Gaga Class: A Familiar and New Experience

James Graham is a San Francisco based choreographer, performer, and educator. He is the director of the James Graham Dance Theater and is a certified Gaga instructor. Graham received his MFA in Dance from The Ohio State University in 2010.

Last week I had the opportunity to take a Gaga class with James Graham via Zoom. This was not my first Gaga class, but it was my first Zoom Gaga class and my first Gaga for People class. I have taken Gaga before for company class with Thodos Dance Chicago as well as an open class at Visceral Dance Studio, but taking Graham’s class was a much different experience. Sure, it was over Zoom and I was alone in my apartment, which made it difficult to feel the communal experience I am accustomed to from a Gaga class, but it was oddly more freeing and liberating.

In my previous experiences I could sense a feeling of ulterior motives from myself, the other class participants, and even the instructor. There always seemed to be a need to perform Gaga rather than experience it, a want of approval and a desire to sharpen one’s skills as a dancer. In Graham’s class I found myself purely experiencing the process of movement investigation without the distractions of readying myself for rehearsal, proving my abilities in the presence of other dancers, or filling out the gaps in my talents as a dancer. There are many factors that play into these differences – I am no longer an ensemble member of a dance company, this class was facilitated through Zoom, it was designed for “people” not “dancers” – but overall, it felt familiar while also being a new and refreshing experience. 

The class started with a phrase I recognized, “Turn it on like a light switch,” as we began to activate our whole body. This sensation felt like all of the nerve endings in my body were glowing with light. In my mind’s eye I could see every inch of my skin, bones, and muscles at the same time, envisioning how they were working as a whole organism while still maintaining their individual specificities. In these few opening minutes Graham encouraged us to listen to our bodies, to take care of any injuries and to, “Find pleasure, go toward pleasure.”

These calls to activation and intention reminded me of the reasons Ohad Naharin initially created Gaga. In Deborah Friedes Galili’s article “Gaga: Moving beyond Technique with Ohad Naharin in the Twenty-First Century,” she quotes Naharin, while describing the development of his teaching practices, as saying, “’It was the need to prepare my body, the need to meditate with your body with no connection to a process of choreography, but [to] get in touch with the elements.’” (364) Graham’s class was indeed a place of active meditation in which he invited us to engage in physical conversations with our bodies. Calling attention to all of our senses and evoking tactile imagery, we connected our bodies to our own spaces and found grounding through our connective tissues. 

The use of imagery and calling upon different sensations is a common theme in Gaga classes. There is a certain level of access to the body’s abilities that comes with the inventiveness of Gaga’s guided movement meditation. Graham led us through a series of isolated discoveries which stimulated different regions of the body. Keeping our torso and head completely still, he asked to float through our arms and legs, instructing us to notice the texture of the air on our skin. This drifting sensation transitioned into a melting responsiveness as Graham charged us with increasing the feeling of weight in our limbs and imagining that our bones and muscles were heavy like wet sand. As we switched from our extremities to our core, Graham directed us to use our pelvis to write our names in cursive while allowing our body to widen horizontally. We moved through our spine, from the tail bone to the top of our head, by sending waves of energy from one end to the other. He invited us to bring awareness to our torso by noting the sloshing of our organs as our spines wriggled like worms. This full body activation culminated in a jostling of our whole selves, shaking limbs, spine, flesh, and pelvis. By bringing attention and awareness to the different parts of my body it felt as if I was taking an inventory of my physical being. Through the use of metaphors and imagery I was also activating my creative and emotional brain, allowing the physicality to link with the intellect and spiritual. 

Gaga movement practice is something I have been wanting to incorporate more into my own choreographic processes and teaching methods. The use of imagery and analogy pop up often in my classes and rehearsals as a means of coaching dancers to get the desired affect I seek. However, I hope to utilize the ideas of metatechnique present in Gaga as a means of connecting with dancers’ ability to organize and conceptualize movement through their own experience. Metatechnique is described in Meghan Quinlan’s article “Gaga as Metatechnique: Negotiating Choreography, Improvisation, and Technique in a Neoliberal Dance Market,” as “…an analysis of the agency of a dancer…that dancers maintain individual agency even while working for a choreographer because the dancer’s internal negotiation of bodily training and technique are necessary to learn and execute choreography.” (27)

In the class I had with Graham, we were given autonomy over the discoveries happening in our bodies and spaces, but it was within the directed leadership of his facilitation. I believe there is power in self-discovery through movement, and I hope to provide that space to the students, performers, collaborators, and artists I work with. I also believe in the power of the collective genius and that I alone do not hold all the answers. This class with Graham has reminded me of the things I love most about dance: the freedom we gain through movement, the innate ability of our mind-body connection to heal, and the importance of play and exploration in the pursuit of knowledge. 

If you’re interested in taking a Gaga class please visit jamesgrahamdancetheatre.com

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