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The Massage

Will Dickie is an artist and performance maker who practices martial arts and deep tissue/ body massage. I spoke to him after he had given me a massage.

Hamish MacPherson: Being massaged seems like a clear situation where someone is still and the masseur is doing the work. Is it fair to characterise that situation as active-passive?

Will Dickie: There's a few things that come to mind. One is the sort of wider question which reminded me of my man Alan Watts [1] that I listen to a lot. Which is like 'who do you think YOU are?' and whether you think you are your conscious attention, this radar scanning device and exclusively that. Or are you something bigger, wider like...he asks questions like 'Who beats your heart?' Who grows your cells?' this kind of stuff. So if you come at it from that angle then I'm interacting with the whole gestalt [2] of the person on the table which includes their organs, their cells and you could argue that's the whole of them so me and them are having a very active dialogue through the whole hour.

That was one thought I had but then on another level, more on a level of conscious attention and knowing that we are working together it varies. I think some people want to just fall asleep and maybe that's their activity. They're active in deciding to just disappear I can work with that a bit. There's also the spectrum of people who are more sensitive or more nervous or less able to inhabit a sensation and they would rather not be active it seems to me. They are a bit fearful and they just want me to calm them  down and not hurt them and do a lot of the work.

Whereas other people at the the end of the spectrum are very active in the sense that they are actively trying to open. Actively trying to deal with the depth of sensation and wanting more of that because they know that that's a little way into their own body and a way into opening and relieving tension and stress. Some people are extremely active in being passive. There's lots of paradoxes flipping around when you start to think about it. They're really actively opening, actively, like of the sensations are really strong they're actively trying to open to it.

Whereas with someone else if the sensation is really strong they might just push it away. Not want to deal with and that feels more passive to me. That forces me to check in more: 'Are you OK? Is this OK? Is that OK?'. It feels harder. If someone is going to take responsibility like 'go for it' I'm going to trust you and just as best as I can go for it  then my role is more passive because I'm just flowing, just going around making it as strong as I can where possible. If I feel something I just stay with it and it's easier.

There's lots of flipping back and forth between how you define those things and what they mean. 

I was aware in the massage that you just gave me...most clearly where there was sort of pain... [I was] doing more work to relax into it. I was sensing when I was a bit more tense or trying to use visualisation to absorb that, aspiring to an idea that being physically passive is the ideal, not mentally but as you say allowing you to have that conversation with my body. [Trying to] get out the way of that.

Do you have any tips for people to relax into the experience. Those people that are a bit resistant, how do you work with that?

There's a very practical thing that I got taught on my quite rough and ready course [but] I guess everybody would teach it, is to slow down....To slow down the stroke or wherever you are. Not go so fast. And also to have a conversation and check they're ok.

And there is one thing that works quite well which is this threshold of pain scale thing. If you tell them, 'Five is unbearable we shouldn't get there but we can do four or three. We don't have to but we can'. And then if you get somewhere that's like, they react and you say 'OK how strong is the pain there?'

And they give you a number, they might say 'Oh no that's a five.'

And you go 'Okay I'll ease off' and then you go slower and you approach the same area again but with lighter pressure and you enter into this dialogue, 'what's that like?'

And they say 'That's like a three.'

And then 'I'm just going to apply a little bit more's that?'

And they say 'Yeah that's still a three.'

'I'm just going to stay here a little longer, how is it now?'

'It's a two now.'

And normally if they feel some sense of ownership over the sensation and they're in control of what I'm doing then the pain eases. It seems to me that the pain comes most quickly when it feels like they've lost control. Like I've got them on the table and I'm just pushing them around and they have no chance to stop me. They're like 'WooaAAH! Woah that's too much. No stop, stop, stop!' Then it becomes too much and quite hard to deal with. But if I relinquish that control through entering this dialogue then the pain tends to lessen and it becomes easier for both of us to work. That’s a little technique.

And then the other end of the spectrum... and interestingly it reminds me of my mum talking about her hip operation. My mum is someone who is quite...she's not that open about people doing things to her body. So her hip operation was a massive trauma for her. The idea of it all happening was just so horrific she couldn't even enter into dealing with it. She just closed it off, wanted it to go away and just pulled herself though it. I was trying to advise her, also the advice I give to people doing this [massage] the way to  deal with string sensation is to look at them directly. To experience them more, and I get that from meditation and all that. If pain arises in the body in meditation you need to  look at it and say 'What are you?' and 'What colour are you? What texture are you? How do you feel? Is it burning, twisting..?' and really get into it. Because it's too late to get rid of it because it's already there so the next thing to do is to really become present with it. As present as possible.

