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Beyond the devastation of the illness itself, the coronavirus has disrupted routines that previously kept us healthy and sane. It turns out that isolation, ubiquitous uncertainty, and sadness exacerbate everyday maladies—backaches, migraines, stiff limbs—and that taking care of our own bodies proves difficult while we’re watching the world fall apart. I wasn’t that interested in celebrity fitness fads before Los Angeles County temporarily prohibited hiking, around the same time freelance work began to dry up. And while it is uncomfortable to be seduced by a trend, to watch yourself pulled in hook, line, and sinker, I—like so many—began auditioning different, virtually-available exercise methods with an alarming urgency.
The most hyped methods are often named after their founders, and court cult-leader status almost blatantly: chipper but zealous Body By Simone; less-chipper, more-zealous Tracy Anderson Method; though The Class by Taryn Toomey (the one that ultimately got me) dropped Toomey’s name from the official branding in January 2021.1 The Class is highly aestheticized and impressively produced. In their headshots, the teachers wear white, gray, or beige, and hover mid-air, mid-motion, or with hands on or near their hearts (the workouts involve much jumping and heart holding, always performed elegantly by lithe onscreen bodies). The photos appear to have been taken in big-windowed lofts, awash in intense afternoon sunlight. The instructors glow in a sexily monastic way.
During the virtual classes, the sound quality is immaculate—the soundtrack ranging from Rihanna to Sylvan Esso—and the instructors move along to the beat alone, in nearly bare rooms, with just a neutral colored mat on the floor and a large white candle positioned near the mat’s crown. The instructors typically dress to match the room, usually in neutral, well-fitted workout wear, the pristine optics contrasting with the makeshift quality of my own space (a rug kicked clumsily out of the way, mat angled between dresser and hastily-made bed). They share choice platitudes about digging deeper into yourself, periodically inviting students to make guttural noises as a kind of release. A New Yorker article pegged to the 2017 grand opening of The Class’ Tribeca studio was cheekily titled “Taryn Toomey Will Make You Scream.”
Something about this combination of the minimal, controlled aesthetic, the pop-and-indie soundtracks, and the self-realization bromides tricks me into doing an hour of mixed cardio almost daily. I’ve become strangely grateful to this limber group of instructors, who are often the only people, beyond my partner, who speak to me during the day—encouraging me, and an unknown number of others, to move when we are mostly stationary and solitary. I have come to rely on them, and start to understand the unnerving way in which fitness becomes something spiritual.2 (After taking a class with Toomey at a conference, Business Insider columnist Adam Lashinsky called the experience “part Fight Club part religious [experience].”)3 Separation from other bodies and an increasing need to escape my anxious thoughts made me susceptible to The Class, with its calculated balance between free expression and controlled movement. But the way its strikingly well-crafted vibe so fully infiltrated my life got me thinking about the space that pandemic-living opens up for different aesthetic experiences—and eventually pushed me to seek out artists who use movement and participation as their mediums, treating movement as more of a tool for excavation than as a product.
A few months after I started doing The Class, I joined the Facebook group in search of a playlist a Class instructor promised to post. On Facebook, I encountered mostly-female-identified The Class aficionados asking each other questions about footwear, diet, and their postnatal pelvic floors, some offering tips for participating when unable to move fully, or at all. Discussion threads were filled with so much more desire for validation and community than any fitness regimen could meet, no matter how spiritualized or holistic. One woman wished classes were more intellectually stimulating; another that instructors would talk less so she could lose herself in the experience more. A thread about how other workouts were cribbing The Class’ methodologies reminded me how central appropriation is to popular workout culture. Barre spinoffs proliferate, and Simone De La Rue started Body By Simone after working for fitness guru Tracy Anderson; Anderson’s repetition-heavy moves crossover to The Class too, as do some Kundalini yoga methods, which Toomey has said was unintentional.4 Even the language used by fitness gurus conjures somatic theory and the process- and feeling-oriented vocabulary of forms like the intuitive, expressive Authentic Movement. Tracy Anderson recently called working out “a miraculous and magical time to process,”5 while Taryn Toomey told Gwyneth Paltrow that The Class is “a practice where we are using intensity in the physical body to acknowledge when you are in thought, when you are thinking, and when you are in your body.”6 Yet, by never explicitly tracing where such language comes from, they make their methodologies feel blissfully self-contained and uncomplicated, ensuring that each new spinoff can peddle itself as innovative. Exclusivity sells, even though mind-body-earth connections are ancient forms of knowledge (which Western trendsetters have spent the last century “rediscovering”). Nothing is as ahistorical or apolitical as it might seem when a beautifully toned human on your laptop screen is exhorting you to “stay in your body and breathe” while doing endless leg lifts.
