Going Gaga: My Intro to Gaga Dance Classes

Dance Training, Events, My Reflections
(Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's "Three" - photo by Gadi Dagon)
(Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's "Three" - photo by Gadi Dagon)

A year after beginning my study of Gaga, the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, it seems hard to believe that I once lived without it.  Gaga is profoundly influencing my artistry, widening my range of movement and fostering a greater confidence in my ability to improvise.  It is also now a major focus of my research and writing.

I wrote “Going Gaga” in November 2007 for my first blog and edited it for Dance In Israel.  To see a listing of Gaga classes, please check Dance In Israel’s Events page.  I’ll leave you to your reading – right now I’m off to Ohad’s monthly class!

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After making my initial rounds of the Tel Aviv studios to sample modern and contemporary dance classes, I decided it was time to immerse myself in the training method that is most unique to Israel: Gaga (גאגא).  Gaga was developed by the Batsheva Dance Company’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin, and it evolved not only through his work with professional dancers but through experimentation with non-dancers; indeed, when a non-dancing employee of Batsheva expressed a desire to dance in the late 1990s, Naharin began biweekly classes for her and several other employees. The Batsheva company now trains daily in Gaga, and since 2001, members of the general public have been able to practice Gaga in open classes.

Gaga Dance Classes: The Logistics

Currently, there are hour-long classes six days a week at the Suzanne Dellal Center taught by dancers who have worked with Naharin; on some days, there are two or three classes.  Most people who attend these classes are not aspiring dancers with previous training.  Instead, they are members of the general public who found out about Gaga through word-of-mouth.

People interested in practicing Gaga must commit to an introductory month. For a very reasonable fee – 220 shekels (roughly $60, depending on the exchange rate) – beginners can take as many classes as they would like, and they also gain free admission into the special monthly class offered by Ohad Naharin himself.  This month-long trial period allows novices like me to absorb the philosophy of Gaga, receiving information from the rotating roster of teachers and observing the changes in our bodies and movement over time.  After the first month, practitioners can decide to take one class per week (220 shekels for a month) or unlimited classes (330 shekels for a month).

What is Gaga?

Now you have some background, but what exactly is Gaga?   At my first class, I was given a double-sided paper with more detailed information.  Here is an excerpt from the English translation:

“Gaga is a new way of gaining knowledge and self awareness through your body.  Gaga is a new way for learning and strengthening your body, adding flexibility, stamina and agility while lightening the senses and imagination.  Gaga raises awareness of physical weaknesses, awakens numb areas, exposes physical fixations and offers ways for their elimination.  Gaga elevates instinctive motion, links conscious and subconscious movement.  Gaga is an experience of freedom and pleasure. In a simple way, a pleasant place, comfortable close, accompanied by music, every person with himself and others.” (Ohad Naharin, Gaga introduction sheet)

The second side of the handout provides elaborations on the following instructions: listen to the body, be aware of others in the room, work barefoot and silently, and arrive promptly.  Another key instruction is below:

“Never stop:  The class is one session, no pauses or exercises, but a continuity of instructions one on top of the other.  Each instruction does not cancel the previous one, but is added to it, layer upon layer.  It is, therefore, important not to stop in the middle of the session.  If you get tired or want to work at another pace, you can always lower the volume, work 30%, 20%, float, rest but without losing sensations that already awakened.  Do not return to the state your body was in, before we started.” (Ohad Naharin, Gaga introduction sheet)

My First Experiences with Gaga

Reading this introduction sheet piqued my curiosity even more in the final minutes before my first class, and I found that the excerpt above gave an accurate sense of the class. In Gaga, verbal instructions (primarily in Hebrew but with some English kindly thrown in for me and others) draw students’ attention to particular body parts, actions, dynamics, and spatial relationships.

There are some common terms and images in these instructions, such as:

  • float
  • shake
  • draw circles with different body parts
  • imagine the floor is getting very hot
  • become a string of spaghetti in a pot of boiling water
  • connect to pleasure

Here is a small sampling of other prompts which recur with variations:

  • feel like you are kneading dough with your hands
  • imagine little explosions going off inside your body
  • imagine a point within your chin (or other body part); where can you put that point?
  • sense and explore the space behind your neck (or other body part)
  • quake as if there is an earthquake beneath you
  • move as if your flesh has melted off and you are just bones

Unlike many of the modern and contemporary classes I have attended, the Gaga classes begin standing.  Usually we start by simply shifting our weight side to side, slowly allowing the movement to travel through our bodies and layering our motion in accordance with verbal instructions like those above.  In a typical class, we gradually build up to level changes and locomotion through space.

At times we use our voice in Gaga, counting down as we bring a certain action to its peak for 10 more seconds or allowing our movement to elicit noise.  We also engage our focus and are encouraged to look around at our fellow classmates as we conduct our “research.”   On some occasions we work with partners.  We fill in the negative space around them, call attention to particular body parts through touch, or riff on their personal groove.

I had the unique experience of taking Gaga one day with my classmates from a seminar on classic Jewish texts and contemporary Israeli culture held at Alma Hebrew College. Yossi Naharin, who is command central for Gaga classes (and who also happens to be Ohad’s brother), gave us a tour of Batsheva’s facilities and debriefed us after our Gaga class with Arkadi Zaides.  Not wanting to influence the language or reactions of my classmates, I sat back and listened to their comments before speaking myself.

A couple of people who had been apprehensive about dancing were pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed Gaga.  Others commented on how wonderful it was to move without a sense of judgment or competition – and without the usually present and frequently scary wall-length mirror (the mirror is purposefully covered in all Gaga classes, and as Yossi pointed out, there are no mirrors in the studios that Batsheva uses).

As our discussion moved to questions about typical dance training, I finally talked about what I experienced in my first two weeks of Gaga.  Many of my early reflections, made after 8 sessions, still hold true after months of regular classes.

Much to my delight, Gaga enables me to find movements that I would never choose if simply instructed to “dance” or “improvise.”  Usually I slip into ballet or mainstream modern dance-influenced movements when given the license to improvise, but this framework encourages what is for me an exceptionally honest investigation of how my body can move, freed from my previous training and stylistic preferences.  Gaga also allows me to tap into actions such as shaking which I previously shied away from because I worried they would aggravate old injuries; moreover, it empowers me to perform these movements for a sustained period of time with remarkable ease.

At the time I first wrote, I was also struck by how my experience in Gaga dovetailed with my exposure to Qi Gong and energy work.  There are moments in Gaga class where I am able to simply allow the energy to flow through and guide my body without me exerting either conscious choice or physical force.  In November 2007, I wrote, “I am looking forward to continuing these explorations, observations, and (hopefully) transformations throughout the coming months . . .”   Transformations did indeed occur, and I am excited to realize that my experience with Gaga will be a ongoing journey for years to come.

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*This post was made possible thanks to a Fulbright student grant funded by the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation and hosted by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

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