And so if there's a deep sensation in some kind of massage stroke in someone's leg or someone's calf I would think the best thing they could do to get through that or to ease it would be to really, really hone in on the detail of how that feels. And try to breathe into that area and really take responsibility for the feeling of that area. If you try and look away and run-off in the other direction then it grows into this massive imaginary thing. If you look at it directly you can see it for what it is. And with massage, what is it? It's mainly just someone putting lots of weight on a 'bit of your body which isn't really that dangerous a thing to do, even if it's a bit sore. It's just a bit of your body getting a bit squashed for a bit. What's the worst thing that can happen? Unless it's the rib cage or something it's going to be really hard to break anything or damage anything just  by putting pressure on someone's body unless it's very fragile or already damaged.

Hamish MacPherson being massaged by Will Dickie

Are you explicit about that with your clients ever? I think that's really excellent advice.

No, maybe I will be more now we've had this chat.

I thinks that's somehow another way to conceptualise what's happening in a massage which is more interesting, or different from how I see it is normally portrayed - as being fixed or like putting your car in to be tuned.

No I think that's a good idea I should definitely give them the option. That would be good at the beginning; 'But if you want you can just go to sleep or relax or just drift away. Or if you want to feel what's going on then blah, blah, blah..' tell them about that.

Going back to your mum. That made me think about putting yourself into someone else's hands. [In the massage] I'm aware that you're seeing my body... I don't feel unsafe but it's still a vulnerable or unusual situation....

The main bit of the teaching in the course that I did was to do with that kind of stuff. Like how to use the towels, how to let them get changed and where not to touch them and what to say if things get a bit funny. And if you're a woman and massaging a man... You know all these kinds of issues to do with vulnerability were the main points of the course.

The skill of your hands and all that was very secondary to everyone being safe, no one being hurt and nothing happening that shouldn't happen.

And is most of that done tacitly rather than spoken about?

No there's the exam, it's a lot to do with..whether you've done all the proper procedures, that you've done the health check  and you've noted any contra-indications that tell you you shouldn't massage this person. And then the exam is you getting...actually it's not [primarily] you use the towels during the massage and how you get them off the table and allow them to get changed it's all massive parts of the exam.

So there's that sense of you organising the care, to allow them to feel comfortable and not put yourself at any risk. I think that’s the massaging course coordinator protecting themselves because that's the one thing they don't want - one of their students doing something inappropriate, giving them a bad name.

But it's nice when I know the person and I trust them then we  can get to it much easier but if I've never met them before and we don't have a clear connection at the beginning, you know someone who does a lot of physical stuff will be like 'I know what I want you to do, just go for it' then we're on the same page. But someone who is more unsure then... yeah we are very close very quickly, that is quite unusual.

What is actually happening in a massage?

It's not really something that's that addressed on my course, a little bit around the edges. I think there's also not much medical, scientific evidence for the benefits of massage other than  saying they liked it and they feel better but in relation to the nitty gritty of biological study it's a little bit ambiguous which is why it's in this bracket of holistic therapies rather than in the bracket of doctors and western medicine and that kind of stuff. It's still a bit on the alternative therapy.

I've heard it explained in different ways. One explanation I like that our teacher told us is to do with the muscles and the way they connect and interlink is extremely complicated and they're all made of much smaller pieces of fibre and those pieces of fibre at the very base level are receiving impulses from the nerves that are on or off. In Feldenkrais [3] they talk about 'the illusion of smoothness' where a smooth movement is really a refined series of on-off impulses happening through the muscle system. And various ones of those on-off binary things can get stuck in an on setting and of enough of those get stuck together they start to form all these kinds of extra un-smooth aspects of your muscles. I've heard it explained like a big bowl of spaghetti; all criss crossed and tangled up and by running your hands through there over and over and soaking that in oil and sweeping along directions that the muscles are already heading towards you can break down and untangle some of that mess and start to make it flow.

