Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

For me, dance movement practice is essentially a surrender to emergence. It’s what happens when I slide away some door-like part of consciousness and allow movement to unspool through me. This arising-into-form is both essentially of me – so very personal – and at the same time much bigger and beyond.1 Facilitating dance movement is the work of holding a strong but elastic container in which this unforeseeable choreography can materialise. The purity of the vessel is important. The work isn’t about imposing content, directing attention or in some way imposing something on the spontaneous pressing-through of impulse into movement. Even intention feels suspect.

An autistic person is a goat, not a sheep, and I have always needed to follow my own trajectory, to cut loose from the prescribed curriculum, the required texts. I remember the immense sense of relief when I started my PhD. Finally, there was only me following only my own string into the centre of the labyrinth.

I seem to be – am – doing something with the Open Floor that is different from the thing everyone else is doing, and although it feels obvious to me, it appears to be difficult for other people (except the people I’m actually doing it with) to grasp. It’s a lovely, lonely situation. During the mentor group meeting on Friday, I wrote down:

I’m not trying to teach anything, but to create conditions in which the mover can become more regulated, and so their body can become the teacher. This is an organic process. As the nervous system falls into rhythm, the process naturally unfolds.

On reflection, perhaps this is a difference between teaching and therapy. The therapist gives less energy to explanation and more to opening opportunity for becoming and discovering.2

I don’t go into a dance space to teach Core Movement Principles, but they are offering me a language to identify and articulate what I see emerging on the floor. I work a lot with autistic people and with people with developmental trauma (sometimes they’re the same people). In this context, Activate and Settle speaks to me of a re-tuning of the nervous system, which needs to be able to undulate fluidly between parasympathetic and sympathetic in order for there to be well-being in the whole person. Towards and Away suggests a capacity to touch into and out of painful places.3 Ground speaks to how we find ourselves here and now, on this earth, in this body, in this room. We have a relationship to where we are – physically are – now. Looking through the frame of the Four Hungers, I can see that where my Small Group are at present, at the beginning of their journey together, is in the first Hunger – feeling into a sense of safety, finding or re-finding connection with themselves, expanding into their own internal capacity to create and to enjoy – and that we need to open towards the second Hunger (I with another) only very slowly and with attention to experience in tiny increments.

Clarifying what it is that I do, letting go of the imagined, self-imposed and ill-fitting project, and putting my feet back squarely in my own shoes has been an essential recalibration in locating myself in Open Floor work. I’m grateful for the permission, space and encouragement I’ve been offered to find myself and to work from that place. Still, it’s hard to keep standing in otherness. There’s no one to bounce off without odd tangents, and I’m constantly anxious that I’m about to be kicked out or brought to book.

If I have any doubts about the orientation I’m bringing to my work, what lays them to rest is the responses of the people I’m working with. I’ve been deeply touched to witness them in the process of movement and to hear their reflections on how this work is changing things for them. There’s something here for me about the potency of simplicity – of setting it up, trusting that it’s enough and having the faith to step back and allow it all to happen. It does take faith not to intervene, suggest and control but simply to go on holding the structure. Only that.

Being on this training has been for me so far a complex confection of willingness and resistance, belonging and feeling outside, being present and being energetically absent without leave. But it has made me put myself behind my own dance work in a way that up to now I hadn’t. That work has been happening for about six years off and on, but it has never quite had the courage of my convictions. It was a missing piece of me. Now it is taking its place at the table.

More about my dance movement work.

armsjohnand partner

1. Dan Siegel explains the neurological mechanism behind the feeling of being moved in Mindsight. If anyone can find the page reference, please tell me.

2. Because I’m on the teacher track, I’m not able to refer to myself as a therapist, or what I do as therapy, under the Open Floor banner. This is tricky, because I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist and a certified yoga therapist and I’ve been working therapeutically for longer than I’ve been teaching, which is quite a lot of years. I wonder what Open Floor teachers who already work therapeutically with movement are going to do with ourselves. We’re not psychotherapists introducing movement into speech-based work either. We already work therapeutically with the person through the medium of the body.

