I’ve been reading and exploring a lot of Buddhist material in my personal life these days, so I’ve taken that as inspiration to write a little about some Zen-like bits of experience that I’ve picked up while learning to dance over the years. Each of the three experiences I’ll relate was with a different dance teacher, and I hope they don’t mind my mentioning their names here. This will be a 3-part series, with one teacher per post. Here’s part three.

3) Breath Awareness with Kathe Burick

Kathe Burick was my tap dance teacher for a 16-week beginning tap class that I took at San Francisco City College back in 2007. Kathe teaches tap there regularly, and the class is one of the best deals in town, not only because it only costs $20 for all 16 weeks, 2 hours a week, but you also get to take class with a woman who is not only a great tapper, but also an inspiring teacher who teaches from her heart.

At the time I took Kathe’s class, I was going through a difficult time in my emotional and personal life, enough so that I found it challenging to stay mentally focused through the 2-hour class. At times my mind would wander absently to the fixation of that particular era of my life, and though my body was physically in the tap bungalow, my presence was somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.

Outside of class, I had started reading about meditation practice, and had begun trying it out myself, and some of the first things I read were about breath awareness, focusing one’s attention on one’s own breath as a means of calming oneself and bringing oneself back to the present moment. I experimented with this in class.

When I was in Kathe’s tap class, if I caught my mind wandering, I simply acknowledged that fact to myself, and then took a deep, gentle breath, re-centering myself and bringing my attention back to the class.

Taking that deep breath was like hitting a mental reset button. I visualized myself as a kind of conduit through which the knowledge Kathe was conveying could flow through as she taught. My mental wanderings and fixations were like blockages in a pipe, bits of accumulated dirt and debris which reduced the efficiency of the flow of knowledge. Breathing in and out was like flushing the pipe clean, so that the knowledge and experience could flow freely once again.

Now, what makes this more a story about Kathe, is that I noticed several times in class when it seemed that Kathe had become aware of someone’s mental distraction (including my own), and rather than giving a stern rebuke, she actually quieted down and took a deep breath in and out herself, deep enough that one could hear it, and everyone in class seemed respond by also taking a parallel breath in and out. It was as if Kathe’s breath had been a gentle invitation to return to the present moment, to the class…that she as teacher was keyed into our attention level and helping us hit our own mental reset button when she saw that we needed it.

Towards the end of the 16-week class, I asked Kathe whether her act of breathing in and out was a conscious effort to help her students relax and bring them back to attention. As a teacher myself, I was particularly interested in the answer. I think Kathe said that it happened intuitively, and that chances were that I already did it myself in my own classes without realizing it.

Still, these days, having personally experienced some of the benefits of breath awareness, I try to be aware, among many other things going on during class, of my students breathing and attention patterns; if I sense a bit of tension, distraction or frustration, I try to take a deep breath myself, inviting my students along with me, and hitting that reset button.

Thanks for that cool trick, Kathe!

(…and that concludes this three part series.)

The Zen of Learning to Dance (part 3)