define within improvisational practice recognizes the following terms as key: multiplicity, incoherence and convergence. Evolving participants’ own movement potential and using critical language sourced from specialized sensory perception / somatic exercises as set up in MB-BM, these key terms are directed towards identifying pattern and trace within collective improvisatory movement. As part of their improvisatory practice, participants develop tools in active spectatorship, considering the act of viewing as interventionist, and placing kinesthetic empathy approaches as ways of actively recognizing gestures of effort-felt repertories within emergent patterns, migrations and deviations. These skills can then be applied to wider mapping of individual and ensemble body movements working in specific external locations and outdoor environments, which forms part of Body Mapping. 


My own somatic practice is based on a critical placement of the body’s own sensory faculties in direct communication with the stimuli offered by sensory informed physiological exchange in direct relation to its environment, to include proprioception, exteroception and kinesthesia. Body Mapping involves the geographic transposition of key gestures and patterns that have emerged and have been critically analysed within improvisational practice, to adapt into specific locations within any given landscape. Body Mapping therefore acts as an informed cartographic choreography that identifies significant physical sites within any given particular geographic location, by physically re-mapping the boundaries, pathways and designated public sites inherent to that space, identifying certain spatial derivatives to include mobility/ migration, site as trauma, privatised/ public space, visibility/ non-visibility, and perimeter/ periphery.

Playing with framing movement through descriptive practice, I introduce the choreographic term physical synaesthesia as a proposition that extends the sensory capacities of the individual dancer/ participant in a conscious exchange between found resources in the form of sense stimuli, and a negotiation of the particular environments’ textures, sounds, smells and sights through deliberately disoriented sense perception. Physical Synaesthesia subverts a quotidian charter of outdoor space, proposing an alternative embodied reading of place and its derivatives.

Case Study A: "Shifting States"

In October 2018 I directed a two-day residency at a dance research base in Ambert, France. The group comprised fifteen Sports Science students enrolled on a Masters program in Sports Management at the University of Auvergne in Clermont-Ferrand. None of the participants had any previous dance training, however semi-professional basketball, competitive swimming and league football featured amongst the cohorts’ many skills.

My overall aim was to expand existing definitions of practical fieldwork studies in the area of tourism and land management for these students, to include a broad range of practical research processes exploring the physical relationship of the body to its environment via the above three methods. Reflecting across the discourses of Sports Management, Somatic Movement, Ecology and Environmental Science, this mircro course introduced new ways in which diverse knowledge systems might find parallels with emerging questions surrounding sustainability within the land, the body and their associated linguistics. Some of the outcomes of this research directly informed their ongoing masters level study and in particular the requirements to find innovative ways to conceptualize leisure-based environments using a psycho-physical approach.

Working within a Sports Management context, much of the group’s preconceived notions of space included the strategic planning of recreational activities and the mapping of bodies within a future designated space, rather than a live reading of space through the present tense interactions and engaging in the sensibilities of both the group and the individual participants. Engaging in the above three stages, MB, Improvisational Practice and Body Mapping, the group were encouraged to reflect on their individual bodily experience (emotions, sensations, memories) and also on the link between a living body and a lived body where “the body (is) seen as a complexity of interacting elements and not only as the only biological or physical entity10 .” As one participant observed, these creative tasks, directed towards the cultivation of a collective moving body, encouraged participants to “map a space through the assembly of experimentations (visual, perceptions, listening, sense projection), to feel it with a plurality of postures, which represents a founding element in the reflection on the place that the body occupies within a recreational practice with the objective of appropriating a place according to the experience convened11 .” This statement highlights the distinct perceptions of space that the participants experienced, while echoing Tim Ingoldsby’s suggestions of a unified perception of landscape where ‘(f)irst the environment that we experience, know and move around in is not sliced up along the sensory pathways by which we enter into it. The world we perceive is the same world, whatever path we take, and in perceiving of it each of us acts as an undivided centre of movement12 .’

