Monks doing qigong

Dancing the Wu Tao way

In Mind and Movement, Yoga, Dance and Movement by LivingNowLeave a Comment

In Wu Tao there are five main dances, all which are related to the different elements in Chinese Medicine. Each dance is performed as part of a sequence of dances that take the dancer through each element in such a way as to encourage the maximum energetic balance. As each element in Chinese Medicine supports the other, each dance performed, supports the movement of energy through the body in a precise way. Channels of energy are opened gently and effectively through each movement of the dance and on completion of the fifth dance, which relates to the earth element, a place of gratitude and trust for all life is reached.

A journey of self discovery

If you’re a bit like me, you’ve been optimistically looking for some time for a ‘work-out’ that is not only painless but also fun. And what if you could work on emotional stress and tension without saying a word? Add to that beautiful music, gentle dance movements, a peaceful state of mind and an energised body afterwards, and you’d probably be jumping up and down saying “Where can I sign up?”.

For me, Wu Tao felt like a tiny seed that had been awoken inside me. It was almost like a feeling of “A-ha! I’ve found you…so this is what I have been waiting for!” After studying Oriental Health Sciences for a year I realised that I wasn’t really cut out to be an accupuncturist. Still, I retained a keen interest in how it had brought so many benefits to people’s lives for so many years. There had to be something to it!

Although I didn’t enrol in the 2nd year of my course, I wasn’t prepared to just let it go. I kept my reading up and learnt about how our bodies reflect our state of harmony, or dis-harmony, in many cases. I delved into how we can rectify stagnation or deficiencies in the body through meditation or movement – stillness (yin) or action (yang) – by the types of foods we eat, when we eat it, and even, the colours we wear and how we decorate our homes (feng shui). It made more and more sense how our emotions and insecurities play out in our lives, despite our ongoing struggle with them. Essentially, it can be brought back to the fact that we get what we resist.

It became clear to me what we need to do is to get out of our heads and back into our bodies. We’ve become so estranged from our own bodies (and nature) that we no longer see or hear the signs on what’s good or unbeneficial for us anymore. Hence this impacts our ‘balance’ in life, and in turn impacts our bodies and our health and ultimately our ability to manage challenges or change.

A journey begins

I stumbled across Wu Tao quite accidentally. A good friend of mine cut an article out of the paper about a new dance therapy based on Chinese Medicine using the five-element theory of air (metal), water, wood, fire and earth. Her words were “I think you’ll like this”. We enlisted in a half-day workshop. I was smitten! The music, the gentle movements, the non-competitive and safe environment, the creative expression, the beauty and elegance of the choreography rang so true with me. I felt at home in my skin. I knew I had discovered something truly unique and beautiful. I wanted to know and experience more! From the website I learnt that the founder was an ordinary person who struggled with what life had dished out to her, just like any other. As a former professional ballerina who suffered a serious back injury, Michelle Locke was forced into early retirement. After discovering that shiatsu helped her manage the injury and ease the pain she decided to study it herself. Later she opened the first shiatsu school of its kind in WA.

After having her second child born with a rare condition known as Rett Syndrome, Michelle’s journey turned into an even more emotionally turbulent one. Unbeknown to her at the time, the universe would never send her something she wasn’t strong enough to endure or ‘ready’ to deal with.

Wu Tao – the dancing way was born out of her journey. Michelle created, expressed and placed her raw emotions into what became a new way of life for her. In fact, she put her whole being into the dance. By bringing the emotions into each dance sequence with her – the good, bad and the ugly – resulted in her ability to gracefully start accepting what the universe was trying to teach her, despite how difficult the lesson was. By accepting the facts of the situation (albeit them being disappointing, heart-wrenching, unjust etc), resolution and clarity about what was necessary for her to do was now within her reach. Through surrendering to a greater force, the struggle and resistance to the situation subsided, translating into an ability to move through it instead of against it. She discovered that using specific movements based on the meridian system, helped to open up and harmonise qi (life-force energy) in her own body, much as shiatsu did for her back pain. By doing the dances, she was able to start releasing (emotional) blockages being held in her body that were causing imbalances in certain organs, as well as in her life.

Another wake up call?

What a revelation! Just as accupunture or accupressure stimulates qi flow to help bring the body return to equilibrium, so too can the dances help people to help themselves in a beautiful, yet indirect and non-invasive way. And at the same time as being physically good for them! Wu Tao can be a joyous or emotionally moving experience. Your body automatically melds with the music, allowing you to let go of what’s going on in your mind and just ‘be’ in your body. It can bring about a huge emotional release. Or you may not even notice what specific effect a dance sequence has had on you, but you are likely to feel freer, lighter, and peaceful, and more at ease with, and inside your body. Often this is can be a foreign sensation because in today’s society we’re no longer familiar with what it feels like to let go and occupy an ‘empty’ space in our minds.

My personal experience was cathartic. Each time I hear the music, it sends shivers through my body and makes me want to breathe as deeply into my belly as I can. This is a benefit in itself! It’s as if the body remembers the feeling of peace that it reaches once the dances are completed. The first time I danced the wood dance we were outside, barefoot in the cool grass amongst the trees. The sun was peaking through the clouds trying to send down some rays – the perfect opportunity to grasp the core essence and nature of the dance itself.

Getting back to your roots

The wood dance starts with self-expression and covers the organs of the liver and gall bladder. An important aspect of the wood element is creativity, motivation and knowing what decisions you need to make for your highest good.

When out of sync, people suffering from a wood imbalance have a tendency towards procrastination and may find that they can’t move forward. This may translate into feelings of frustration, which can lead to anger and resentment about not being able to do what they think they need to do. Or conversely, just not knowing what they need to do. Or even seeing others with jealousy, steaming ahead while they get left behind, often blaming someone else for their own predicament. They can’t seem to find their feet or have the ability to ‘respond’ to situations appropriately. Not surprisingly, it’s also the element that encompasses finances and self-responsibility when looking at the Ba Gua in feng shui.

The analogy of the wood dance is to image that you are a tree full of vitality – growing from roots to branches, reaching up and out towards the sun. My eyes were glued shut and despite my tendency towards shyness, I went for it! I was that tree! The qi was surging and rushing up my trunk from my roots. I felt a very strong urge to shout as loudly as I could, which I later learnt, is the sound associated with the wood element. It was such an energising and invigorating experience! I felt so alive. I let my body take over, and allowed my emotions to actually become part of the dance.

Seasonal dancing

Each dance uniquely represents various meridians in the body and their associated organs. There is a colour, a sound, a taste, a season, a smell, and an emotion linked to each element. This would suggest why you may feel an affinity for a specific dance, or perhaps struggle with one. Both which could signify an imbalance in that area of your body. This may change from week to week, depending on what you are currently going through in your life. Or you may find that due to an underlying theme that has been with you for some time, you will resonate with one particular dance. All of which are ‘normal’ responses, and will give you the ability to release emotions and free up some space for new encounters that you might not otherwise experience due to long-held (emotional) tension in the body. It’s amazing what ensues when you just let go.

Coming home

I continue to see and feel the impact of the dances every day. It’s been a journey of self-discovery. I believe here lies the root of many people’s problems – they’ve just lost sight of who they really are, caught up in what they have become. What a wonderful gift to be given to be able to return home? Where there is nowhere else you need to be and no one you need to become. Just you, at home in your body. Home sweet home.


Suzi van Middelkoop is a freelance writer with a special interest in Oriental Health and Feng Shui. She has a background in marketing and is now a licensed Wu Tao dance teacher servicing Sydney’s Lower North Shore.

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