The Legacy of Barbara Mettler:  The Making of a Kinesthetic Community, was published in the Contact Quarterly: A Vehicle for Moving Ideas, Vol. 23 #2, Summer/Fall 1998 and was also published by SIRS Mandarin, Inc. electronic database and CD-Rom and in the International Association for Creative Dance Newsletter 1999. This article has been added to the Mettler Archives located at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.

The Legacy of Barbara Mettler: The Making of a Kinesthetic Community
by Joanna Cashman MFA

Barbara Mettler is 91 years of age. She lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona. For six decades she has generously shared her approach to creative dance improvisation with people of all ages, abilities and disabilities. She knows that expressive body movement is a basic human need. Her company has performed group dance improvisation throughout the United States and she has taught on four continents. To many of her students she is the high priestess of the kinesthetic sense. She has nurtured the nerve endings of many into a highly fulfilling state of kinesthetic wakefulness and guided innate creative instincts into mature artistic expression. In her workshops lifetime friendships and transformative insights are commonly ignited.

Barbara has often referred to herself as "a daughter of Isadora Duncan" but her most significant teacher was the great artist of German Expressionism Mary Wigman. When traveling in Europe, for journalistic reasons, Mettler chanced upon the Wigman school in Dresden, and despite her lack of prior dance training, she belonged there. The social-intellectual-artistic climate of Germany in the late 20's and early 30's sought to make art a more direct expression of human life and less a banner of the pretentious out-dated tastes of the upper classes. Art was growing organically from the true experience of the people until the Nazis rose to power and crushed this flowering of popular creativity. Mettler enthusiastically embraced this aesthetic philosophy. and after studying in Dresden for three years, Mettler, an American, was required to leave Germany.

Back in the United States she devoted herself to creating the practice and theory of pure creative dance in New York City, Boston and New Hampshire before coming to Tucson, Arizona in 1960, where she established the Tucson Creative Dance Center. The building design resembles a circular space ship settled quietly in the desert landscape. The dance studio is round and dances are performed in the round with the audience circling the space on the cushioned high steps that enclose it. The austere architecture of this studio has served as a kind of holy ground for those who have returned time and again to study with this wise woman of the dance.

Griff Goehring, a former company member, tells of her most recent pilgrimage back to Tucson. "The last time I was in the Tucson Creative Dance Center (winter 1995) there were 12 experienced dancers there to work with Barbara in the mornings and independently in the afternoons. The depth of the work astounded me. At that time it became evident that the Tucson Creative Dance Center was not going to be available to us indefinitely. I said aloud to the group, what was clearly a collective unspoken impulse: ‘We need to do this for ourselves. We need to find a way to come together and dance in different parts of the country.’ I even went so far as to say I would call Hampshire College to see if there was a time we could use Hampshire facilities. That innocent offer led to me holding the whole ball of wax. Which is what sometimes happens in a group improvisation: if you initiate a totally new theme, you might have to carry it alone until the group understands it and picks it up. And even then you have to lead it for awhile. But clearly the time for this was ripe."

Thus was born the first annual Creative Dance Congress which took place June 16 -22, 1996, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thirty people from all across the United States and Canada came to celebrate and enjoy this body of work. The Congress offered classes, performances, group dances, socializing and networking. The newly incorporated International Association for Creative Dance met, and everyone was invited to participate in the Newsletter for People in the Field of Creative Dance. Our discussions both honored and questioned certain popular and unpopular principles of this work. I sensed a refreshing willingness to push contrived boundaries and experiment with new options. The faculty included Mary Ann Brehm, Merlyn Cajolet, Joanna Cashman, Debbie Cutrer, Emily Day, Griff Goehring, Nancy Lob, Peggy Schwartz, Margo Taylor, Doug Victor and Harriet Yastremski.