Somatics practitioner Roisin O’Gorman suggests how movement draws attention to the “way” of knowing, so that knowledge itself is understood as mobile and ongoing, not simply an object to be downloaded, but one to be lived, experienced and experimented with, to make new ideas, new structures, new pathways13 . Working in close proximity and using imagery derived from the participants’ immediate interactions with the natural environment also allowed individuals to understand the different possible body forms according to the situation. As one participant recorded, in order to understand their own express feeling of being in the world they proposed a series of bodily positions: “a body that overflows, a body as an executor, a body as an instrument of power to act, a sensitive body, a body at the service of the individual thought in its entirety, a performing body, a body as an interface/receiver of communication/connection with the environment/elements, a rational body, a capacity body14 ”. In this context then, the notion of dance training is repositioned as a preparatory study for developing further group initiatives, by promoting a sense-oriented negotiation of one’s direct environment, taking as a prerequisite the notion of adaptation1 (disponible) within both individual and group movement directives, as capable of identifying and reflecting wider environmental and political concerns.

‘The situation as context and place of action interconnects with the individual carrying representations and experiences through a living and lived body, which in turn is in interrelation with the objects/individuals present in space (or not through mental/virtual projection). This unstable ecosystem produces effects that are observable and where the purpose cannot be predicted in advance. For me, this is what links our sports training (project management where the place of the body at the heart of recreational practices is one of the challenges) and dance training (which is located in the interstitial space between the artistic dimension and the sports dimension) through the prism of Body Mapping. The body through its practices (mixing of the carnal and sensitive emotional body experience) transforms a spatialized space into a spatializing place.
— STAPS Sports Management participant C

Many bodies many images

The idea of a spatializing place points to the manifold ways in which we can direct perceptual experience from an adaptive body position. ‘Generally speaking, the body-image is an ambiguous concept. It is ambiguous because it generates multiple meanings. Because of this multiplicity, various approaches have sought to understand the complexity of the notion of body-image15 .’ Theatre critic Saumya Liyanage has written at length on the role of embodied intention in defining character expression for performance. Liyanage’s questions regarding future scholarship for psychophysical actor training primarily deal with knowledge production through embodied training reflecting through a series of interviews staged with Asian theatre practitioners. Interviewing Japanese Body Weather dancer Min Tanaka, Liyanage describes how Tanaka creates ‘a series of postural model of body-images during the performance. It liberates the rigidity of your body-image. Once you start a postural model, that postural model generates the next postural model and the previous one retains as a temporal body memory.’ Liyanage’s writing advocates the creative processes of the actor as an epistemic endeavor, implying that the creative process is a knowledge seeking and knowledge producing process in its own right and that its contribution to knowledge production is equivalent to that of other fields in human sciences16 . He cites Asian phenomenologist Nagatomo Shiganori’s notion of bodily ‘engagement’ with place in relation to the notion of ‘intentionality’, suggesting a pre-conscious activity that links the body to the world through “attuned engagement17 ”, thus asserting that through this particular psychophysical engagement, the living personal body relates itself to the ambience through its activities or by just being in the ambience (ibid, p.188).

Combining rapport with the body, its relationship to nature and its conscious application of a project in symbiosis with its environment, this two day program opened participants to other horizons of conceiving or thinking about their relationship to place and their own body own relation to nature. O’Gorman’s claims for a finer tuned criticality in regards to relations between somatic practice and an adaptive landscape is useful here:

We need to readdress the function of somatic practice as a way of dissolving habitual movement patterns in order to fully comprehend the politics of an adaptive landscape within the domain of precarity, however current knowledge models of physiological systematic evidence may still require attention from critical modes of thought in order to broaden their application in the present times.

The research processes engaged in here directed students to reflect on and question the role of the body as a shifting site that can respond to current cultural and ecological issues creatively. This space of precarity or destability, coupled with the variant body-place relationships formed over the workshop allowed the participants to reflect on their own subject position from a place of agency. As one student observed:

Body ecology isn’t a speech, it’s a body application of physical activity which engages our daily responsibility, though a reflection about our actions and their consequence for others and the nature. Taking care of yourself, of other and of the nature follows the same ethics: with body ecology the life choices you make for yourself help taking care of others. Therefore Body Ecology, isn’t detached from idolizing nature. Nature isn’t good or bad; it constantly questions our physical interactions with it through our body limitations and the green creativity in our techniques. To melt into the environment will be enough to supply those bodies some new sensorial experience and an experiential memory to push back the frontiers of the body. With regard to this, that we must understand the utility of application of our sense in the nature.
— STAPS Sports Management participant C

Case Study B: "Wild Walks" with the Nature to Nurture Forest School Project

This second case study is based on a longitudinal assessment of how early years pupils adapt their learning to outdoor environments, comparing outdoor nursery training to conventional schooling. The project bases its study on a North Liverpool forest school and nursery called ‘Nature to Nurture’, which was recently rated ‘outstanding’ in all areas by Ofsted and was awarded ‘National Pre-School of the Year’ in 2018. Led by a team of researchers from Liverpool Hope University comprising several social science disciplines, to include Psychology, Health Science and Early Years Education, and directed by Dr Babs Anderson (Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies), the study hopes to find out how children engage with their outdoor experiences and how this influences socio-emotional and cognitive development.

