~ Fred Astaire
Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
~ Henry David Thoreau
Only one group of mammals (watch for clue) carries itself as ”catwalk” models do when they show off the new season’s fashions. Catwalking humans strut designers’ goods out with what those who identify animal tracks call “negative straddle”: Each foot slices over the center line of the body as it strides forward. This specialized, braided walk usually has to be practiced and coached. It carries power and even menace as the display of fashion becomes pleasurable assault.All of the expressive uses of the foot tell us about–or can alter our–humanness.
Dance critic Alastair Macaulay celebrated the expressiveness of the foot’s contact with the ground in a recent New York Times essay, Macaulay contrasted the way in which Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova sprang through her full foot up into the air–her “weight seem[ing] to contradict reality and to flow not down to the toe but up through the body”–with the Indian dancer’s customary flatiron drop of her full foot or her percussive striking of ball or heel against the ground as she articulates the rhythm of the music.
It is not incidental that the ballerina’s liftoff evokes a sense of emotional expansiveness in the kinesthetically empathetic audience member, nor that the syncopated polyrhythms the Indian dancer stamps out ground the audience member and situate her in the complexity and serendipity of each moment. When we feel what we see in these performers, their feet communicate directly to our full-bodied, fully emotive experience.
We’ve all known people whose identity seemed to be centered in their chests, as they jutted their ribs forward and walked as if a fishhook had caught in their clavicles and yanked them ever forward. Or perhaps the “I’ of them was in their heads, as they towered above and dissertated all over whomever could not get themselves away, or in their hips, as they moved with the consciousness of others’ desiring eyes upon them.
My identity, I know, is centered in my feet. I can affirm that, when the feet make full, sensuous contact with the ground, they affect the sense of self in profound ways. One of my yoga teachers, Tom Quinn, was the main character in a dream that has stayed with me for years. In it, Tom spoke to the ungroundedness I was experiencing with a straightforward reminder: “Find your feet.” With these three words, Tom returned me to the knowledge that, once I could feel the rolling, variegated contact of my feet against the ground, I would know where and who I was.
In his Ancient Walking to Primal Rhythms, Randy Eady has developed a walking modality that makes finding one’s feet the source of healing. Eady’s method combines tai chi, acupressure stimulation of the feet, and labyrinth walking to integrate body, mind, and spirit and to contribute to the healing of serious diseases.
If, as the feet sense the imprint of the ground, they actually reshape the body-mind, then letting the feet go bare is one of the deepest ways of letting experience in.
Do you buy as the real reason many people seem reluctant to take their shoes off in workshops is that they’re embarrassed by the smell of their feet? (I can’t say I do.) Taking off our shoes invites us to transform ourselves through an ineluctable contact with the ground: once you find your feet, you have to be ready to go where they take you, inside as well as out.
Comment from Athena Uslander: I love the conversation about hands and feet. In Iran nobody wears shoes inside the house.
Comment from Kevin Ladd: The ideas about more angular, asymmetrical forms of prayer and their relation to aspects of emotionality are nice. I like to think of [studying symmetrical, peaceful poses] as job security. 🙂
Comment from Randy Eady: Your Skin in the Game is a really useful educational/relational tool for those of us “working anthropological” with rhythms/movement/therapy.