The Supporting Leg : In Dance, Martial Arts, And Life

We have to work through we are to reach what comes next.

It may sound like a deceptively simple thing. Thanks to gravity we need something below us to support us, to brace us up off of the ground. Whatever that entity may be, legs numbering anywhere from one to seven hundred and fifty or wheels or hovering technologies, its first job is to prop us up into some position other than lying flat on the floor. Its second job is to facilitate our movement from one location to the next.

The directions and qualities of that movement can vary to immense degrees, both due to the nature of our support apparatus as well as to the goals and intentions of our attempted movement, but the underlying principle is the same. The supporting structure interacts with the ground below us to both support us and facilitate movement from a base which is itself powerfully influenced by how we arrived at it, where we came from and how we got from there to here.

It isn’t hard to see the parallels in other aspects of our lives. Our beliefs, perceptions, values, and ideologies support our perspective on the world offering a rooted base from which to observe and ultimately navigate our lives. Our education, training, preparations, and experience provide us with a foundation for our current professional position as well as playing an essential role in any movement we make in whatever direction. The formula functions the same way on whatever level but for now let’s stick with purely physical movement.

For the vast majority of us moving about through our daily lives is not something we devote much, if any, conscious thought to. Even those of us for whom mobility is more challenging and requires more complex processes once the habits and routines of it all become ingrained those motions become automatic, reflexive, subconscious. This is not a bad thing. It is a sign we have practiced something enough for it to become ingrained in our physical long term memory, imprinted into our ‘muscle memory’ to use the term of art.

But there is a reason those who study physically intensive and methodically intricate physical disciplines move differently, carry themselves differently. And there is also a reason people who study these disciplines, even for relatively short periods of time, very often wind up speaking about developing and experiencing personal, emotional, and even spiritual explorations and revelations.

More than just the ‘runner’s high’ of pushing physical activity to a euphoric state or the rush of being in the zone wherein the rehearsal of practice of movements enables a peak performance level of efficiency freeing us to enjoy and maximize our efforts, people studying these intensive disciplines at times speak of experiencing enlightenment style discoveries and revelations about themselves and the world around them. They talk of learning more about themselves, growing or changing as people, understanding themselves more fully and of developing or reaching a greater understanding of the world and how to connect with it.

In these kinds of disciplines we have much more specific, difficult, and exacting results we are seeking from our movement than the general to and fro of ordinary life. This then requires a more thorough, detailed, and nuanced understanding of how all the relevant components interact to produce those movements in order to achieve those results.

As someone with decades of experience in both dance and martial arts I can attest to the potential for these kinds of revelatory experiences and also point to the base skill set their kind of training develops which opens the door for those experiences to occur.

Simply put, in order to have extremely detailed and nuanced facility with something we first need to have a detailed and nuanced understanding of it. And to achieve that we need to take the time to both examine it in great detail and practice with exacting precision.

Practice does not make perfect but it does make permanent. What you practice you will produce. Lazy, absent-minded, or rushed practice will produce matching results and precision alone will only achieve so much. Repetitive precision can produce reliable results of considerable quality but it is the in-depth and nuanced understanding which unlocks the gateways to greatness. And to achieve that we need to understand it not merely repeat it.

Which brings us back to the supporting leg. A core fundamental to everyday movement as well as to the somewhat magical seeming results of complex coordinated disciplines. With the same piano keys before us we can play chopsticks or Rachmaninoff, it is the degree of detail and nuance in our understanding and skills which makes all the difference.

Dance

I define dance as deliberate and rhythmical expressive movement. There are countless different styles and sub-styles of dance, some solo, some partnered, cultural, competitive. The one common element, they all involve a degree of performative expression. The tones, textures, and personalities of the different styles vary as enormously as the music they are applied to. There are forms of dance which can be done without any accompanying music but even they contain an intrinsic use of rhythmic cadence.

Under this broad umbrella, in terms of complex and coordinated rhythmically performative disciplines, I would also include the various forms of gymnastics and figure skating as they incorporate choreographic musical performance as well as full body involvement and awareness of aesthetic expression.

If we strip it all down to core fundamentals in order to move our bodies in deliberate, rhythmic, and expressive ways we need to be in control of three features of our movement. What direction? How fast? How far? All the different beats, accents, textures, tones, and expressions of our movements start from these three things.

