Photo: Kristin Ladström

Proselytizing the Blues, with Annette Kühnle – Part 2

We continue with the second part of the conversation with Annette Kühnle. In Part 1, we talked about how dance events in Europe have evolved over the years, as well as some of the pressures organizers are faced with today. At the end of Part 1, I asked her if there was a person in the dance world today who deserves attention for what they are doing.

Greg Austin I want to flip over to the other side of the coin now. As you look forward, is there somebody out there today, someone teaching or organizing in the social dancing world, that you’re excited about? Who deserves some attention?

Annette Kühnle Yes. There are many people, but one person that comes to mind straight away is –

Catherine Palmier.

She is a French dancer who lives in Puerto Rico, in the United States. Catherine has been my dance and life mentor for a couple of years now, and she is a close friend as well. I think she has a lot to offer to the European, and international Blues dance scene.

Greg What makes her special?

Annette Catherine is special for a number of reasons. She is someone that has a certain 6th sense, or feelers for what may be going on with someone. Whether it’s their dancing, whether it’s their general living, she’s watching her surroundings, with great curiosity for human behavior. It seems as if almost even before you think of approaching her to find help with something in your dancing, or your posture, she may have already thought about what might help you. And all of that is with great love for humanity.

Catherine is definitely someone where I’d say she’s doing what she does because she truly wants to help other people live a better life. This also very much includes overall health. For instance, apart from her many dance studies, she is also a licensed Franklin Method educator and uses body-mind techniques to help foster healthy movement in people.

Greg How does dancing help one to be healthy?

Annette Quite drastically, I believe. Dancing as a whole, but especially dancing to Blues music, I personally perceive as a very cathartic type of art. Movement in general will get the blood flowing in the body and help get things like toxins out of the body. For instance, if someone hasn’t moved for 3 days in a row, things will get stuck. There will be certain blockages.

Dancing helps with that. Of course one could just go to any kind of movement-type class for that, but on top of basic movement, there is the art as well. The connection to the music, the connection to the culture that is behind the music, and especially for Blues, there is also the whole emotional spectrum that the Blues encapsulates. There isn’t a human emotion that I haven’t found Blues music for. No matter if you want to celebrate life because you’re doing really well, no matter if you’re tired and sad, and you don’t see a way out of your misery, no matter if you’ve just lost your best friend, or found a new love, or are jealous of someone, there’s always going to be a Blues song that someone else has already written for it. It’s similar to literature as well. You don’t feel alone any more. Someone else has gone through what you’re going through before you in life. Dancing to something that is so cathartic to someone else and bringing that catharsis out of yourself, I think has healing properties. You can dance it all out, so to say.

Greg Can you remember an experience when you were with Catherine and you witnessed that happening?

Annette Definitely, and more than once. A big aspect of my life in the last couple of years has been health. About 4 years ago, I started to have all kinds of strange pains in my hip section and on my back. I was moving all the time, I was being healthy and eating healthily, so I just couldn’t make sense of it. Then I went to a physiotherapist for the first time, and things have changed ever since. And Catherine has also been a big part of that journey on to having good health.

When I was about 20 years old, I had to undergo surgery for a big tumor, which was luckily benign and removed by the surgery, but it left me with a 20 centimeter scar in the middle of my body. It is like a c-section, just vertical. I thought I was fine afterwards, there were no complications, but what I didn’t know is how much the scar itself and the trauma from the surgery, was impacting my life. A decade later, it started to really show up in all kinds of pains and posture issues. I would look at myself dance in the mirror and I could see that my dancing didn’t look as organic or in alignment as I wanted it to look, but I couldn’t change it to get there. Being a dance teacher that approaches studying dancing fairly visually, my inability to get there would frustrate me to no end. It turned out that a lot of it was just an internal release that needed to happen to get rid of the trauma and tension that stems from that surgery.

Catherine was one of the people who was tremendously helpful for me with that. I was visiting her in Puerto Rico, where she runs these week-long, private class sessions. She calls it, “Private Escape,” ‘cause that’s what it is. It’s an escape from the world, in a private kind of setting. You take lessons with her one on one, or together with a friend. Most of it takes place outside, for example at the beach. It’s a beautiful setting, and it has all kinds of restorative properties by itself.

One of the exercises that Catherine asked me to do was to stand at the edge of beach, to look across the ocean, in beautiful sunlight and do a rotating movement that twisted my body in my middle section, right through my scar. I did this for a few minutes in silence until something started releasing within me. I started crying the kind of tears that come when the body starts letting go. We were doing all kinds of exercises like this and – as far as I understand – Catherine has not necessarily learned this anywhere. She’s not a physiotherapist or a psychotherapist, but she will find out what the body needs in order to release a certain tension, or blockage.

Greg And how was your dancing afterwards?

Annette So much easier and more relaxed! There has been quite a lot of release over the past couple of years. Other than working with Catherine, I’ve also done osteopathy, acupuncture, physiotherapy, Pilates and yoga. And just now, in the beginning of this year, after a particularly impactful acupuncture session, there has been so much release! I feel like I am essentially new born. I think I should celebrate my birthday on January 6th from now on, because that’s how new everything seems. Everything feels much more relaxed, and my natural approach to moving to the music is now coming more and more together with what my body can actually do.

