The Working Artist: Paige Barnes — Teacher, Student, Artist

We’ve lost a month. This series on Paige Barnes was supposed to come out in June. Truthfully, I had the material but I didn’t have as much as I should have liked. With The Cabiri, I had their show, Tarhun, to serve as bedrock for the construction of a series of articles. With Paige Barnes I had only lots of scattered ideas with no imminent show on which to hang them. So in the interests of fairness and depth I decided to spend even more time with Ms. Barnes than I spent with The Cabiri. After all, this time I am writing about an individual life and not the life of a group. Finally I believe I have enough to make a fair treatment of the subject. There will always be something more to say, of course, but this will have to do for now.

Part 1: The Teacher

Since 1998 Paige Barnes has boldly cut her path as one of the finest dancers in the city, stroke by stroke. Beginning with her collaborations with Pablo Cornejo that took her through Latin America all the way to Ecuador and continuing all the way through her latest work with the Seattle Chamber Players and their two versions of Jean Cocteau’s Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, Ms. Barnes’ work has been striking. Blessed with a brilliant dance mind, she has created some of Seattle’s most interesting movement work. She has created work with extremely strict settings (Ten Tiny Dances and Ayudapii) and work that extends well beyond traditional dance into film, video and music as well (War Is Over, Stenophobia, Here/Now). She attracts strong collaborators and brings out the best in them, experimenting ceaselessly with their physical and psychic limits as well as her own.

Beyond her work as an dancer and choreographer, she manages the dance studio of which she is also one of the founders: Seattle’s Open Flight Studio, a space for performance-based artists to research, experiment, develop, teach and perform that also holds classes in modern dance, African dance and Brazilian capoeira. surrounded by a thriving environment and constantly fresh faces from the college two blocks away, Open Flight Studio offers Seattle’s performing artists an affordable and under-utilized space to work out their ideas in the heart of U District.

Even beyond all this, however, Ms. Barnes is also a teacher of the Gyrotonic Expansion System, which she teaches at the Gyrotonic studio on Phinney Ridge. Not content with all that, she is also a student at university, where she is studying chemistry and molecular biology this year on her way to a degree in acupuncture. Where does she find the time to do it all? Only Ms. Barnes knows for sure, and she isn’t telling.

There are scoffers in the community who believe that artists do not do any real work. Paige Barnes’ life and career offer a perfect rejoinder to this sort of nonsense. She is as devoted to her community as she is to her craft and her creativity, in ways that those who do “real work” only wish they could understand. In spite of all her hard work and her innate genius, Paige Barnes remains a virtually unappreciated artist in a town that is known for failing to appreciate its working artists.

This series is an attempt to put that failure to right.

Gyrotonic Seattle

“She’s marvelous,” he says. His name is Bob. “I always go get her coffee or tea, something to drink, after we finish a session. She knows so much about the body and physiology. I’ve had a lot of Gyrotonic instructors but she is the best. By far.”

I share Bob’s adoration for Paige Barnes. I have always found her one of the brightest, most energetic dancers I have met. She is a beautiful woman, with an exceptional sensibility and a restless yet indomitable spirit that drives her to create fantastic work. Ms. Barnes has invited me today to watch her at work as a Gyrotonic teacher. Fascinated as I am by everything she does and always interested in something new, I could hardly say no.

The relationship between the healthy body and the creative body is a primary concern for dancers, certainly. It’s not a surprise that dancers should teach movement classes for the general public. How much better still if such movement is designed to heal as well as promote maintenance. Here today there are four students, diverse in age, three men–including a professional dancer–and one woman.


The Gyrotonic system was developed by Juliu Horvath, a Romanian-born Hungarian dancer who defected to Italy in 1970, eventually finding his way to the United States where he danced with the Houston Ballet. That is, he did dance with the ballet until his rising career halted quickly after he ruptured his Achilles tendon on tour. Unable to dance steadily, Mr. Horvath retreated into his study of yoga, eventually devising his system of “Yoga For Dancers” which became Gyrokinesis. The principle behind Gyrokinesis shares many goals in common with other movement modalities (Hatha yoga especially) but the means are different, emphasizing fluidity and fullness of motion where Hatha yoga, for instance, emphasizes static poses.

Mr. Horvath once wrote, “I want music in my body and poetry in my body, and I want to be skillful without struggle; it has to come without struggle.” This appears to be an odd statement in a world of dancers, most of whom (as other artists) believe that struggle is essential to the creative process. But there is no real conundrum. Skill without struggle does not imply creativity without struggle; the qualities are quite different. A writer, for instance, needs effortless skill in rhetoric and syntax in order to activate his creativity, else his creativity remains limited. Similarly, a dancer needs effortless skill at movement in order to activate her creativity. The Gyrotonic Expansion System is just another approach toward such effortlessness.

