Idealist, struggler, dancer
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Jean Fogel Zee wants us all to dance the way we were born to. After a celebrated and innovative career in the world of professional dance, the Zee brought together her love of movement with a hunger for self-actualization when she discovered Authentic Movement — a method of effortless movement and witnessing that emerged from the framework of Jungian analysis.
While Authentic Movement is utilized by dancers and non-dancers alike as a means of self-exploration and healing, the practice informs the work of many notable local dancers, including Kaj-Anne Pepper and Tahni Holt. After 20 years of practice and teaching during which she became one of the world’s most celebrated Authentic Movement facilitators, Zee took a hiatus from publicly offering the work; however, she recently chose to come out of retirement and offer a free Introduction to Authentic Movement workshop on April 1.
In advance of the public workshop, Zee sat down with PQ Monthly in her SE Portland studio to talk about her work as a facilitator, the healing power of “seeing and being seen as we are,” and the way that radical acceptance can transform our lives and the queer community.
PQ Monthly: First off, who are you?
Jean Fogel Zee: I am a passionate idealist who has learned how to navigate in a very imperfect world. I am a struggler. I like to pay attention to detail, all detail, good or bad.
PQ: What led to dance, and to Authentic Movement?
JFZ: I think I was born a dancer, really. My first experience of dancing was with my father, dancing soft-shoe in the morning. He taught me all the couples dances that were popular at the time, and in Texas where we lived you could take children into the bars. He’d take me out on the weekends, fill the jukebox with quarters, and we’d cut a rug. Some of my first memories are very much like a Degas painting, the dark wood of the dance studio, the light shining off the floor, the smell of leather ballet shoes.
I studied dance professionally in many different cities under many teachers, and after a long process I wound up in Eugene as a member of the Mary Oslund+ Dance Company. However, during this time I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the façade and the artifice of the field. As for what led me to Authentic Movement, a student of mine went off to study it, and when she returned she shared with me the very simple technique that she learned. It saved me, and derailed my plans to end my dance career. I found Authentic Movement just when I needed it.
PQ: For those who may not be familiar with the technique, what is Authentic Movement?
JFZ: It is is a very simple practice between two or more people in which there are two roles: the mover and witness. One is invited to move their body, to dance, to breathe, to express without any sort of effort. That process is observed by a witness, who simply witnesses the movements as they unfold. Each of these roles begin from a very simple and supportive place. Through practice and through the exchange of experiencing both of these roles, there is an exponential progress and growth that happens for oneself. It certainly happened for me and I’ve witnessed it happen for hundreds of people.
PQ: What did you find when you started practicing Authentic Movement?
JFZ: I found a practice, a place — a place that I could go any time I wanted that always surprised me, where I didn’t always find what I was looking for or what I expected it to be, but was always a safe space, always dependable and full of information.
PQ: What made you decide to bring others to that place?
JFZ: People asked it of me, and it was difficult. I really struggled to teach it, and found it very challenging. When I was very young, I would go through lots of release with my dance, sometimes crying and all kinds of things, to clear myself enough before I could go into the studio and facilitate it. Part of the challenge was that I had so much technical training from so many teachers in so many different cities. It’s said that what we want to learn, we need to teach, and I was somewhat damaged by the training that I internalized; in order to learn authenticity, I needed to unlearn some of the training.
I really didn’t want to be a teacher, which was why Authentic Movement was such a perfect form for me. I got to learn how to be a provider, a guide, someone who could bring someone to the place where they can have their own experience. At the same time, for me as a dancer, it was as rich and as compelling and brought as much satisfaction from that kind of movement as I found in technique, which I love as well — the challenge, the discipline, the core, the balance.
PQ: You bring up something interesting when you talk about “undoing the training.” Can you speak a little more as to whether that process applies equally to, say, dancers undoing their technical training as it does for non-dancers who are undoing the sort of “training” we get from living in this society?
JFZ: Mary Whitehouse, the woman who crafted Authentic Movement, was a dancer all her life and later became a Jungian analyst. This form was created from a woman who was very educated in both these forms, and she would always say that her most difficult students were dancers. When we learn different techniques, we learn to layer and apply, take something else on that’s not ours. What Whitehouse discovered was that, in the authenticity of movement and of being, it returns us to the state of the body when we are young. When we move when we are young, we don’t think about it — we just move. We do as much learning as we need to do and then the body naturally takes over. When a child looks up to the sky, their whole body looks up to the sky; when he or she looks down, their whole body looks. The unlearning brings us closer to the body, which brings us closer to this innate state. The dancer has the learned movements of the dance; the non-dancer has the learned movements of their world, where they grew up, what they’ve observed, the different stories inside them, the hurts and joys. Psychologically speaking, there is a lot that the body holds, especially that which is left unseen or unsaid. We are all walking maps of our history, and “unlearning” is how we go beneath the map to the person we actually are.
Talking about “the body holding what is unseen,” many queer people have a lot of unseen aspects of themselves. Even thinking about “the artifice of the scene,” this is likely very real to many people in the queer community, which sometimes has a tendency to focus heavily on the surface level of experience.
PQ: What sort of promise does Authentic Movement hold for queer people and the queer community?
JFZ: I think any space that is safe and invites being seen as we are is a step towards awareness, towards knowing oneself. At the same time, there’s something exponential that happens in the work that comes from moving and being witnessed moving — there’s an opening that happens. In the beginning, it’s not easy, the same way that it’s not easy to come out and say to the world “I am gay.” The idea of setting this aside and simply being seen as we are allows for that identity to be included, but at the same time we can develop that internal witnessing of ourselves, in which we’re not dependent upon the labels. It’s a matter of developing this slow, gentle inquiry into allowing ourselves to be seen.