That’s my general teaching approach as well. As a teacher, I want to help people find the most relaxation possible for their body, so that their natural instinct of moving to the music is enhanced, is possible, makes sense, so to say. The other aspect is translating the music to others. I’ve been listening to the Blues pretty much daily for the last 10 years, I know a lot about it, and want to bridge the gap between the music and others like me who have previously not been exposed to it in their lives. In class, I’ll often explain, point out or have people figure out the rhythm, the structure, the lyrics or the sound of the music they’re dancing to so that they can match their dancing to the music more easily. So, my teaching is centered around relaxation and translation of music.

Greg Let’s expand on the teacher-student relationship. How do you approach your students when you are teaching, and has Catherine been an inspiration here as well?

Annette In watching Catherine teach, there is the overall approach to truly seeing other human beings that has been very inspiring to me. One of the things that has struck me already, many years ago, is how good Catherine is at what I would call, “Picking people up where they are” or reading the room. For instance, as a teacher, she would come into a room and try to feel the vibe. Are these people excited and full of energy? Are they sitting down and they really can’t go any further? Are they confused about the previous lesson? She will pick up on these kind of things and then adapt. If people are obviously tired, and halfway sitting down all across the room, Catherine might invite everyone to just sit down wherever they are. She might then sit among them and do a gentle warm-up of the upper body until people have gathered enough energy to stand up.

This empathetic approach to education has very much helped me with my own teaching. I usually have a lot of energy when I’m teaching, because I love it, and whatever I love I generally have a lot of energy for. So I can easily be the most energetic person in class and that used to be an issue. I often used to overwhelm people with a, say highly energetic warm-up, that did not match what the room was saying. Nowadays, I’m much more observant of these kind of situations and I’m trying to read the room just as well.

Greg I must admit, one of the things I enjoyed when I was taking your class was your ability to walk the line between being both a teacher and a fellow student. You were respected by the class, but I felt you were also always thinking about what was going on in your own development. It was a very nice balance.

Annette Thank you. There goes thought into that as well. I’m a learner for life. I enjoy learning and it gives me great pleasure to learn things. I’m curious by nature. So, as a teacher, I’m trying to provide a certain kind of learning structure, because that is what a teacher does for a class, but at the same time I’m learning as well. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the people around me. What is their background, how might they feel right now? If they keep standing with a certain posture, what could be the reason why it can’t change? These kind of things. I’m also absolutely aware of being a student myself, while being a teacher. So I will make sure that I’m not standing in the middle of a circle unless it’s necessary to make sure that I’m part of the circle, part of the group.

As the saying goes, “I know that I know nothing”

I try to let that influence my answers to questions in class, or my overall statements about dancing. I’ll often say “This is how I approach this music, this step, this rhythm, this whatever…” but that doesn’t mean that it is the only way. It also means that someone else’s approach may very well be equally valid.

Again, inspiration is one of my things, so I always get inspired by people in class. If someone has a unique approach to a tune or a rhythm and I see it and I think there is value in sharing that, I will try to shine a light on it. I might say “Hey, do you mind showing that to other people?” so that we can all learn from it. And that puts me back into the circle where we are all students.

Greg After a lifetime of wanting to dance, and learning how to dance, and training to dance, you’re still a student?

Annette Oh, hell yes! Abso-fuckin-lutely.

Laughs

Greg Fantastic. Tell us, if people are interested in taking a class with you, what’s coming up on your personal calendar?

Annette You can find out where I’ll be teaching next on my website: annettedances.com

This being said, one of my favorite events of last year and one that I am looking forward the most this year is Mountain Blues Camp in August in Tuscany, Italy. It is an event run and co-taught by Catherine Palmier, whom we have been talking about. It’s a lovely little, cozy event in the middle of nowhere, in the countryside. The event has a, what I would call, more holistic approach to dancing and to life in general. So, of course you’re there to learn how to dance better, but the beautiful scenery alone, the little lake, the view and also just having a lot of time to yourself and other like-minded people can have healing properties. Especially with Catherine being present herself, because she truly cares and wants people to feel better.

Greg As we wrap up, is there any question I should have asked you?

Annette May I ask you a question?

Greg Yes, you may.

Annette Why are you asking questions?

Greg Very good question. As I look at the world, as I experience what’s going on globally, and in my own life, my approach to difficult situations and trauma is to try to understand them, but also to try and understand how we go about sharing these experiences. So much of humanity is, for me, telling stories. I think that in the dancing world, with the way that events pass and the way that memories are shared, especially on the internet, everything goes away so quickly. For future generations, I want to make sure they can understand why we are doing what we are doing. What is going through our heads, why we are teaching, why we are falling in love, why we are helping each other… I want to make sure they can understand why we are doing what we are doing.

Annette So, for posterity and preservation, and translation…

Greg And passing the torch down from one generation to another.

Annette Nice. I was just thinking about what you said in terms of story telling, because that’s how I see the Blues. Good Blues to me is a story being told really well. Whether it’s instrumental or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s the thing that sucks you in and where you can’t help but be shaken from within, because it’s that compelling. That’s when I run to the dance floor, and I don’t care about anything else around me any more. If it’s good, then I want to be in the story.

Greg I will cheers you to that.

Annette Indeed. Prost!

Greg Prost!