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IDOCs » Contact Festival Freiburg 2019 Teachers Meeting Pre-movement organisation / tone level lab
Pre-movement organisation / tone level lab session held in Contact Festival Freiburg 2019 Teachers Meeting, facilitated by Chris Aiken.

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Title: Modulating the Tone

Proposed and facilitated by Chris Aiken

Sunday 4 August 2019

Format: 2-hour lab, with 15 participants. We sat in a circle and spoke (conversation below) for 90 minutes, then moved for 30 minutes with these ideas.

Scribe: Malaika Sarco-Thomas

Chris Aiken: What does it mean to “modulate the tone”? As teachers, what do we mean by that?

Richard Sarco-Thomas:  to have license over how much tone is in your muscles.

Ray Chung: Modulating my intention

Laura Doehler: I would approach it with imagination… a change of attention. For example when you feel a different surface

Chris Aiken: So when you change the perception you change your tone

The range of aliveness — how alive is the body

Physiologists talk about the range of excitability — how nervous the system is, or how dampened it is.

Joe Dumit: The difference between listening and doing (maybe excitable / sensitive)

Chris Aiken: How many here have practiced the small dance? Do you see a connection between the practice of the small dance and this discussion of tone? How so?

Alice Godfroy: How little tone do I need to stand?

Richard Sarco-Thomas: When you’re doing the small dance you’re watching your body modulate the tone on its own

Jurij Konjar: What if I’ve been holding something for five years and I don’t know what is coming — so there is an intention to keep releasing.

Chris Aiken: How many people have heard teachers say “release unnecessary tension”? It begs the question: what is necessary tension? Sometimes you can just be holding yourself and then just let it go. It can be like a pattern— you release it, and then it comes back. Has anyone had that experience?

Defne Erdur: I had the experience of trying to release something in my back in a jam, and then I was approached from the back by a sweaty hot body, and feeling that heat helped me to release my back.

Teti Nikolopoulou: something like this comes from the “release techniques” discussion— asking what is release techniques? When we were training a lot in dance in release techniques [we were always becoming floppy]. So we came up with this idea that, okay, we have to release tension to find the natural action like an animal — but sometimes being very active also can mean “releasing the state of no tension”.

Chris Aiken: When I’m teaching I never tell anyone to relax more. Maybe they have a high level of tone because they are dealing with some trauma. Who am I to tell them to relax this? So the question is: ‘how do we teach people to modulate the tone?’ What are some specifics?

Michelle Tarento: To have too much relaxation can give a lack of comfort to a person— so we teach about a level of tone that gives some security to people. So the reference of some tone helps people to become more comfortable—if you are hyper-relaxed you become uncomfortable.

Ilona Kenova: Babies have tone - they are not nothing.

Chris Aiken: So how do you teach this? What is the baseline you come back to?

Jurij Konjar: Teaching people to develop a relationship with gravity — teaching people to yield their mass to the support of gravity. This is also a state— you want to have a reference point of total yield. And from that place we begin to introduce push, and this builds a reference point to build up from total yield.

Richard Sarco-Thomas: In shin shin toitsu aikido, there are five principles to integrate mind and body:

  1. keep one point
  2. keep weight underside
  3. extend your mind
  4. have a light posture
  5. relax completely

This last principle especially pertains to this conversation.

Chris Aiken: Kevin Counsell says that when you have a pattern, do it more, and more, and more, and then come out of it.

Joe Dumit: Go down to the floor in one second, then do the same thing in five seconds, thirty seconds, three minutes, five minutes. When you have to go the same way down slowly you have to go without tension because it hurts too much.

Someone said: When you are modelling for painting, and you have to sit 20 minutes in one position, you start thinking, wow, why did I do this?

Laura Doehler: I did a lot of release technique and I think I damaged my knees, actually being too released. I teach something called ‘throwing magnets in space” so you can release upwards, and fall into the space—— and it opens an expansiveness into space without going into collapse mode, so it stays really soft.

Lea Kieffer: I work with this idea of a thermostat — something that you can turn up or down. I realise that in both directions you can kind of go forever: asking how much you can fall into releasing and how much you can fall into tensing? I also think it’s interesting to locate it in the body, but also to think of the space around me— is the space around me really toned, or really relaxed? Bringing detail and separation. Also for me in this practice [of trying to modulate the tone] I first tried hard for a while and then somehow half an hour later I actually sense it.

Malaika Sarco-Thomas: We could call this responsive state “Alert and ready. Connected and sensing”.  One teaching strategy for modulating tone is Jacque Lecoq’s seven levels of tension:

  1. Exhausted  / catatonic- jellyfish
  2. Laid Back / California / Relaxed - cool
  3. Economic – cat sitting comfortably
  4. Alert / Curious – Mr Bean
  5. Suspense – is there a bomb in the room?
  6. Passionate – there is a bomb in the room
  7. Petrification / Tragic – the bomb is about to go off

Chris Aiken: Years ago I had the good fortune to study with Nancy Stark Smith and I became fascinated with her use of language, and how she would drop an image into the room, …and then another one, …and then another one…. and it was like liquid on my brain. I became fascinated with language and how a teacher can drop an image into the room and allow space for that, and it can be totally transformational, but you can also over-speak, as a teacher. And if you tell a student to relax, there becomes a judgement about those who can’t release. For some students, asking them to release into the floor— releasing into the floor is the last thing they want to do. So …just to recognise that what makes you feel relaxed and safe and open may not work for everyone. Sometimes I ask the students, if I think they are being too released: “can it be more muscular?” or: “What if the room became more athletic?” A good sports coach is sparing with language; they will not say too much.