The organizers of this 7 day event (Griff, Nancy, Doug) responded to a need that was articulated in 1991 when Grace Levin, a much loved Tucsonan creative dancer, identified the importance of starting a networking newsletter and a creative dance organization independent of the Mettler Studio's. Sadly her life was abruptly ended in a bicycle accident before she could complete what she had started. Her presence was strongly felt at the first congress and moved like a delicate giggle throughout the week as we shared "Grace Stories" to honor her and acknowledge our own sense of loss. She was the Einstein of friendship. Her playful, loving, prolifically creative nature drew many of us together in a kinesthetic community of the heart. The success of this and subsequent gatherings can also be attributed to the fact that Mettler's work has characteristics that are hard to come by in the traditional dance world, and once you get a taste of them you want more.

So when I asked Doug Victor what inspired him to co-organize the event he responded that his motivation "comes from the very strong feelings I have about this body of work that Barbara Mettler has brought to life. Barbara has always been a model for me in that she had found for herself something so compelling about creative dance that she decided to dedicate her life to its nurturance and find ways to share her understandings with so many people. The clarity of the language she uses to describe the work and her 'famous' teaching progressions all revolutionized the way I thought about my own teaching and my own life." He made his initial discovery of creative movement "at a very two-left-footed age of 28. At that point in my life I stepped into myself in a way I had never known. I stepped into a community of incredibly talented, creative and open people that began to nurture me in ways that stretched beyond my own known dreams for myself. It was transformative to my living, pivotal to my own development as an adult and continues to be so to this day. Creative dance has become an integral part of my living expression. I teach, I counsel, I apply the principles to my everyday living, I organize, I produce a newsletter and I dance. It's all one, a part of the same flow, the same river in which there is dance that is for the good of the people and that is good for the city." His story is not unique. The need that this work fills is so basic and accessible that many have been deeply impacted by it.

What is it about Mettler based creative dance improvisation that touches people so profoundly? Part of the appeal is that it is accessible and non-elitist. Mettler's approach to improvisation is based on sensory awareness: a heightening of the kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses. It is a somatically based path to creating inventive movement forms. Technical virtuosity is not the goal; the dance is performed for the sake of itself and the dancer, not for the benefit of the spectator. It is a way of moving from the inside out prompted by noticing and responding to the sensations of nerve endings as they speak through skin, muscle, joint, tendon, ligament, and inner ear. We respond to pressures sensed from the skin inward and from the viscera and connective tissue outward. Mettler encourages her students to move organically-allowing each movement impulse to deepen and fulfill itself before giving rise to the next. This way of seeing a movement theme through is fostered in solo, small and large group dances. She makes reference to "the creative pause" and explains: "All natural movement is characterized by a continuous flow of impulses, one growing out of another, each distinct and yet continuous with the preceding and following one. At the end of each impulse, before the beginning of the next one, there is a pause during which the seed of the new impulse is sown. This pause may be so slight that it is imperceptible, as it is in most of our daily life movements. Or it may be elongated. An example of a prolonged pause is the breathing movement of a thoroughly relaxed person in deep sleep: after each expiration before the new inspiration, the pause is astonishingly long. Use of this natural pause as a creative element of movement enables us to create organic dance form." Mettler often refers to the body as the instrument of dance and to movement as the materials of dance. She attunes us to our instruments first. Once we are grounded in a more kinesthetic sense of ourselves we can then begin exploring the materials of dance through studies in time, force, and space. From here a multitude of movement qualities become available to us. This crafting of movement material can evoke personal and collective mythologies as improvised movement metaphors unfold.

One of my favorite studies focuses on sensing breathe supported movement impulses. She would instruct us to wait for an impulse to move and make one simple movement that fulfilled the impulse. An impulse can be as limited as the twist of a wrist or as extended as a run across the floor. Whatever the nature of the impulse, it was felt as a single release of energy, a unified whole from beginning to end. Then she would direct our awareness to the breathe instructing us to put our whole self into the movement, letting it arise from an inner impulse into outward expression with the support of an exhale. Exhaling movement impulses progressed to sounding. Inhaling naturally took care of itself as impulse/movement/sound drew us through space in a flurry of creative sound and dance. This study evolved to the work of discerning the presence of minor impulses occurring within the major impulse wave. We moved towards composition as we began to repeat one movement adding a variety of minor impulses which would change the character of the movement by altering force, time and space patterns.