But other concrete things that happen, you bring blood to that area and you move all the fluids that are resting in that area elsewhere and if you are doing the whole body then you're sweeping all this stuff through the system manually; with your hands. And it's all heading towards the heart and towards the chest so anything residing on there will be swept along all the systems of the body and back around. You are just sort of moving everything along.

These sorts of collections of tensions; we can both feel them. And we can both feel after the massage they're looser. Something has passed through, something has cleared.

And then you get into the more... Because it's connected to Western medicine the idea of energy or qi [4] and this kind of stuff isn't really discussed, but all my work to do with movement and dance and theatre and stuff is all to do with energy and we talk about energy all the bloody time. Like where it is and what's happened to it so this sense of a kind of energy being in the body and in my body to and me being able to relate to your energy with mine through movement. It's like that's what's happening in massage really. We're both feeding that, our bodies are full of that. And there's a real dialogue happening between that. I don't know but I'm sure in other types of massage from other cultures it's much more explicit.

How does your experience and practice as a performance, dance artist. How does that different kind of physical dialogue link to the kind of dialogue, or conversation you're having when giving a massage?

There's stuff to do with my body and how it works which I use, especially from my teacher Phillip and this work with Kalaripayattu, this south Indian martial art which is a lot to do with centring to do with the flow of energy in my own body from the floor through my feet to my middle and to through the palms, out through the top of the head. Kalaripayattu works a lot with weapons and hand movements and the idea of having energy in the palms is a massive, massive one for all the movements. There isn't a single movement where you don't have a sense of your palms and the feet. So when I'm massaging I'm feeling the floor with my feet  and sending energy from my centre through my palms over and over again. There's a real flow of energy coming and going in that sense through my body.

And then the main thing from that teacher and other teachers is the sense of listening. Listening... yeah so when you're performing, dancing, acting, improvising, doing any action that's to be  experienced by yourself and another there's this fine line that you have to negotiate where you're listening and you're responsive to what's happening and you're not ahead and you're not behind what's going on right in that moment. So when a body's on the table and I am moving through their body then I'm, as much as possible, trying to open and listen to how I'm moving and how they're moving and feeling and that's a performance really. Exactly the same actually. The audience happens to be the flesh and bones of the person on the table rather than someone who's sitting. You know we make all kinds of funny performances these days where there's no rule about how the audience experiences it anymore. So it's almost for me synonymous' having a leg in my hand, to having them stand next to me in a field when I do one of my solos or you know... just that sense of a dialogue and really trying to open and listen and not pre-empt. Guide but not get in the way of how they're responding and what I want to achieve.

Yeah.. you're talking about active passive. And that's also kind of a meditative thing to like have both. How can you chose to do something but allow it to be done? And that's a very Zen thing, allowing things to take their course. But being responsible for allowing them to take their course, you know. Actively being passive. And Grotowski [5], this theatre guy, he frames as spontaneity and discipline. You have to be totally committed to the act that you're doing to allow that act to be full of life and spontaneous, and that's the standard challenge of any actor. Especially if you're repeating the same scene. How can this [picks up a glass] be totally fresh and alive for us both at the same time be rigorously worked on and prepared over and over and over, Active and passive at the same time. And then my Suzuki teachers - this actor training I do [6] - they talk about living in the paradox and occupying that space, Neither one nor the other and you just learn to be both. Learn to live with both and being active and passive and not needing to select.

And occupying that space takes a lot of time to practice and be there. And I didn't do it for a while and now I'm doing it again so it's like 'oh right yeah, how does this work again? Oh yeah' and today when I was massaging you and the other guy Mark earlier it was really feeling like I was allowing it to happen. Just sort of flowing around and holding onto the body and allowing my hands it move, which was very satisfying. A very nice way to do it.

[1] Alan Watts was a British writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

[2] Gestalt is a German word for form or shape and refers here to the idea that natural systems and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts.

[3] The Feldenkrais Method is a type of exercise therapy that heightens awareness of the practitioner's movement, breathing and posture to improve wellbeing. It was developed by Moshé Feldenkrais from the 1950s till his death in 1984.

[4] Qi or ch'i, in traditional Chinese culture, is the life force that flows through all living things.

[5] Jerzy Marian Grotowski was a Polish theatre director and theorist working in the late 20th Century.

[6] The Suzuki is a body-centred method of actor training, developed by Tadashi Suzuki. It draws on ballet, traditional Japanese and Greek theatre, and martial arts.

August 2017. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity..