An interview with Esther Gokhale
Certain implications for classical dance of her work on the spine
26 July 2014
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Born in India and now residing at Palo Alto (California), Esther Gokhale has created a considerable stir amongst spine specialists in the United States. Her book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, (Pendo Press, 2008) has recently been translated into a number of languages including German in 2013 and now Italian. Her radically non-surgical, posture-based approach, which has come to be endorsed by many of America’s leading academics and scientists whom her work has freed from crippling back pain, is based on a study of what she calls “Primal Posture”, how earlier civilisations lived, worked and played without injury into old age. Miss Gokhale was interviewed by the Société Auguste Vestris at Bonn, on July 17th 2014.
Q/ The general – though not universal - view in the classical dance world, is that the turnout is “unnatural”, “bad for you”, and that the dancer torments himself into the five turned-out positions for purely aesthetic reasons.
However, the turnout comes from India, and is over four thousand years old. It was developed for expressive purposes, to free the body above the hips by providing it with a firm hold on the ground.
What are your views?
Esther Gokhale: Every baby turns out. Their knees touch the floor when sitting. Babies have a lot of turnout! But here in the West, as we grow older, we don’t keep it, due to our furniture, the type of latrines we use and so forth. We lose turnout! During the formative phase, a lot of the joints go from being cartilage to bone. And once that’s happened, you don’t get to “edit” the system! Although it’s natural to have full turnout, you have to work with the loss.
Even for sitting on the floor, the turnout gives you a stable base!
Generally, it gives us more options for both static and dynamic positions, notably by helping the glutes – particularly the gluteus medius - to a position of greater mechanical advantage. Turnout is a great help to all athletic endeavours, including softer landings, thanks to the advantaged glutes. It also helps the knees, ankles and feet.
Sometimes the feet will try to make turnout in the femur happen by exaggeratedly pointing outwards. It’s best for turnout to originate higher up the chain of joints.
If properly taught, the turnout is coherent with a more pronounced lumbo-sacral angle and lesser curves above, ergo a better higher architecture of the spine. You do not need to force the turnout to an extreme degree to get that.
Q/ Another mantra in the classical dance profession is that pain – not the discomfort from a paroxysm of effort, but searing and often chronic pain, often accompanied by permanent structural damage – is just part and parcel of the artistic package.
Esther Gokhale: Being in any degree of pain is unnecessary, unnatural and unacceptable. This sounds like a Calvinistic legacy, a joyless approach to what could and should be a buoyant and joyful activity. It saddens me to see that classical dance, and classical music as well, have managed to squeeze the joy out of an endeavour that originally came about as an expression of joy, an overflow of emotion including and especially, joy!
In modern times, it’s become about performance rather than process. Outside a tiny elite, there seems to be little space or appreciation for others in the profession, and sometimes a dismissal of others in the field.
Why pain, and grimness, and grim determination with the accent on grim? There is definitely a place for discipline and excellence but not when that goes against the grain of the endeavour itself.
Water, however, finds its level. It’s a matter of time before the public gets educated and no longer wishes to be party to performance that goes beyond what is humane and joyful. Why should I pay to see someone destroy himself? It’s that Gladiator arena that’s resurfaced. But history has marched in the right direction.
Elective pain is a mind-set of violence against oneself. I would like to see it fall from fashion and favour, and go the way of duels and gladiators…
A very high level of performance is possible without pain, if someone is well-versed in the secrets of the body.
Buddhism speaks of the Eight-fold path. You can’t just muscle through. It takes many facets – right effort, right concentration, right knowledge, right intention ...
Q/ There are two, strongly-opposed schools of thought on weight-placement. One shifts the body weight towards the forefoot, the other – a much older school, today mainly represented by the Cecchetti Method – says that for the centre of gravity to be aligned along the plumb-line, the bodyweight must lie essentially on the heel.
Esther Gokhale: Coming from outside the profession, I would suggest that in the baseline position the weight should in fact lie on the heel. In action, of course it can and often will be sent to the front.
There is also a Zeitgeist factor: shifting the weight forward goes with a Zeitgeist of less repose, more pressing constantly forward.
On the whole, I find that I would tend to trust the older schools above the newer ones. When the older principles were laid down, the average human being had good posture. We are now surrounded by distortions of the baseline, which have come to be seen as normal or even ideal!
It’s important to know what the basis is for recommendations, and on what pool of individuals the observations have been made.
Dancers are human beings and members of society first and foremost, and as such, subject to the influences of the day. One cannot escape that, especially when one is unconscious of it!
Q/ Again, there are two, opposing schools of pointework. The older or “Cecchetti” school calls for the “snatch” or tiny jump onto pointe, replacing the pointe right under the centre of gravity approximately where the heel was before.
Whereas the newer school, rolls up onto pointe even in allegro passages. The foot travels ever-farther from the axis, as the body struggles to “catch up”. Hence the notorious fouettés ending up in the orchestra pit.
Esther Gokhale: The snatch makes sense. The bones must be aligned from one end of the body to the other. The evidence is compelling for not subjecting any joint to duress, especially the very small joints of the forefoot.
Human beings have a history of taking things too far before retreating. Corsets started out as a health device, before they were modified and used to create the proverbial wasp-waist! Maybe we need to retreat from some of the excesses in dance positions?