Defne Erdur: How do we prepare to go into a space? How do we on a minimal level make sure that everyone is fine with what we propose? Also working with this material, sometimes it is when we are a bit tired that we can react better with specific toning exercises.

Chris Aiken: So get the students tired first, and then go there.

Flor Campise: I have the feeling that many times tension comes with trying to achieve the image of a form. Once I did this thing with Asaf Bachrach— he brought many things [objects] with different textures. And you would go in to the jam with a solo exploring this texture, so it brought a range of different qualities. For me it’s interesting this way of different qualities. For me I was thinking of a reference state: when you go to training, what is the state that you go and do?

Patrick Gaiaudo: I had this question: what is the sense of modulating tone— what is the goal for modulating tone? My goal was to see what have I done with someone, to ask: what sort of communication do I want to have with someone else? So maybe if I close my eyes its a way to have another communication with someone else. My question is: WHY to modulate tone?

Alice Godfroy: Tone is our language in CI. Through touch it’s a modulation with someone. Through touch you can have a very subtle dialogue with someone.

Richard Sarco-Thomas: on a practical level, whether it’s playing tennis, judo, or CI, it’s to be able to move efficiently. It’s an efficient way to move with the least amount of tone.

Chris Aiken: however we’re also doing an aesthetic as well as functional activity— so having a lot of tone can be an aesthetic choice. if your baseline proposition is efficiency it sort of creates a colour of your movement. Sometimes I try to be non-efficient, just to understand what the efficiency mindset means biomechanically.

Richard Sarco-Thomas: but you’re also coming from a place of knowing what that efficiency is.

Michelle Taranto: what is the word ‘tone’ in American/English? For French it has to do with neurology— it’s a neurological word. It seems to be more a mechanical term.

Joe Dumit: When I teach about tone I talk about how we use the term ‘tone’ in terms of musical tones, and also “Don’t use that tone of voice with me”!

Ilona Kenova said something about scientists’ discussion of tone

Chris Aiken: Scientists don’t agree on what tone is. I researched tone for two years and realised that. Tension and compression—this is the biomechanical function/definition of tone. Force gets spread out— and when we can’t dissipate tone, we get too much force on one point and that’s when we get injured. But the psychological conversation about tone is different. Nikolais Berstein talks about tone like turning the wick of a lamp up or down, to increase/decrease the flame.

Teti Nikolopoulou:  I do often an exercise with my students: one is lying down (no tone), and another helps them find the helix spiral shape. Then the one lying down puts 10% of their muscularity into finding the spiral, then 20%,, 30%  etc, then finally they do it on their own. But when you dance, you go more to the place inside yourself with a dialogue with another. You create your tension spontaneously, let’s say… and the nervous system somehow reacts in the way you built your muscularity growing up. And as we are intelligent from our base, and our education, we “volume up” and “volume down” our muscularity and our tone. You can modulate your tone consciously.

Chris Aiken: Yes you can modulate your tone consciously. But it’s not meant to work like that. The goal is not to be in your cortical brain, but to use this inventively, or with imagination. I don’t know if you know the instructions of the Small Dance, but Paxton says: “can you make a small reach with your hand?  Can it be smaller? Can it be smaller still? What’s the smallest it can be and you can still feel it?” So I call this the shimmering edge of sensation. And it has to do with imagination and intention. And when Paxton says “imagine taking a step but don’t do it”, for me the use of intention and tone is super clear there.

And it’s the same thing if you put your arm through your jacket — that’s reaching. So having questions like, what’s the least amount of pressure I need to do the thing I want to do? I remember Louise LeCavalier say she injured her hip so she couldn’t dance anymore, so she started boxing. And she said that when she went onstage she felt like she went into the boxing ring. So if you went into a boxing ring you’d be energised but if you’re about to touch a baby, it’s a very different kind of tone.

Something I ask when I teach is:  Can you allow the tonic tension to reveal itself? Can you feel that quality of the small dance at moments in your dance?

Lea Keiffer: It’s very paradoxical. The release is in the tension and vice versa.

Laura Doehler: If I really want to be with you, I do both— I reach toward you.

Chris Aiken: In class I give puzzles to try things in different situations, like: what happens when you go from this level to this level? Notice what is perceivable right now? Why I’m doing that is to get them out of their selves—getting ahead of themselves. Many students think that they have to “do” something. Joerg Hassman has this instruction to follow, but with delay— so you can respond, but not immediately, do it with a small delay.

Patrick Gaiaudo: It’s like the practice of inhibiting, to delay your first intention, sometimes even delay your second impulse, and go with your third intention.