Moving forward expresses something different than moving backwards. Moving quickly expresses something different than moving slowly. Moving only a short distance expresses something different than moving a great distance. The nuances have already begun and only grow as we start to combine them.

Moving a small distance quickly versus and great distance slowly. Slowly moving backwards versus rushing forwards. The nuances then explode further when we incorporate our relationship to something or someone else. Is that other entity still or moving? Are we moving towards each other, away from each other, is it still and we are moving, is it moving with us? A single movement can already contain intense expressive meaning but in order to generate that we need to control those foundational three elements, and our supporting leg is our means of doing so.

In Latin ballroom terms the iconic image of the dancer dragging their foot along the floor like a paintbrush as their standing leg straightens, their hips roll to the slide, and their traveling leg flexes as it draws that paintbrush foot along is generated by the dancer rooting their weight down into their supporting leg so the other foot and leg are free to move and shape.

In smooth ballroom terms what generates the long, reaching, powerful, and graceful strides which sweep the dancers from one end of the floor to the other in the seeming blink of an eye is a similar rooting into the supporting leg which in this case is flexed and ready to both stretch and propel sending the other flexed leg on to the next location where it will cushion and collect the body as it arrives.

In other forms of dance ‘sitting in the pocket’ requires a solid base beneath to stabilize any and all rhythmic body isolations. Elevating high up onto the toes requires rooted connection down into the floor as well as exacting alignment of the feet, legs, and body to balance the weight over a very specific point.

Exercise 1 (Latin leg support) : Stand with your feet about armpit width apart. Place all your weight onto your left foot while keeping your head centered between your feet and your belt buckle muscles pulled back towards your spine. Drop your left heel down as deeply into the ground as you can, this will draw your leg into a straightened position. As your left leg straightens allow your right knee to bend, this should make your hips tip and settle to the left. Think of that straight left leg as the roots of a tree and lightly lift your right foot from the floor.

If you are fully supported in your left leg your right should be free to move as it likes. You could move forward, back, or to the side. The choice of direction, speed, and size of step are all up to you. Now try the same thing on the other side, place all the weight on your right leg and try to free your left foot.

Exercise 2 (Elevating to Your Toes) : Standing with your feet about hip width apart try and rise up onto the balls of your feet and then to your toes as much as you can. For most people this leads to tipping and wobbling as balance pitches forward and back.

Rather than trying to rise up away from your support think of pushing the floor down away from you with the balls of your feet. Instead of focusing on rising up use the balls of your feet, your ankles, and your calves to push the floor down and away. The floor won’t move, you will. You will wind up rising up into your feet but your body won’t feel as high up or as wobbly because you are using the support instead of moving away from it.

Martial Arts

As with styles of dance there are also countless of different styles and sub-styles of martial arts. Some are striking arts focused on punching and kicking, some are grappling arts, some incorporate weapons, some are blunt and brutally practical, some are more artful and stylistic. All martial styles can have a dancelike quality to them thanks to the use of prescribed movements, set sequences and forms used for practice, and the co-operative give and take of training with other practitioners.

Some styles and schools can fall into a much more dancelike methodology especially in our current day and age where our ability to defend ourselves from roving bandits is no longer a typical daily concern.

All forms of current martial arts were developed either as upper class military training or as methods of unarmed defense for peasants against bandits, marauders, and invaders. The vast majority of the techniques and knowledge were passed down orally and through set training forms and sequences all of which were closely guarded secrets passed only within families or communities to maintain a level of advantage over potential outside enemies.

The style I received my first black belt in originated in a specific farming town in Okinawa called Naha and was called Naha Te, or ‘Naha Fist’. As the culture and levels of prosperity of Okinawa changed and grew Naha Te evolved into a more widely practiced form now known as Goju Ryu Karate Doh, or ‘The Hard-Soft Style of the Open or Empty-Handed Way’.

Whatever the style, and whatever genre of techniques it focuses on, in order to properly execute those techniques while remaining ready and without leaving yourself vulnerable to counter techniques requires a solid and rooted support beneath you. Throwing a kick or punch without a stable root not only saps the strength from your strike it leaves you off balance and vulnerable to counter attack. Trying to grapple with or throw an opponent without being rooted yourself will most likely result in a failed attempt on your behalf and quite possibly a successful one from your opponent.