Mettler's most unique contribution to the field of dance may be her expertise in getting large groups of movers to create satisfying dances together. She has a legendary ability to teach groups of people to create cohesive deeply felt group dance improvisations. This is one of the many skills needed for ensemble improvisation that Mettler is genius at teaching. Her book Materials of Dance as a Creative Art Activity is a bible to many. Her pedagogy of improvisational skills teach us to avoid the scattered, superficial stuttering of half baked movement themes that often emerge, fragmented and disjointed, exciting in moments but seldom reaching their full potential for depth and development. Coherent, organic, collective development of group unison themes is central to her craft. She directs us to avoid the pitfalls of hyper-active individualism and encourages us to unify the group body and dance with one mind. It is rare for the individuality of movers to quiet down long enough to sensitively listen to the voice of the group body unless this sensibility is cultivated.

When I was a member of her company we danced six hours a day, six days a week for several months learning the art and craft of group dance improvisation in preparation for a performance tour. The art of improvisation is not something to be thrown together at the last minute as is often the case. We serve the form best when significant practice of the discipline precedes performance. The company consisted of twenty-six people with diverse backgrounds who were given the task of dancing together for an uninterrupted hour and a half with no exits and entrances, no choreography, no pre-determined structure or movement themes, no music, no lighting, no sets, no costumes to speak of and no proscenium arch. Nothing but pure creative movement in the round, essence of dance. We danced from the inside out as there was nothing external for us to hang on to. It was a very unusual opportunity to learn and grow as artist and person. Paradoxically, the narrowing of focus that sometimes seemed to limit our options allowed for the deepening of other skills. Our sense of connection with each other became almost palpable. A striking example of the group mind link- up occurred during a performance at the Apache Reservation in Northern Arizona. All twenty-six of us were engaged in a rhythmic, percussive movement theme with a regular unison pulse. The theme had gone on for long enough and we were all trying to sense a way out and onward to the next theme. The usual path out might have been to gradually vary some aspect of the time-force-space elements, thus transforming the material organically in a new direction, or perhaps one dancer might take the lead and introduce a new theme. However to the surprise of all, twenty-six improvisers stopped and held a still silent shape at the same instant. Waves of goose flesh and a few subtle gasps ran through the company as we realized what we had just done. We had all simultaneously led and followed the dance into that sudden shared stillness. It was a sacred moment of chance for performers and spectators alike.

These experiences were very enriching and during my time with the company my kinesthetic sense woke up. I found the native language of my own body emerging from within, pushing past bio-energetic armoring. I learned to ride the waves of group movement themes as they arose from the collectively felt kinesthetic sense and to develop those themes with a sense of craftsmanship. One of my favorite studies for developing group sensitivity is a simple study in unison movement. The group forms a circle. The entire group makes the same movement at the same time, with one member leading slowly. The dance continues with the leadership role passing from one member to another in succession around the circle. The study progresses to unison movement with leadership changing improvisationally and the group form changing out of the circle and into whatever forms evolve in the course of the dance. Ultimately the whole group is improvising in unison without a leader.