My own role within the research team was to examine early years outdoor play in order to interrogate the ways in which diverse knowledge systems gained from sensory contact and immersive play might offer distinct yet complimentary creative pedagogic approaches. Working through a series of ‘Wild Walks’ workshops, my main pedagogic inquiry included the following: 

  • Investigate inhabitation and adaptation as key movement propositions that promote generative and sensitive movement dialogue within social interaction.
  • Examine interdisciplinary approaches to early years pedagogy and sustainable education practices by promoting sensate exchange between the languages of contemporary choreography, creative play, environmental practice and creative pedagogy. 
  • Identify parallels between outdoor early years creative play and choreographic practice - to include spatial discourse, collective energy, rhythmic manipulation, physical coordination - and examine creative and constructive processes of imagining (future/virtual) spatial design through sensory contact. 

Reflecting on the relationship between play and cognitive development, Early Childhood Educationalist Babs Anderson cites Wood’s theorizing of creative pedagogy as that where ‘Play provides a bridge between the possible…and the actual’, then during freely chosen play, children can explore the potential for their own capabilities and those they play alongside. They can investigate their own mastery of the world around them, their sense of agency. They can implement their own ideas by putting them into practice and exploring the consequences of their actions18 .’ Observing the pupils interact using the natural resources that the forest has to offer, I was able to draw quite clear distinctions between constructive group physical activity - a collective intention to produce results, within the acknowledged limitations of the physical space – as sharing many features with that of choreographic practice. For example, a tree branch might support three bodies, whereas lifting and carrying objects (branches, leaves, etc) from one place to another becomes a solo task. The ethos of forest schooling is to offer a ‘hands on’ approach to learning through providing an integrated pedagogical environment for developing life skills as well as focusing on practical aspects of development such as group communication, organisation and time management. Through a range of holistic approaches to learning on site, I was able to identify a transformative approach to learning, embedding certain sustainable education practices by encouraging students to engage the role of the ‘dancing’ or rather active body as an interdependent entity subsisting as part of the ecology of its surrounding environment.

Where the majority of the early learning community are kinesthetically dominant, the above physical activities on hand here encourage environmental awareness while exposing pupils to challenging collective tasks which require group problem solving, setting collective tasks and physical coordination. As Anderson comments, 

For young children, their daily experiences within the nursery are grounded within their own physicality, their use of their senses to make sense of their environment as embodied cognition. In order to achieve agency in acting on their environment intentionally and with direction, children need to be aware of themselves as authors of ideas as well as being able to recognise the intentions and ideas of others. The use of communication is essential to this, using both verbal and non-verbal means within the early years setting.
— Anderson, B. (2018) European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, 142–155

Applying dance principles widely through applied on site learning tasks gave the participants the opportunity to develop an in-depth understanding of the discipline’s social, cultural and political values by examining and evaluating the purpose and value of dance as representing a body-centered approach to landscape. Again O’Gorman’s proposal for a movement-based thinking that has wider relevance beyond performing arts studies is pertinent here:

Movement-based thinking, developed in and through performing arts, is yet to find its full articulation and impact across our institutions. This entwinement of conceptual frameworks and embodied practices enables us to see and think with and through movement, not to build knowledges against a fear of failure or instability but to develop knowledge practices which integrate mobile ability to respond to unpredictability, change, and the unknown and unknowable. This is not to replace discursive practices but to look at the limits of words as border-making and how we can develop and further our understanding and applications of movement- based thinking. Attending to the non-verbal registers of movement and audio-visual documentation and media opens new paradigms for research and development.
— O’Gorman, ibid: 150

In each learning context, the role of review, whether discussion around the camp fire with the participating children – or in the case of the Masters students, mapping their experiences back into the classroom through collected interviews and review sessions – the sensory experience becomes more engaging and memorable through enhancing and awakening the senses of each pupil, which furthermore links their development directly to both group and individual learning activities. The learning process then becomes one of translation, from the immediate location of sense stimuli, as activated through a somatic training, directed towards reflective writing and/ or discussion, overall creating a more powerful learning environment. 