Chris Aiken: Did you come upon the notion of tone-deafness? I certainly encounter dancers whom I think to be tone deaf. JJ Gibson and Eleanor Gibson were the founders of ecological psychology. Eleanor Gibson said that someone who is tone deaf is unable to distinguish the difference. So maybe if you work with students like this, you’re trying to help get a student to understand more and more subtle differences.

Joe Dumit: One of the instructions I give is: “You decide the meaning of what I’m doing” Whether it’s offering a support, a slide, etc. I say, no, it’s not reading the intention of your partner— instead you get to decide what they mean.

Chris Aiken: So what about those situations where you’re dancing with someone and their tone is really hard and you feel like you’re getting carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey? Do you try to teach your partner to change through your dancing?

Richard Sarco-Thomas: There are strategies, like you can offer your partner a really good sense of support and then take it away quickly.

Jurij Konjar: You can differentiate between horizontal and vertical weight exchange. When I teach I often get students to focus on only horizontal weight exchange, and learn how not to take vertical weight.

Chris Aiken: I was talking about in a jam situation.

Malaika Sarco-Thomas:  Massage them. Brush them.

Michelle Taranto: i try to change my tone, and play with that, and often that encourages them.

Alice Godfroy: I dance faster

Defne Erdur: I dance much slower — really in slow motion.

Chris Aiken: As teachers, how can we prepare students to tune to what’s happening now? A monotone situation is pre-adaptive, it’s not tuned to what’s happening now. So if my thing is, I’m injured today, how can I tune to what’s happening now? And in a span of a dance that changes. Like if someone’s holding on to an athletic tone beyond when they’re tired, that’s when injuries can happen.

Richard Sarco-Thomas: Coordination hasn’t been mentioned and I think coordinating with efficiency can be an important aspect.

Ilona Kenova: Some people can have strong tone but still big efficiency. I don’t enjoy the sense of tension in my body, so I’m organising my body to avoid tension, but then I met a dancer who said, “when I feel tension in my body I feel alive!” So it’s important to sense how we can sense and connect with the tone, but also personal freedom in how we sense our body and how we communicate with it.

Flor Campise: How we work with this range is an important and a tricky thing. Because then there’s only one form of dancing CI. For me how to play with this range is to be able to dance better. For me this word of “intention” —what is the intention you are putting into this?

Chris Aiken: In the Underscore, one of the things is to have a “seed” which is an idea from which we are starting. It could be, “today I’m going to focus on duration”, or “today I’m going to start with noticing the space between myself and others”. In my classes I set the tone, but ultimately I want my students to be able to set the tone themselves for themselves—so in a way, designing their preparation—in a way that’s connected to how they are today. Nancy calls it a “come as you are party”. We’re not the same every day, so we have to pay attention to how we are that day. I like to have an attentional anchor, so when I slow down I can come back to that, and if it’s still useful, I work with it, but if it’s not useful, I drop it. So I have all that research, but it sets the tone. I call these seeds “sub-scores”.

Richard Sarco-Thomas: That’s the importance of repetition, so essentially your scores are like the Aikido principles.

Chris Aiken: Some sources I’ve been referring to:

Nikolais Bernstein talks about tone as the basic level of the brain.

Hubert Godard talks about tone 

Dimitri Udznatze is the father of The Psychology of Set. After World War II people were coming back from the war really traumatised. In some cases heir anticipatory tone killed them— they were scared to death, essentially. Amazing to think of the participatory readiness that kills their life. So many people these days are traumatised. So something I do, is to say something in a class, and watch, and see how it lands. So I don’t just do my pedagogy, I see how it’s impacting the group. And it’s important to be willing to let go of the material— to change the way you’re speaking.

Alice Godfroy: Tone is the same site for postural activity, and expressive activity. Henri Wallon writes about Godard’s work.

Chris Aiken: Bernstein was 50 years earlier than Godard. Godard didn’t invent this. There’s a new article by Michael Turvey,  a very well know neurological psychologist and an evolutionary ecologist. He thinks its evolutionary rather than learned—which I don’t agree with—but i just want you to know there’s contention about this in the scientific community.

Defne Erdur: We resonate with each other— If i come with a high tone and try to teach a low tone it’s not going to work. In the last two decades there are new approaches to try to bring the psychological and neurological together.

Joe Dumit: When I feel another person I might be transmitting a tone, but also absorbing a tone.

Chris Aiken: I wrote about this in Contact Quarterly years ago: a touch that makes no demands. Touching someone with a touch that is designed to read them. To do this, you have to have your own tone organised. It takes effort to not collapse into your partner. I learned this from studying Alexander Technique, when my teacher would say: don’t grab the person and move them into where you want them to go— just touch them without an idea of where it should do. To actually touch someone in a way that is not demanding, I have to organise myself to do that. And if they move I have to reorganise, and reorganise. My intention is not to demand that they change in a particular way.

End of conversation. Beginning of moving.



This document is created based on the consent of all the participating teachers during the contactfestival freiburg Teachers Meeting 2019. 

If for some reason you (as one of the participants of this meeting) changed your mind and wish some or all parts of this document not to be published, please contact

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