Dead things don’t move

Written by Jennifer-Lynn Crawford

Since my last post, these three words:


… have come together to give me the phrase:
‘Dead things don’t move’

Clever, I know.

It’s sort of stuck in my head now. Ironically not-moving. Anyway – I wanted to nudge this a bit and get it to roll over so I can see what’s underneath. It helps me to have a direction for that – give it a vector and some friendly faces to move towards.… so hopefully I find something under this particular rock.

These three words have come up through a few different ways – one, of course, is movement itself, being a ‘mover’ (as we all are, as animals) and the more specific identification as a ‘mover’ in the dance world. Or a particular sort of movement practitioner has claimed a stake here (me): unwilling to be a ‘dancer’, with the sometimes narrow associations that tends to invoke, I am more likely to self-identify as a ‘mover’ than a ‘dancer’.

I suppose I should pick apart movement and dancing – or try to put them back together, that would be more appropriate I guess, given that I feel they have a tendency to dis-entwine in some art-instances. But I’m not terribly interested in making this another pitch about things I struggle with in contemporary dance land. I’m much more interested in pursuing these three words: animation, movement, vitality.

When my father was dying (he died at home when I was 17) I remember feeling quite anxious that I would somehow miss the moment of death – generally somebody was with him all the time in the last few days, but if it was just him and me, I really wondered how I would figure out the difference between a lengthy pause in his breath cycle (it was pretty hard for him to breathe by then) and his last breath. Did it matter? Was it a social conditioning thing? An animal thing? Was I making this all about me? When did life go and what do I know, what do I sense, of its passing?

There was a massive qualitative shift when he died. The stillness of the dead is shocking. I know this is obvious, but on the perceptual plane, it is an enormous silence – like a vacuum of sorts. I sat with his body, helped wash him, post-life, pre-rigor. The no-more lifeness was a no-moreness of animation – in his tissues, in his fluids, in his presence… And I think this is different from the sensation of loss and grief (a different species of vacuum though closely related).

This was much the bigger given the labour of dying. There was so much blind continuation that is biology just hanging on for a little bit more life that the vacuum of death feels like you’ve just been plonked down in a vast plain on the other side of the moon. It’s a place you’ve never been before and a place where that person is never going to arrive. It is still and silent in a totally alien way. There is no possible way for us, alive, to empathise with the (dead) other. It’s irreconcilable.

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone calls this the ‘transformation to another other’[1]– a totally radical change in the other’s being in that the other is no longer an other with whom I can interact or engage. They have become their materiality in a way I cannot. I can no longer identify with this other as ‘like myself’, even though I ‘know’ that they were and are human.

There is a rupture in our shared identification set against a continuing material sameness, and a stillness that I cannot join: separation – here, finally, is ‘alone’. Sitting with my father’s dead form, which was very alone, I understood that I had never been solitary like that – and wouldn’t whilst alive. Of course, as a 17 year old, I felt disconnected to anything I could possibly, actively, disconnect to – but I’d never understood how utterly and easily related I was, just by being alive.

In the most gloriously lazy and unlooked for way – if I’m just here, living, I’m part of something. There is nothing else I need to do to be part of all of this.

I’m really grateful for that enormous moment and for my father’s decision to die at home, to not move his death into a hospital, and to ask us to be part of it. I mean, I think he also wanted our company and to not feel alone, but I wouldn’t put it past him to see it as something to impart (he was that sort of person for me).

Motility, roughly, is ‘to be capable of motion on one’s own’. It’s something I’ve come to a feeling-understanding of within the therapeutic context of Rolfing Structural-Integration™ in the past year. Biologically, it speaks to an intrinsic movement spontaneity – and is different to ‘mobility’ in that it precedes mobility (if we accept a definition of mobility as ‘being able to be moved’). Motility is a quality inherent in living tissue and was notably absent, or significantly dimmed, for example, in my father’s dead form.

In Rolfing™, as in many other therapeutic approaches, there is a lot of time given to developing the phenomenon called ‘resonance’ – the ability we have to be moved by others’ movements. We sometimes know this as empathy – our mirror neurons enable us to make sense of others’ behaviour by activating it in our own systems. A flavour of what-it-might-be-like… or as Kevin Frank puts it: “In essence one’s brain activity imitates that of another, as though the observed motor activity is one’s own.”[2]

Those lovely empathy buttons that allow my nerves to be tickled by what I see, what I recognise as a form similar to mine, those vitally important activators of my limbic system, create resonance with all the other humans I find myself in relationship with all the time. They are linked through our motor system i.e. the circuitry that gets us moving and respond most easily to movement itself. Hence:

Aliveness is thus a concept as grounded in movement as the concept ‘I can’. Indeed, we intuitively grasp the coincidence of aliveness and animation from the very beginning. With no prior tutoring whatsoever, we take what is living to be that which moves itself and to apprehend what is not moving and has never moved to be precisely inanimate.”[3]

Many of the people I enjoy reading refer to the ‘primacy of movement’ (actually, the quote above is from Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s bookThe Primacy of Movement…) and despite our social habiting/learning of stillness, movement is everywhere. Even if we have to go into the cells, we, our body, is motile. We are movement, in many ways, just caught in an uncomfortably static urban culture. Tim Ingold, in his aptly-named Being Alive says: “Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure.”[4] I agree, but am not sure that that isn’t an extremely privileged statement. It feels sometimes that that movement, of opening, of expanding out along a path, a way, a curiosity, a question, is really under-supported. Under-nourished, in our current regime of chairs, cars and consumption. I’m struggling to figure out how I keep opening whilst writing this.

A lot of movement that I bear witness to seems to be movement of closure. Not necessarily in a metaphorical or socio-political sense, although I appreciate there is a lot of closure-movement I could point towards if I paid more attention to The News. I mean the movement that I see in the everyday bodies I walk/cycle/move with on a daily basis – people who are moving around the same bit of road/pavement as I am.

I empathise with that movement, just as a thing that I do at the moment. A practice maybe.

It feels like work. It feels that I need to have a lot of will, or fear, or need, to move. In trying that movement in myself, tasting it, I also notice that my ability, my perception, is funnelled by the feeling of work. It costs me to see a horizon when I’m predominantly closing rather than opening. It costs me an ‘extra’ movement and as movement itself already feels like work, why would I do that? Why would I do extra, when I’m already struggling to get along as it is?

I used the example of a horizon, as it is a wonderfully overused image that I still can’t let go of. But we could replace that with m/anythings. Like the other person beside you. Or the world around you. Or the world that you can’t imagine on the other side of planet. Or the world that is inhabited by all the other life that isn’t human. All the life that you are part of, just by being alive. All the movement that is happening, just because.

If your life/movement is a closing, a narrowing of possibilities, then it’s really really hard to feel that life moves, in a kind of self-defining/creating kind of way – that motility, spontaneous motion, is intrinsic. Buried under an accumulation of compression, of body-home as too-much density, life feels heavy and not a little bit deflated. Effortful.

We read vitality in the quality of animation we sense in those around us. Substitute ‘read’ for smell/sniff/another form of pre-linguistic animal understanding – or resonance – and when many of us are living life as a movement of closure, life as a movement of opening just doesn’t really stand much of a chance. We sense it in children, in their spaciousness (oh, sometimes we call it naiveté don’t we?) and their ease but we don’t regularly find it spread out in a bus queue of people on their way to work in the morning.

So I guess it gets harder to live life as a movement of opening when all the empathy circuits are being shown life as a movement of closure. We go to a nice Feldenkrais/dancing class or walking in the nice green forest and we get a dose of opening – but we are generally surrounded by human life as concentric movement. Shortening.

In animating this phrase: ‘dead things don’t move’, in bringing it in to a conversation with others (imagined, at time of writing), I’m also mirroring a process, a practice, that lives in ITAWL. I guess in the next phase we’ll be looking for the ways in which ITAWL lives – how does it move? Rather than a representation or as an art object – it isn’t fixed – where are the edges? Do those edges or borders shift? Where does it start to lose vitality, resiliency, adaptability? How does it open itself again? What kind of resonance does it have?

There is a sense of being part of something, just in being alive. This is so fundamental to our experience, so absolutely taken for granted, we might not be able to see the forest for the trees here until we encounter death in some way. All of this seems to relate back to the curiosity of belonging and self-okness and a sense of ‘being’ as a crucial practice for ITAWL.

Roll on Corby and the pink house.

Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.

Brouwer, J., Mulder, A. & Spuybroek, L. (Eds) (2012) Vital Beauty: Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature. NAI Publishers.

Frank, K. (2008) ‘Body As A Movement System: A Premise for Structural Integration’ Structural IntegratIon, June 2008, pp 14-23

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive. Routledge.

Maitland, J. (2016) Embodied Being. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books

McHose, C. & Frank, K. (2006) How Life Moves. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2009) The Corporeal Turn : An Interdisciplinary Reader. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Sheets-Johnston, M (1999) The Primacy of Movement. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Publishing Company.

Various writings available at:

Various people, going about their business, in various locations between Leeds – Dundee – London – Brighton – Kent – Munich – Schiphol Airport.

Rolfing – Basic Training. Munich, 2015-16.

[1] The Corporeal Turn, p107
[2] Body As A Movement System, p16
[3] The Primacy of Movement, p135
[4] Being Alive, p4

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