The body emerges then, as a self-organising choreographic structure - adaptable, sentient and available to multiple orientations, while simultaneously sustaining a movement vocabulary beyond its initiation within a particular environment, working in the immersive experiential mode. The scene of movement proposed here seeks an affective engagement between somatic education, collective expression and the ensuing cross disciplinary language practices that may emerge. As both pedagogic approaches indicate; this paper seeks to engage a coercive tactics in exploring language mechanisms that are located through the senses in order to support fluid and migrational codes when accessing the dance body. Through applying the Body Weather tools, as identifying primarily in the three stages of Muscle Bone, Improvisational Practice and Body Mapping, dance practices and training methods might act as an active metaphor for embodying empathetic processes, while furthermore the terms proximity, perception and proprioception – all widely used within choreographic praxis – can be applied to a wider definition of dance as a collective and reflexive spatial practice and as a learning tool for all.

1. I use here Derrida’s adapted French term disponible as a way to describe a flexible body-centered approach to developing knowledge practice around environmental themes of body-place relations. back to text

2. Fraleigh, S. A Vulnerable Glance: Seeing Dance through Phenomenology in Dance Research Journal Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 11-16. back to text

3. For further guidance see Sweeney, R (2018) ‘Dance Ecology as a Live Research Practice’ (eds) McGrath, A. & Meehan, E. in Dance Matters in Ireland: Contemporary Dance Performance and Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, London. back to text

4. Anna Halprin’s work and more recently the very clear and distinct layers of bodily description provided by Sandra Reeves clearly situate the body in situ as a new development out of traditional somatic discourse. back to text

5. Klein, M. RICE publication 2009: 32 (missing full ref). back to text

6. Reeves, 2011: 15 taken from Sweeney, R. (2013) ‘Topophilia and Topophobia; charting site based dance on the vertical’ in the Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices Intellect Press 5(2) December. back to text

7. For further description of Mind-Body / Muscle-Bone see Orr, M. and Sweeney, R (2011) ‘ Surface Tensions’ co-authored publication in Double Dialogues peer reviewed online journal. http://www.doubledialogues.com/issue_fourteen/Orr_Sweeney.html). back to text

8. Colah in Herbst 2016 Body Luggage: Migrations of Gesture. https://www.contemporaryand.com/exhibition/body-luggage-migration-of-gestures/ back to text

9. Klein, Michael (2008) Book of Recommendations: Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change p.87. Daghdha Press Ireland. back to text

10. STAPS Sports Management student and participant A. Please note that recorded statements are translated from the original French. back to text

11. ibid. back to text

12. Ingolds, T (2001) The Perception of the Environment, Essays on Dwellings Livelihood and Skill pp:145-156 Routledge Press, London. back to text

13. O’Gorman ibid. back to text

14. STAPS Sports Management participant C. back to text

15. Preester and Knockaert, 2005, p.2. back to text

16. Liyanage, S. (2016) Meditations of Acting: Theory, Practice and Performance, DEV Publishing, Colombo. back to text

17. Nagatomo, 1992, p. 188. back to text

18. Wood, E. 2009. “Developing a Pedagogy of Play.” In Early Childhood Education: Society and Culture, 2nd ed. edited by A. Anning, J. Cullen, and M. Fleer, 27–38. London: Sage. back to text

Works Cited

Casey, E.S. The Fate of Place. A Philosophical History. University of California Press, 1998.

Coles, A. (ed) Site- Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn Black Dog Publishing Ltd, 2000.

Kwon, M. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2004.

Lepecki, A and Banes, S. (ed) (2007) The Senses in Performance Routledge: New York, 2007.

Meyer, J. ’The Functional Site’, or, ‘The Transformation of Site Specificity’ in Documents 7 Fall 1996.

Smidt, S. 2011. Playing to Learn: The Role of Play in the Early Years. Abingdon: Routledge.

Stern, D.  1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. A View From Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books