Moving Possibilities: Four Lessons from Moving More
“Why are you still moving?” the kids around me in the elementary school lunch line instructed.
We had just finished some kind of movement class and I was still practicing the moves while in the line.
In a moment, I learned that there is a place for movement and a time to get in line.
How do we learn when and how to move, and when and how to line up, sit down, and be still?
I believe that moving and being moved are essential for learning and leading.
Moving more supports healthy life.
Indeed, movements shape the world.
Informed by series of messages starting early in life, faith leaders and adult learners can spiritualize movement so that the heart is strangely warmed while the body sits for hours on end.
Classrooms, study spaces, workplaces, even worship can discipline the body to line up, sit down, and be still.
To be sure, rest is essential for a faithful life.
Yet moving more also informs our life together.
How might movement inform teaching and learning, even so-called book learning?
I’ve always considered my classroom to be hospitable to movement, usually splitting the time into thirds – start sitting at tables in a circle, move into small group exercises, then move back together.
But recently, I’ve incorporated more movement in my classes with the simple but profound method of “theatre of the oppressed.”
Theatre of the oppressed is a teaching and learning method inspired by brilliant Brazilian educator Augusto Boal that relies on the fact that our bodies already know and feel the problems and issues we are learning about.
When we work together to create through what our bodies already know, I also take into myself the obligation to learn from you.
Theologian Cláudio Carvalhaes puts it this way: “I have to check how my own ways of thinking and living are related to other forms of thinking and living,”
Furthermore, our embodied selves, when working together with mutual respect, already know something about what needs to change, or move to create new possibilities.
More diverse groups with more diverse movement habits and abilities and even languages can create more possibilities.
I’ve also starting using this teaching method in churches and workshops.
Before PowerPoint slides, lecture, or discussion, I prefer theatre of the oppressed as a way to share my research on resistance movements as pastoral care.
In small groups, I invite people to move their bodies into a collective posture of resistance (without words or touch).
We take turns performing small group embodied sculptures for each other and notice what we see and feel in our bodies.
I have seen the following four learnings about what our bodies already know from moving more.
- New Possibilities Within Current Capacities
After small groups of folks freeze frame their bodies in postures of resistance, I invite new possibilities through changes in body movements (again without words or touch) either from group members or from observers from other groups. More often than not, the kernel of a new possibility comes first through a relaxed shoulder, eye contact, a change in body orientation that then can be filled in with words and layered with meaning. Before I share my research about resistance, participants already know something about their own resistances and how to engage them to do their best work in the world.
- Consent and Mutual Respect are Key
Small group collective movement brings the importance of consent to collective awareness. Even though instructed not to use words or touch, it can be hard for some folks not to act on impulses to reach out a hand to a shoulder, lift a turned-away gaze, or join hands. It can be equally hard to refrain from speaking in this simulated exercise. It is clear that my well-being affects yours and your suffering affects me and both affect the world. How do we ask permission around speech and touch, listening and being moved, in order to work together with mutual respect?
- How Long Must I Hold It? What Is Going On?
When I invite groups to move their bodies into freeze frame positions, often people move their bodies in ways different from their resting position – a hand raised, a leaning over, a head bowed down, a twist at the waist, a swaying or jumping for folks who decide to use a moving embodied sculpture. “How long must we hold it?” can be a common question as bodies tire and tense. This experience is instructive because it teaches through our bodies how structures of disconnection can create stress by entering embodied habits within and beyond the exercise. Once relaxed and back in group conversation, we can assess more deeply what our bodies help us know about what is going on and how we want and need to move differently.
- Collective Movement Creates Together What Needs To Be Made
What I know about future possibilities for current human messes from conflicts to intersecting patterns of oppression and inequality to longstanding wounds and wicked problems like climate change and border crises is that the solutions needed will be made together through diverse coalitions that integrate minds, bodies, histories, methodologies, various forms of wisdom and practices of justice. Mental, physical, and spiritual health must join together both in particular lives and in our shared life together on this earth. Theatre of the oppressed can illustrate this even in small and short-term ways: together, a group of people committed to embody mutual respect and learn together can make new possibilities come into being.
Moving is good for the body; bodies that move are good for the world.
Theatre of the oppressed is one method for learning that highlights the immense potential within all persons and communities, the importance of mutual respect and consent, the ways that what is going on in the world affects our bodies, and the promise that collective movement can create new possibilities to salve a world of suffering and stress.
A colleague recently asked how best to structure four-hour class sessions and I responded that I have found moving to be key.
“Moving from one thing to another or moving in physical space?” my friend asked.
Yes, I responded, all that and more.
When tempted to sit down, line up, and be quiet, remember that we might have just as much to learn from moving more.
This post was written in observation of Emotional Wellness Month.
Mindy McGarrah Sharp, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care and Co-Director of Master of Arts in Practical Theology Program at Columbia Theological Seminary.
 I have written a lot about moving and being moved. It is important to note that in general, I think moving and being moved are good things, life-giving acts. Yet, moving alone is often not enough for a good and faithful life. And being moved against one’s will can harm.
 The phrase “heart strangely warmed” is how founder of Methodism theologian John Wesley talked about being moved by the spirit.
 Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. NY, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 1979.
 McGarrah Sharp, Creating Resistances: Pastoral Care in a Postcolonial World (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
*Editor’s Note: Feature image courtesy of the Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed. To learn more about this organization, click here.