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.


14 thoughts on “Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

  1. I so appreciate this dance you are demonstrating in this experiential writing of yours between the explicit and implicit and finding the inner teacher through Open Floor practice. I’m not hesitating to tell you here, I get it! And I get how challenging and lonely it is to try and explain. Thank you for sharing your journey and I hope you keep writing.


  2. Jess I really resonated with your blog in Autism Dance open floor. I have been working alongside Autistics for many years. Have brought special yoga to my school, Now I would love to bring dance movement therapy. Please can you tell me where you are in the world, do you know of any open floor teachers in New Zealand. I am in Nelson.


    • Hi Karen. Thanks for commenting. What I’m doing in my dance movement work and describe in this writing is not really Open Floor mainstream, which is much more about teaching movement principles, so if you invite an Open Floor teacher, expect them to do something rather different. I’m also a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist and a yoga therapist, and my work is really my own thing. It has grown out of many different practices and trainings that I’ve experienced over a lot of years. Open Floor is definitely not Dance Movement Therapy, although there will of course be some crossover, as there always is between modalities in the same field. Open Floor is still very new, but there is a training going on in New Zealand at present, so, yes, there are teachers and trainee teachers there. Visit ttp://


  3. I’m confused by your 2nd notation. Who is preventing you from calling yourself a therapist, from fully embracing and naming your therapy training when teaching Open floor? Open floor training staff? Or a professional therapist board that you are licensed through?


    • I can’t call myself a therapist under the Open Floor umbrella because I’m not on their teacher track,not their therapy track (which is designed for psychotherapists wanting to bring movement into their work). I can call myself a therapist under the Somatic Movement Therapy or yoga therapy umbrellas, just not in any work that I flag as Open Floor.


      • Odd, last I checked Open floor was beautifully embracing an open sourced model, which means that to put any limitations on you from using the material however, and in conjunction with whatever you wish, organically and professionally called to is against the values of the Creative Commons they’ve chosen to share this practice through. (just checked to be sure it’s still on the main site and it is, clearly linked at the bottom..) somethings fishy here and not walking it’s talk, and I would encourage you to explore that so that your beautiful offerings aren’t limited by this nonsensical imposed parameter bc you signed up for one type of training and not another.


      • It’s not fishy or a nonsensical imposed parameter. It’s an oddity in the way that the therapy and teaching tracks relate to each other, which no doubt will be ironed out in time – this is the first training and the first cohort of teachers and therapists. From the point of view of OF, they are trying to create clarity between who is an OF therapist and who is an OF teacher. The difficulty arises because they haven’t taken account of the fact that some people already have a certification in a form of body-centred therapy.


  4. Sorry but to be Creative Commons means you completely let go of the reigns of what you can or can’t tell people to do with what you offer… You can’t be Creative Commons and make any rules that limit the use of your work….I can even teach open floor without training in it thru their Creative Commons license Tomorrow … If I wanted to. I’m sad to hear that there is no integrity here in honoring this open sourced model that they chose and that gifted and well trained therapists such as yourself are being bureaucratically limited. My advice, be yourself, and if they tell you you’re not allowed bc they have imposed a rule they can’t legally impose on you , that you remind them Creative Commons has no restrictions by definition, and that to it’s time they were in alignment with their publicly claimed choice.


    • Yes, and I can also teach any of it tomorrow and do what I like with it as long as I acknowledge the source, and no one is objecting to that. The material has been generously given. However, I can’t use it and say that I’m a certified Open Floor teacher unless I actually have completed the training and certified. I can’t use it and say I’m an Open Floor therapist unless I have completed that training and received that certification. There’s a difference between using the material and having a certification. I don’t feel bureaucratically limited. That isn’t what I wrote in the post; it’s a view you’re imposing on me. That’s it on this discussion from me.


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