DANCING IN THE DARK
YOGA JOURNAL, November/December, 1987, By Carolyn Shaffer
Dancer Emilie Conrad-Da’oud slipped through the crack between two worlds—and returned with Continuum, a revolutionary approach to movement and the body.
Imagine yourself walking in the dark along the rim of a deep chasm. As you search for a way to reach the opposite side, you feel the earth give way beneath your feet. Suddenly, you are sliding into the blackness. You grab for whatever you can reach—rocks, branches, weeds—but everything you clasp on either side of the narrow cleft begins to slide down with you. Panic clutches your throat. You want to claw your way up one side or the other, but you know it’s useless. Both walls are crumbling now. Finally, in an act of ultimate trust—or utter madness—you let go of all physical support and drop into the dark void.
As you fall, you sense your body changing. Instead of feeling dense with muscle and bone, heavy as a boulder, your arms, legs, and torso begin to lighten and expand. You sense the spaces between cells and molecules and the smooth flow of fluids across membranes. Air ripples like liquid through your skin. You are floating now in a vast sea. Like a sleek eel, you slither forward, then, formless as an amoeba, you spread out. Fish glide between your ribs. You use their gills to breathe. You become a fish. You swim, rest, dissolve, merge with other creatures, then reform to swim again in an ocean of love.
This is not a dream. It is a mythic telling of the true story of Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, a woman who slipped into the crack between two worlds and emerged with an insight that would change forever her view of reality—and the lives of those with whom she later worked.
The event that triggered what Conrad-Da’oud calls her “black hole” experience was her return, in 1960, to New York City after a five-year stint traveling and dancing in the West Indies. Rather than resume her promising career in New York as a professional dancer, Conrad-Da’oud chucked it all, moved to southern California, and developed Continuum, a radical approach to the body and movement that she now teaches across the country.
While Conrad-Da’oud works with a wide range of people, including many bodyworkers and movement specialists, she has taken on a number of clients over the years who, to all appearances, cannot move. These are women and men paralyzed by spinal injury, stroke, or polio. The results of Conrad-Da’oud’s work with them have been transformations in their bodies that medical doctors can only label miraculous.
Once in the islands, Conrad-Da’oud immersed herself in their rhythms. She swayed to a West Indian beat morning, noon, and night. Eventually she formed and directed a dance company in Haiti. But she knew she was not meant to stay there. After five years of imbibing a culture quite different from her own, Conrad-Da’oud sensed it was time to return to the United States and the challenges it held for her.
Once she was back in New York, however, the dissonance between the liquid, organic rhythms of Haiti and the frantic, manufactured pace of Manhattan grew to such a pitch that Conrad-Da’oud thought she would go mad. She dipped in and out of what industrial culture labels reality as she sought, at a deep psychic level, to make sense of what she was experiencing. In the midst of her inner chaos, Conrad-Da’oud began to realize that what we call our body is, to a large extent, a cultural construction. The disparity between how New Yorkers and people in the West Indies move and view their bodies convinced her that each culture “imposes on its members a definition of the human form.” Beneath this construct, Conrad-Da’oud sensed only movement.
“We do not move. We are movement,” Conrad-Da’oud tells her students over and over again. This is the insight that she brought back form her inner journey to the underworld. She speaks of it confidently today and helps others discover it by experiencing the wisdom of their bodies for themselves. But reaching this place of deep knowing and assured teaching was not easy.
She did. The result is Continuum, an approach to the body based on intrinsic felt movement rather than imposed, patterned movement. The secret of this work is trust: trust in our body and in the deep wisdom of our cells. This trust opens us to love, which Conrad-Da’oud believes is the healer and the miracle-worker. Love, she claims, is as natural to us as breathing. It is the ocean in which we swim. It penetrates every cell and molecule in our body. According to Conrad-Da’oud, we are the ocean. We are fluid.
One person Conrad-Da’oud chose to work with using these insights was an 18-year-old woman named Susan, who had been partially paralyzed by polio since age one. Conrad-Da’oud didn’t know at the time that the medical establishment considers such paralysis irreversible. Polio, the experts explain, causes the muscles and nerves to degenerate. For years, doctors had told Susan she would never recover movement in her left leg. Within four years of working with Conrad-Da’oud, Susan had regenerated more than 90 percent of the muscle in this leg. A film made of one of their sessions shows Susan lying on her stomach, bending her left leg and raising her foot in an arc until it touches her buttock. In medical terms, this is an impossibility.
Conrad-Da’oud had no plan for working with Susan. She simply sat next to her and put a hand on Susan’s polio-afflicted leg. “I didn’t know what to do,” Conrad-Da’oud admits, “and I had seen healers work by laying on of hands.” She sat like this with Susan for hours at a stretch, giving no instructions, not even guiding Susan in visualizations. At first, Susan felt only heat. Then one day the leg began to shudder. “It was as if it were saying ‘hello’ to my hand,” says Conrad-Da’oud. “We were communicating.” After four years of weekly four-hour sessions, Susan could move in ways more subtle and finely articulated than most so-called normally abled person, although she couldn’t perform all the functions associated with movement.
For Conrad-Da’oud this healing was no more miraculous than human love. A deep bond had developed between her and Susan as they sat together. As Conrad-Da’oud understands love and the human body, this meant that their cells began to resonate or communicate with each other. In a sense, Conrad-Da’oud’s healthy cells woke up Susan’s afflicted ones and reminded them of their own capacity for movement. Conrad-Da’oud claims she did not use her mind to direct the cells to do this. She simply developed a bond of empathy with Susan and let the cells, with their innate biological wisdom, do the rest.
We are always moving, explains Conrad-Da’oud, even those of us who appear paralyzed, but the movement is at a level deeper than eternal appearances. She distinguishes between felt movement and externally visible movement. Paralyzed people can feel movement inside their bodies, but because our culture does not value this kind of movement, they think they cannot move. Conrad-Da’oud helped Susan get in touch with the movement within her atrophied leg. The inner movement surfaced and rippled across the skin and eventually enabled Susan to lift her leg.
Conrad-Da’oud no longer works with clients the way she did with Susan. “With Susan, I was the one in charge of the healing,” she explains. “The responsibility was all on me. Now I may collaborate with others, but I make clear that they are in charge. I don’t think I help someone—at least, not in the long run—if I act as healer and she acts as healee. This doesn’t develop the person’s sense of personal power. She remains dependent on me.” Today, Conrad-Da’oud finds out what her clients want and helps guide them toward that, but she does not direct them. “They have to be willing to participate, or I just won’t work with them,” she insists. She tells of turning down a well-known movie star because he simply wanted to be fixed.
Rather than holding her hand over a client’s paralyzed leg or back for hours, Conrad-Da’oud might ask the person to mentally go inside that part of her body, to pay attention to the sensation there, and to allow these and any movements, no matter how tiny, to arise spontaneously. She will then ask the client to do this on her own at home. The client, from the beginning, must know that she is healing herself.
Communicating at the Cellular Level
Clad in silver leotard and pale tights, she stands quite still in the center of the room, her arms loose by her sides. “For the next hour,” she explains, “I want you to move, but not with your space probes, not with your arms and legs. I want you to feel the movement in your body. Start anywhere, with your ribs or your ass.” She begins to demonstrate. Her buttocks move, almost imperceptibly at first. The movement spreads to her back. “Suddenly aliveness happens,” she continues, now in a droning voice. She shivers. Her eyes are slits. Her right shoulder begins to twitch. “Pay attention to how the movement wants to go. It takes strange pathways.” Her left leg is lifting off the floor, her right arm twisting forward. Her elbow bends, her fingers curl and twist, her torso undulates in slow waves. “I am an unpredictable thing.”
Each time I watch Conrad-Da’oud demonstrate her approach to movement, one part of me wonders whether I can ever do what she does, let movement play through me effortlessly, spontaneously, following its own inner wisdom. Another part wonders why I would ever consider such a thing. If anyone saw us moving this way, they’d think we were out of our minds.