The four students today work out on two of the main pieces of Gyrotonic equipment: the Pulley Tower Combination Unit and the Leg Extension Unit. The classroom here is quite small. I am incredulous that it actually holds as much equipment as it does. Still, there are occasional spatial issues when multiple people are using the equipment. I imagine it would be quite cramped to use two of the leg extension units simultaneously without some cooperation. As long as the students are doing different exercises, however, or are aware of each other’s space the entire routine can be smooth, as it is right now.

Ms. Barnes works hard as a teacher. “Teaching is how I learn – about the body, movement, creative process and human relating,” she says. The class in front of her certainly provides a lesson in human relations. The personalities here are distinct. Typical of any class, some students need more help than others. The student on the Leg Extension Unit is self-motivated and needs little assistance. One of the other students working on a Pulley Tower is struggling a little. Ms. Barnes moves to him. He only requires minor adjustments but he needs to discover this for himself. Ms. Barnes shows him which muscle groups to attend and demonstrates the full range of motion for her student, in what looks like an Eagle Flight motion. With this image in his head now, the student immediately shows progress and proceeds to break through his prior block. Beholding the smile on her face would inspire anyone. Her movements as she demonstrates are effortless but even more effective is her sense of joy. She is an excellent model, as they would say in ITIP teacher training, knowing exactly what to say and what to show.

Velocity Dance Center

Every little movement
Has a meaning all its own.
Every thought and feeling,
By some posture, can be shown.
And, every love thought
That comes a-stealing
All your being must be revealing
All its sweetness
In some appealing little gesture
All of its own.

The little ditty from Madame Sherry is going through my head as I watch her work. It’s a thinly veiled reference to the work of Delsarte, whose influence on the early days of modern dance is so deep as to be inestimable. As I watch Ms. Barnes lead her class at the Velocity Dance Center I am struck by the similarity between her Gyrotonic teaching method and her modern dance teaching method. It should not surprise me. After all, the means are the same even if the goals are different. Movement is movement.

In truth the most profound influences on modern dance did not originate in dance at all. Delsarte was not interested in creating a system of dance but simply in studying movement. Dalcroze intended his rhythmique (later called eurhythmics) to train musicians, not dancers. Rudolf Steiner and G.I. Gurdjieff also were not particularly interested in a technique of dance as such. It should make perfect sense that contemporary dancers draw from movement studies beyond dance. Those studies and the dancer’s own experience can make for much more interesting teaching, initiating the students into a larger mystery, as it were.

“While teaching I have the opportunity to work with a person at an intimate level,” says Ms. Barnes. “To see them engage with a process, a concept, that is unknown to them, kind of like taking them on a new hike in a dense forest with varied terrain that leads them to the ocean…I help guide the person toward a new place, see how they interact with going into an unknown space, what they do once they arrive and how that new information helps them grow and express a new area of themselves, how that knowledge informs the old pathways.”

“This process teaches me too. In fact I think it is because of teaching that I truly understand a few concepts.”

Many of Seattle’s finest dancers are also teachers: Amy O’Neal, Catherine Cabeen, Shannon Stewart, Jody Kuehner–the list is long. On the economic level it provides an income of sorts but the economic level is not the important one for most dancers. The work is far too difficult for the actual economic reward. Something else must motivate a dancer to teach.

In Ms. Barnes’ case, the motivation is emotional. “Satisfaction,” she says. “Personal growth, potential, vulnerability, sincerity, imperfection, human flaws, affection, patience, kindness, personal expression, individuation, personal sense of freedom, personal empowerment, giving and receiving (reciprocation), making mistakes, are a few things that come to mind in the learning and teaching process.”

Moreover, teaching is for her a way of deepening her own understanding not only of dance but also of herself. “Understanding of oneself and others around or deepening one’s own personal knowledge (personal awareness) with the knowledge of the world around creates spaces for intimacy and understanding, individuation along with connection, compassion for oneself and for those around–that’s satisfying, too,” she says. “Commonly said, the more you learn the less you feel like you know and this is true with teaching movement. The layers upon layers that are involved in the entire process are revealed to me. That is also why I am interested in acupuncture. It is about energy flow inside of the body: a deeper level of understanding movement and flow which will help me to be a better teacher, to convey and communicate ideas.”

Every teacher should be motivated, so humble and so gifted.

Filed under Culture, Dance

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net