The work required patience, trust in the creative pause, and respect for the creative process. I felt fully alive and engaged in a way that compelled me to re-structure my life plan around the study of dance. However, my inquiry into this work has not been without inner conflict. I often resisted this process as the principles collided with my much valued sense of autonomy and individuation. I was reluctant to relinquish control and struggled to reconcile the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. Too much surrender seemed to dull my responses and restrict my spontaneity. Sometimes I felt imprisoned in a group theme that I couldn't relate to but, rather felt obligated to reproduce like a kinetic Xerox machine. Sometimes I would get bored and distracted by my own introspection, wondering how to get out of what felt like a sinking Titanic of a movement cliché. "Oh, no-not this again," I'd think as I would find myself caught up in certain themes that tended to re-cur like the jiggling clump or the crawling floor slappers. My non-conformist, hyper-active imagination and urge to choreograph often interfered with my ability to be fully present for a group dance that emphasized unity throughout. Intensifying the challenge was an awareness that my evolving personal philosophy of dance as it relates to freedom of expression and human potential differed somewhat from Barbara's. Her work provided me with a foundation in pure movement from which I reached towards my preference for eclectic and multi-modal dance theater with psycho/social/political content. Yet I was continually intrigued by her encouragement to find the places in-between. Find the places in between following and leading, the places in between contributing and holding back and the places in between will and surrender. I realized that these continuums were reflective of the challenges of inter-personal relationships. How do I contribute to a relationship with out dominating. I came to believe that every relationship is indeed its own dance and dance improvisation is a metaphor for life.

Immersion in this artistic process inevitably triggers personal growth. Grigg Goehring, also a former company member, discovered that "For me, the opportunity to take creative risks within the structure of studies and problem-solving provided the safety to develop as an artist. As a result my life changed and evolved dramatically. That which I learned on the dance floor often served as a metaphor for my life. For example, Barbara once said, 'Eventually you will learn to be active and passive simultaneously, so that when the dance requires you to lead you will step forward without thought.' This seems parallel to what many of us strive to achieve through mindful living, Zen, authentic movement, and so on. Crossing barriers and developing the awareness that leads to satisfying art experiences allows healing and inner change to occur as naturally as breathing. What I had found was a way to use my kinesthetic intelligence in communicative expression. For me this has always been at the core of Mettler-based work: a strongly developed kinesthetic sense that promotes individual expression and that allows group development of movement themes. It was through this work that I came to recognize that I have always been keyed to the world through my movement sense. Prior to my exposure to this material I simply had no means to explain my perceptions either to myself or others."

At the first Creative Dance Congress I noticed that when my commitment to the group process would waiver I would take a deep breath and reach deeper towards the underground river within the dance. Letting go into the creative pause allowed me to tap into the collectively felt kinesthetic stream of consciousness. A trap door would open and I would fall through the rabbit hole into a unison movement theme that felt nothing less than sacred, confirming that, yes, I am a part of something much larger than myself. Over time, it has gotten easier to be part of the group. After all I can always choreograph my own dances when my individuated ego needs to say something specific or needs to experience movement in a more authentically personal way. I find I need both options.

I can't claim to have ferreted out any pat answers that simplify the complex process of Mettler-based group dance improvisation. I have, however, made a few interesting discoveries along the way. Each group dance is a new territory with new chemistry. A patient creative pause is like a prayer spoken on a faith walk. It is possible to create a dance together that has a democratic, kinesthetic logic without being predictable. Group improvisation is an elusive process that demands a fusing of disparate personal and artistic elements. Creative movement is medicine for the body and food for the soul. When we dive into this alchemical pool with active imaginations we can fill a deep human hunger to bond and co-create.

In closing I would like to quote Doug Victor, co-founder of the International Association for Creative Dance: "there is something so intrinsic about creative dance that allows us to hold the entirety of our own human experience, both individual and as part of the human collective. It fosters connection, inclusion and ownership through a primary form of creative expression that is central to our being and becoming, and that embraces life in its ordinariness as well as its mysteries."

For information regarding classes and workshops at the Tucson Creative Dance Center contact TCDC 3131 North Cherry Ave., Tucson, Arizona 85719 Tel (602) 327-7453. Please contact the International Association for Creative Dance at 103 Princeton Ave., Providence, RI 02907 or phone (401) 521-0546 or e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it for information regarding this body of work, or to obtain the name of someone in your area who is teaching Mettler-based creative dance.

To contact the author:
Joanna Cashman /Wild Grace Arts
P.O. Box 293, Olympia, WA. 98507
Tel (360) 754-3983
www.wildgracearts.com  or www.joannacashman.com