But that’s just the point. Conrad-Da’oud is trying to get us out of our minds and into our bodies, our cells, our molecules. She wants us to go deeper than our molecules, beyond particle, boundary, form, and into the flow we always are, the boundless ocean of love.
For centuries, those seeking higher consciousness—whether they termed it enlightenment, mystical union, or nirvana—have tried to escape the body with its material, earthward pull. They have posited spirit and body as opposites, like light and dark. By associating spirit with light and the divine, they have relegated the body to darkness and the demonic. Now this woman comes along and tells us that we can merge with the boundless ocean of love—what many would label the ultimate mystical or spiritual experience—by diving deeply into our bodies. In terms of conventional spirituality, this sounds downright perverse, if not heretical.
For Conrad-Da’oud, conventional spirituality is the perversion because it divides the flow of life into compartments, labeling one good or higher and the other bad or lower. Conrad-Da’oud knows the darkness is not demonic because she dipped into it and found wisdom. She is also sure the body is not evil because the wisdom she awakened to resides there.
“We are verbs, not nouns,” Conrad-Da’oud reminds her workshop participants repeatedly. The notion that we consist of solid bodies with fixed forms that move from here to there through space is a cultural construct. It’s a construct, she explains, that served us well when our main concern was physical survival, but in this era, when fighting off bears and hunting woolly mammoths are no longer our primary aims, such cultural fixations only get in the way of developing our full human potential.
Conrad-Da’oud calls this survival-oriented cultural construct our “biped mentality.” It developed, she says, because we had to stalk prey and flee predators. We separated ourselves from our environment to gain control over it. Those who were different from us we defined as enemy. This mentality can be useful in giving us a measure of control in our lives and enabling us to take care of practical needs efficiently. But when it becomes the only way we look at the world, it not only limits us as individuals but may prove our undoing as a species.
Survival now requires communication, not territoriality, says Conrad-Da’oud, and for that we need to become lovers. For her, love means movement, the dissolving of form or barriers, and movement means health.
When we deeply participate with ourselves and each other, when we commune at the cellular level as Conrad-Da’oud did with Susan, barriers melt—cultural and mental constructs, fears, fixed neurological patterns—and we sense ourselves as liquid movement, flowing in and through other streams of movement. We no longer separate our world into subject and object, mind and body, inner and outer.
Conrad-Da’oud firmly believes that when a person is moving in a biological way, that is, in tune with the deep intelligence of the body, that person is no longer ill or paralyzed. She tells of a young woman she had been working with whose doctor told her she had only a few months to live. The woman was diagnosed as having an insidious intestinal affliction known as Crohn’s disease. One day at a Continuum workshop Conrad-Da’oud noticed the woman moving in a beautifully fluid, innovative manner. How could this be? she wondered. Either the woman no longer had the disease, or Conrad-Da’oud’s theory was wrong. The next day the woman’s doctor, after examining her, reported that he could no longer find signs of her illness.
Developing Alternative Nervous Systems
To shake people out of their neural ruts, Conrad-Da’oud might ask them to make specific sounds for an hour— a “wo” sound alternating with a “sth” sound, for example—or to spend 15 minutes turning their head to the left, or moving the lowest portion of a ring finger.
If a visitor walked into one of Conrad-Da’oud’s Continuum workshops, she might find participants lying on the floor looking as if they weren’t moving a muscle. They would probably not be moving any of the muscles we’re familiar with, but engaging in what Conrad-Da’oud calls micromovements. These are fine movements that develop spontaneously, often in areas of the body with no major muscle groups. Conrad-Da’oud suggests we simply pay attention to these movements and let them spread wherever they wish according to their own intelligence. She believes our bodies—the results of billions of years of evolution—are innately intelligent and capable of much more movement than we can imagine. Just as we use only a fraction of our brain, so we move in only a fraction of the ways in which our bodies are capable. We need only let go of our mental and cultural constructs and let our bodies move spontaneously and biologically.