What comes to my mind is that, for me, my sexual identity has always been something that I come up against when I feel judged. Other than that, I just live my life the way I live my life. I make my choices based upon who I love and who I’m with, and when it bumps up against the oppression that we live in, that permeates everything, then I’m moved to put a label upon it. When I was younger, raising my son and deeply involved in the gay community as an integral part of my life, I remember that sense of being in places that I didn’t feel safe. In response to these spaces, the gay community became a container, a safe space where I could explore myself, a refuge. However, as I developed that safe space within, the container expanded, and the identity [of being queer] wasn’t even something I was wearing anymore, it was something I was living. I think that Authentic Movement provides safety to any person, but that safety is so potent for queer people. It takes you down to the place where there is no separation, where nobody needs to wear any identities and can instead simply be themselves.
PQ: Dancing, whether it’s on the stage or in the clubs, figures so heavily in the queer community. What role do you see movement and dance playing for queer people?
JFZ: I really think the role of movement and dance serves as the actualization of a person coming into themselves. That is the deep definition. Dance itself is pure free expression. I mean, may we all dance! May the whole world dance! May we all die dancing! My practice in Authentic Movement has shown me the absolute infinite resource my body is. When I can allow my body to lead me, I will always find the answer. There is never a question in that, but it takes a lot of courage to be able to let go and allow the body to lead. It is synonymous with the sort of imbalance that exists in the culture that we live in, where control is the norm and yielding falls into the line of being weak. Balance is the key, and dance certainly helps us create balance. Authentic Movement just takes it even further.
PQ: Can you talk a little about the difference between the experience of “judging” versus “witnessing” as you see it?
JFZ: Twenty years ago, when I and others were first exploring Authentic Movement, what we found when we went into it was our own judge — it was the first thing we hit. As we did the work more, we began to understand this more, it became clear that the dual impulses were quite different, and that it was in the witnessing that the real work happened exponentially. The one moving says, “I allow myself to be seen,” and the one witnessing says, “I will allow myself to see this person.” That alone is revolutionary. Then, there’s the unseen part — the unspoken part that comes from these experiences happening simultaneously, an exchange that is very internal and private, that can be shared or not shared with others. It really is such a developmental, healing tool, to allow oneself to be witnessed and to witness. When I think about gay community, and I think about my own experience and all that I’ve gone through to find myself, I’m overwhelmed by how powerful and healing this space can be for others.
PQ: You talk about how “the body holds what is unseen.” Do you believe this happens only on a personal level, or does it also happen on a larger level — say, in the body of a group, a community, or a nation?
JFZ: Absolutely! Through the sciences we’ve learned so much about the nature of the body, and it’s fascinating that so many of the findings observe that the body is the microcosm of the world, that we’re made of the substance of reality, that we have our own cycles and rhythms personally as well as societally. More fundamentally, we aren’t “like” nature, or amongst nature — we are, ourselves, nature. It’s a wonderful thing, what we are just a smaller expression of our communities. Along with that, many people have the sensibility that they are, say, “one person at home, another person at work” — a diversity of identities, all of which are parts of ourselves. The same effect plays out in our communities, almost the same way that it does in our bodies and minds. It’s a beautiful thing!
PQ: Is that “diversity of identities” a situation of inauthenticity?
JFZ: No, definitely not. This is a situation where language becomes limiting. “Authentic,” by definition, means “to be born,” to be original. We are all original! We then collectively acquire ways and practice that function to move us through life, to protect us. On the deepest level, we are all authentic — and everyone has their own ways of encountering their own authenticity. For some people, this is through terrible traumas and ordeals, and for others it’s through perhaps gentler means. I would be the very last person to say that someone else is being inauthentic, honestly. I think that this is really the beauty of Authentic Movement — people are able to come into the space and simply be whom they are, and over time there is an effortlessness that can be found. However, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be that way all the time. Authenticity itself is a rhythm, a dance.
PQ: How does authenticity look in the dance of relationships and love?
JFZ: For me, it’s all about being able to acknowledge immediately when I’ve fucked up. I raised my son as a single queer mother, and I like to say that it was the only thing I really taught him — that, in a time of conflict, when you bump up against trouble, always come back and say how you felt. He and I learned how to do that together, to take responsibility for who you are and your experience, which is itself authenticity.
PQ: What do you think the queer community can do to be a safe container for those within it?
JFZ: That’s a difficult one, because it’s such a constantly moving, shape-shifting aspect of culture. The image I get is like a root system, or mushrooms — a mycelium web that is part of and beneath everything. We are everywhere. The closest I can get to an answer is that we need to allow ourselves to see each other as we are, to give the acceptance that each of us needs to each other, even to those who can’t give it to us. We just need to carry on, being seen and available and loving, doing the next right thing.
PQ: Finally, to follow-up on the very first question: who are we?
JFZ: I think we are life. We are lights, constantly blinking into and out of existence. We are one large, connected life. We hear things like “we are one,” all these sayings about us all being one world, but the reality is that the world is that, and constantly becoming more so. We are closer to our own unseen parts than we have ever been before. When the world was smaller, and everything was farther apart communication-wise, we could overlook it; it’d take a long time before you heard about events. Now, this contraction is happening, and it’s not going to stop. What’s it going to be like in another 30 years? Energetically, we are moving towards each other, constantly; there’s no way to get away from one another, from seeing each other and being seen. This is a wonderful thing.
Jean Fogel Zee will be offering a free Introduction to Authentic Movement workshop on April 1. For more information about the workshop and Jean Fogel-Zee’s work, go to www.jeanfogelzee.com.