Exercise 1 (Throw a Kick) : Stand with your feet slightly apart and your knees slightly flexed. Trying kicking up in front of you as high as you comfortably can by swinging your leg all in one like a pendulum. Assuming you didn’t fall over you most likely felt as if you might have and your leg will have felt heavy and slow to lift.

Now, keeping the knee flexed root all your weight in one leg. Try to feel your weight settle through the bottom of your foot down into the floor and beyond. Using your tummy muscles draw the knee of your other leg up towards your chest leaving your foot tucked loosely in. Then once you have your knee up flick your foot out in front, draw it back in, then lower your knee and place your foot back on the floor. More balanced, more rooted, light, and faster.

Exercise 2 (Tai Chi) : Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and your knees nice and flexed. Place all your weight on your left leg then quickly shift it over to your right leg. Depending on how quickly you do this you will feel increasingly off balance.

Now make the shift from left leg to right leg as slowly as you can. Try to feel your weight travelling below the ground rather than above it. Keep both knees nice and flexed and try to move as slowly as the muscles in your legs will allow. You should be able to stop and restart whenever you like without any feelings of wobbliness.

Working through the support provides stability and the slow sustained movement works the muscles. A good and slow Tai Chi form can have you soaked with sweat and muscles burning more than ten laps around the block.

Normal Life

We don’t often need that level of deliberate articulation on our day-to-day lives but no skill or habit ever exists in a vacuum. Any capacity we develop in one are of our lives will influence and interact with all aspects of our interactions with the world, some directly others almost subliminally.

When it comes to physical rooting and support we are actually advised to focus on properly using support all the time. Lift with the legs, sit up straight in our chairs, stand tall in our posture. There are certain aesthetic considerations in terms of the presence and persona these things project but at a very practical level they aren’t just to avoid back pain, though they do certainly do so.

Properly aligning the body engages the most effective and efficient supports to make us as stable as possible and to burn as little energy as possible while doing it.

Exercise 1 (Posture) : My personal quick fix for posture is to let your collar bones float to the surface. Don’t push them upwards or outwards, don’t clench or strain. Imagine your torso is a body of water and just let your collar bones float to the surface. You will feel your neck elongate, your shoulders will relax and lower, your lungs will open up. This will work whether you are sitting, standing, walking, dancing… Good posture should be aligned but not tense or clenched.

Exercise 2 (Walking) : Stand with your feet slightly apart and your knees slightly flexed. Place all your weight on one leg keeping your knees flexed and your head centered between your feet. Swing your non-weighted leg slightly forward and back, nothing grand or requiring any power just a gentle pendulum swing.

When you reach the point in the swing where the foot is about to stop and start swinging back send your weigh down through your supporting leg and then forwards toward the swung foot. Imagine your weight traveling below the ground to get there. Most of us simply think of the stepping foot when we walk, if we think of any part of the process at all. Giving the supporting leg the driver’s seat increases control and stability.

Any skills, habits, and perspectives we develop never exist in a solitary vacuum. Once we have developed them they become a part of us and thereby a tool our bodies and minds have access to at any time we might feel we could use them. Consistent study of exacting and intricate physical disciplines not only brings the physical capabilities but also the capacity for diagnosis and understanding.

Which is where all the proclamations of learning more about themselves and the world come from as again, it isn’t hard to see the parallels between basic movement and other aspects of our lives.

This kind of training develops the capacity to examine and understand where we currently are, to factor in where we have come from and how the movement from there to here may have affected our experience of our current state of support. To not only make conscious and deliberate choices about where we wish to go next but to also make conscious and deliberate preparations before we move.

We can then apply these skills to gaining more masterful control and understanding of our perspectives on the world around us, our ideologies, our approaches to social and cultural events and entities, our habits and perceptions around relationships.

In order to get to ‘next’ we have to go through where we currently are. The most effective and efficient way to get where we want to go is to have a solid and stable understanding of where we are which requires a thorough understanding of where we were and how we got from there to here. We can go through life driving the car or strapped to the hood. The choice and the work to develop the skills is ours.

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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