Conrad-Da’oud goes so far as to challenge the concept of the central nervous system. To her, this is a cultural construct that limits us. We have imposed this structure on our bodies much as we have imposed centralized, hierarchical systems on our communities and the natural world. None of these is biologically or ecologically determined. Both our human bodies and the body of the Earth can support a much broader range of possibilities.
To demonstrate this, Conrad-Da’oud helps people paralyzed by severe spinal cord damage learn to move by developing alternatives to the central nervous system. One of her films features Barbara, a 33-year-old woman paralyzed form the neck down by a spinal cord injury. Barbara not only generates micromovements in odd places on her back but also crawls on her hands and knees across the floor. In the eyes of medical specialists, such recovery is impossible. In Conrad-Da’oud’s view, it is an example of how we can develop nervous systems that parallel the central one.
The notion of a body governed by a central nervous system and a single ego matches that of a country ruled by a central government and a single leader. According to Conrad-Da’oud, both notions are part of our ancient survival mentality and only one way of perceiving reality. Both stress separation, boundaries, hierarchy, and control and cannot tolerate differences. Anything that looks or acts unusual—a wiggling movement in the upper back, a person of a different skin color—becomes a threat. To this mentality, appearance and performance are everything, and one dare not sink beneath the surface into feeling and relating to the other for fear boundaries will melt and, in communion, one will lose control.
This survival mentality, says Conrad-Da’oud, simply no longer works. If we are to avoid blowing ourselves off the face of the Earth, we must move into communication, into deep participation with ourselves and others. Such movement dissolves boundaries and needs no center. Its center is everywhere.
When we communicate in this way, we express the flexible intelligence within the body rather than impose the rigid constructs of a mind detached from body. We rejoice in difference. A new kind of movement? Wonderful! Let’s ride it and feel where it takes us. A being of another shape or color? Marvelous! Let’s meet and move together, enriching one another as we dance. In such a world, possibilities are endless. A blockage in one area calls forth new movement in another. Soon this movement awakens the blocked parts, not so much by trying as by playing. Its dance becomes contagious.
Continuum Challenges Yoga, Other Disciplines
When Jean Couch, author of The Runner’s World Yoga Book and a nationally known yoga teacher, first began working with Emilie Conrad-Da’oud in 1983, she remembers feeling both liberated and worried: liberated for the first time to move totally for herself, and worried she might never do another yoga pose.
“Now, when students move into a particular posture,” she explains, I ask them questions. Where is the tightness? What does it connect to? To a joint? Across a joint? To the bone? Does it touch the skin? If you could loosen the skin, would you affect the bone?
“I used to give students answers. ‘If you do this,’ I would say, ‘you’ll feel better here, or you’ll stretch differently there.’ Now I ask them for answers. I don’t know what will happen. They tell me.”
One of the biggest contributions Continuum can make to yoga, according to Couch, is to shift the focus from achieving results to experiencing the process. “Instead of doing poses to get somewhere,” she says, “I experience what it means to be in a pose. This experience changes all the time. There is no one correct experience.
“With most types of Hatha Yoga, the teacher is adjusting the students’ postures all the time. It is the teacher who decides what is correct and incorrect. Continuum, in contrast, provides an open field in which to play.”
“Rather than being the norm,” comments Couch, “Continuum seems to be predictive of where we are going. It gives us a taste of a future in which each one of us deeply trusts and responds to our innate wisdom. We may only experience this for five minutes in a workshop, but that can be enough to open us to fresh possibilities. It’s this kind of openness that makes evolution possible.”
Couch points out that any system of movement, like any religion, begins with a brilliant insight but loses this spirit or essence when it becomes formalized. Those most trained in a particular form risk becoming rigid and stale because they no longer respond to their own flashes of insight. Continuum offers an opportunity to break free of hardened forms and to allow something new to emerge.
Carolyn Shaffer is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, California. Her articles on spirituality and consciousness have appeared in various magazines, and she is co-author of City Safaris: A Sierra Club Explorer’s Guide to Urban Adventures for Grown-Ups and Kids (Sierra Club Books, 1987).
NEW AGE, September/October 1998 Mindbody By Gina Ogden