Unsurprisingly, artists, dancers, and performers whose interest in the somatic is grounded in research and experiment—and perhaps too idiosyncratic to ever quite trend—tend to give history and legacy deliberate, unhurried space in their work. In the past, I periodically attended movement workshops run by artists or dancers, but it only occurred to me to attend virtual movement workshops when I noticed one on a list of upcoming local art events, and wondered if these more studied, less goal-oriented formats would offer a chance to feel physically connected with myself and others outside of the conforming aesthetic of workout culture. Movement, more so than other mediums, has a long history of using the participatory, collaborative workshop format. Artists like Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Pauline Oliveros7 made participation central to their work and have influenced younger artists like Marbles Jumbo Radio, Hana van der Kolk, Elana Mann, and Emily Mast, many of whom I have moved with over the years.
I often came away from these experiences just happy to have overcome my own social anxiety for a little while, although that sometimes proved challenging. I remember one 2016 workshop with Forti during which I did a series of exercises beside a man in his early 20s, who kept correcting me—albeit sincerely—and these corrections still dominate my memories of the experience; at a 2014 event with van der Kolk, I remember nervously adjusting my skirt as I rolled around the floor. Now, in the era of endless Zooms, I can just turn off my device’s video if I feel self-conscious while trying to transform myself into a pebble (as in a recent workshop with artist Marbles Jumbo Radio organized by Pieter Performance Space in Los Angeles) or crawl around my room (as during a BodyMind Dancing workshop with somatic movement therapist Martha Eddy). While it was the toll of isolation that led me to these workshops in the first place, the opportunity to make myself temporarily, virtually invisible while still participating allowed me to more fully engage in the uncertainty and communal messiness of these experiences. From home, embracing movement in this way felt useful—kind of like journaling before breakfast—a way of prioritizing a certain scriptlessness that starkly contrasted with The Class’ predictable moves and energy.
Typically, Movement Research, a dance and movement laboratory, hosts MELT workshops each summer and winter in person in New York City, but the pandemic forced programming online, making it accessible to those of us located elsewhere. Early on in her MELT class, which she titled Home Launch, artist, disability culture activist, and scholar Petra Kuppers asked us to make a “nest” as a launch pad for the dream journeys, trances, and intuitive collaborative dances we’d undertake throughout our time together—a week of one-hour-a-day meetings. My nest was a yoga mat on a carpet, but others appeared to curl up on beds or couches. Kuppers has a calm, comfortable moderating style, the result of years of practice. The Olimpias, the performance group she cofounded in Wales in 1996, often invites the public into their performances (“there isn’t really an audience position,” Kuppers has said of The Olimpias’ actions; “you kind of step into it and you do it”8). The group calls itself a “disability performance artist collective”—Kuppers dances from a wheelchair—and creates workshops and opportunities for those with cognitive, physical, or emotional differences to move together. In leading Home Launch, Kuppers made no assumptions about what a body could or should be able to do, an approach that invited all of us in attendance to similarly toss off expectations of ourselves and others. She also made sure to let us know that she had borrowed certain exercises and terms from others—friends, past collaborators, and influences, including performer and choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones and scholar Donna J. Haraway. Such acknowledgment grounded our time together in something bigger, communal, and complex; threads of connection ran off-screen, beyond the virtual space we temporarily shared, weaving an amorphous web pregnant with information that we, the participants, could plot our way through at our own speed.
In fact, much movement work is defined by the absence of set, pre-orchestrated outcome. Former members of the Judson Dance Theater, some of whom went on to found Movement Research in 1978, were united by an interest in process over product, and by a distaste for hierarchy—which led them to privilege workshopping as a method for choreographing and collaborating. Multiple participants, including Simone Forti, Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton, had studied and then rejected tenets of modern dance—Halprin disapproved of the way “a choreographer takes an authoritarian position,”9 while Forti disliked how icons like Martha Graham dictated how performers’ bodies should look (“I would not hold my stomach in,” Forti wrote after studying at the Graham School10). They instead embraced a kind of anti-performative spontaneity that can leave participants feeling unsure of what they’ve just experienced. When Halprin, then in her late 80s, taught a seven-hour-long workshop at Judson Memorial Church in 2010, critic Claudia La Rocco described participants as awed by Halprin’s energy, yet disappointed by how unsophisticated the improvised activities felt. Near the end, dancer/writer Wendy Perron asked if the question posed at the start of the workshop—“Does dance make a difference?”—had been answered. “Well, that’s up to you,” Halprin responded. She wasn’t there to tell the group what to think, just to share exercises and strategies.11
I have found it helpful over the years to think of art as something that is for rather than about life, a tool for living, though not in a self-improvement way. While highly-stylized self-care products have to provide feel good solutions, however short-lived, art needn’t improve anything in any quantifiable way. Instead, art can help to pick aspects of life apart, or make us feel differently. This can be hard to remember at times, given its status as a constructed, exclusive commercial object—though easier to conjure while lying on the floor in your own living room with your eyes closed. During one of the dream journeys Kuppers led, she invited us to imagine our blood flowing. Imaginary blood didn’t have to be red, she pointed out, and I imagined my blood the exact color of my nearby yellowish-gold couch, picturing liquid pumping through its worn cushions, and delighted at how in touch I felt with my home, in an irreverent, unstructured sort of way. More delightful still was the fact that others had also sought out this amorphous, weird kind of togetherness—here we all were, “in our bodies,” and in our nests, mostly just to explore what it meant to be here.
Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 23.