Paris Center Stories: Hiie Saumaa (PhD, Columbia University)
Tell us about the type of dance that you practice and why you were drawn to it.
The type of dance that I practice I call somatic dance. What makes somatic dance unique is that we pay attention to sensations, how we feel from the inside out as we move. We also pay attention to the imagination and the state of the mind. That's why I like this type of dance. It's not about precise choreography. It's about feeling free and connected to yourself on multiple levels as you move. Somatics is an umbrella term for a lot of different kinds of practices. They each have a different history, a different methodology, but what they share is the idea of connecting to the movement from the inside, paying attention to sensations first and foremost. The technique that I teach and practice most often is called the Nia Dance. I've also studied TamalpaLife/Art Process, SuryaSoul, 5Rhythms, contact improvisation, JourneyDance – there are many different kinds of somatic dance forms.
What brought you to Paris and what can you tell us about the creative community here?
I came to Paris in the fall of 2018 as one of the inaugural Fellows at the Institute for ideas and imagination here at Reid Hall. I came here to write a book manuscript about the creative process -- the writings, the drawings, the videos, the photography -- of the American choreographer Jerome Robbins. What I really loved about my time as a Fellow here was the fact that I was surrounded by other scholars, but also fiction writers, composers, artists of different kinds. At that time, I was also an artist in residence at the Cité internationale des arts here in Paris and I started to collaborate with other artists, visual artists. It was interesting for me to put movement in conversation with visual work.
Where did the idea of Dance and the City come from?
The idea for the program dance in the city came from an informal conversation that I had with the Séverine Martin, who is the director of the undergraduate programs here at Reid Hall. We wanted to bring some new energy into the virtual offerings of the undergraduate program here because of the pandemic situation. We wanted to open it up to students in New York and others who want to be in Paris, but cannot be here because of the pandemic. I was, at that time, teaching an academic course called Text and the City where we were looking at the depictions of place in works of fiction and nonfiction and also how to write about place. So the idea of Dance and the City just came like this. We thought it made a lot of sense to put movement and the city of Paris together.
Can dance be therapeutic in these times?
I am a very strong believer in the therapeutic force of dance at all times, and particularly during the times of the pandemic, where we feel like there's a lot of stress, anxiety, pent up energy, and dance can be really releasing. Also, dance puts us in a good mood. It's like a resource of joy that we can tap into whatever the circumstances around us are. There is a form of dance practice called dance therapy, which is different from somatic dance. But the dance forms that I teach also have a therapeutic holistic effect, because we pay attention not just to physical movement, but also how we feel emotionally, how we feel in the soul, what's going on in the mental realm, what's going on in the imagination. Our approach to the entire being is more holistic as we dance.
Is there a link between movement and creativity? Should I dance if I have writer's block?
I believe there is a very strong link between creativity and movement. I recommend dancing and movement for writers who have a creative block or anybody who is an artist and wants to improve their practice. It's a big topic. So I'll just give you a few notes about why I feel creativity and dance are related.
Number one, after you dance, you're in a better mood. We take this for granted, but it's actually really, really important. When you're in a good mood, you have more self confidence and belief in your capabilities. And it's easier for you, in my view, to tackle these more intellectually difficult tasks, such as writing.
The second reason why I think there's a link between creativity and movement is that in a movement class where we do a lot of free improvisation, where there's no strict choreography, you discover : 'Oh, I can move like this, but I can also move like this.' What you do in these instances is develop curiosity and a non-judgmental attitude toward movement. Now, going back to the writer who has a writer's block, oftentimes the reason why we have a writer's block is that there's a very strong inner critic who says, 'You're not capable of doing this, you have no ideas, what you write is boring.’ You can transfer this idea of a non-judgmental, curious attitude toward what you create also toward writing. The first thing about writing is to get the ideas down. It’s important to be open and curious and non judgmental.
The third reason why I think there is a link between creativity and movement is that when you move, especially when you move in ways where more of yourself is being seen – in other words, we do improvisational free dance – you develop confidence in yourself as a mover. It takes guts to do free movement and for some people it is easier. For some people, it's more difficult. In writing, it's the same thing. You actually have to have guts to write because you make yourself visible. In my view, by developing your voice through movement, you're also in a way developing your voice in other realms of life. It's about confidence, actually.