The Intersection of Dance, Pilates, and Music: An Interview with Cicely Nelson
Cicely Nelson is a violinist, educator, pilates teacher, dancer, and general somatic adventurer. With a wide range of educational and artistic experiences, as well as having lived a number of places, she brings a unique perspective to all that she does. She's also a recent Canadian transplant in Los Angeles, which is a new chapter in her career. I am impressed by all that she does and I can't wait to meet up with her and move the next time I'm in LA.
K: Tell us a little about your varied career. You have a wide range of interests and training, and a blended career in multiple fields of education, somatic teaching, and music performance. (and a liberal arts degree too!) You also just moved to LA...
C: My parents are very musical and music was a constant in my house growing up. Dancing was really my first artistic outlet - I danced seriously (attending professional schools in Canada) and professionally until my early twenties (I am back to dancing now, after some time off, but not as much ballet). Dancing is a tough career though, and I think, in many ways, I was emotionally unprepared for it, and I found healing and strength in returning to therapeutic bodywork as a career while at university in New York. Music kind of slowly blossomed alongside that. So I'm not sure I even noticed at the time how helpful both conditioning and somatic work was for my playing! That I maintained my physical health was always kind of a given. Later, encountering so many musicians with physical issues, I really realized the value of the work I do! In New York I used to teach pilates to a big-name violinist. I'll never forget the day he asked me for a violin lesson – for the sake of his alignment of course, my head exploded nevertheless!
K: When did you start music study as a child, as well as dance, and how did studying those two performing arts concurrently affect you then and now?
C: Like I said, dance was very much primary, but music always alongside. I don't think musicians always think of dancers as musicians (but of course they are) - and, similarly musicians do have far greater command of their coordination and propriocention than they realize! My bodywork makes me super keenly aware of the physicality of playing - to the extent that it can occasionally be difficult to get into a state of flow where I'm just thinking of the music. But generally body awareness really helps my playing.
K: How does the liberal arts degree factor into things?
C: I didn't have much of a high school experience (due to ballet school), so college was really about studying anything and everything! Thankfully, I went to college in New York City so it was a tremendously stimulating place to kind of reroute my passions after the ballet career and, while I dabbled in premed and even contemplated going a more academic direction, I don't think it was really ever a question that I could stay away from the arts.
K: You additionally have training in Suzuki- when did you start that? C: I was made aware of the really excellent Suzuki teacher training program at the school for strings in NYC after I finished my undergraduate degree. In all honesty, the program's approach sounded so similar to Pilates! The school really emphasizes creatively finding a slow, steady, systematic path for every single student, regardless of ability or learning style. The skills that I had gained in training people to move came in really handy in teaching children to play. It's really such a great program! Incredible teachers – I think of them every day that I teach, not only the amazing violinistic tips but their humanity – how they really prioritized developing the whole child as opposed to just a little prodigies, how art for them wasn't just about creativity and achievement but also about emotional health. This resonated with me as it wasn't a balance that was particularly well struck during my own childhood.
K: How does have a somatic background affect the way you work with beginners and children? C: Oh wow, it's huge! Kids are so much more in touch with their emotions than adults, for a variety of reasons. Of course, they're not always able to understand or verbalize their feelings, but my awareness of how emotions manifest physically enables me to guide both their learning and performing experiences with extra sensitivity, I think.
K: Who have some of your biggest teachers/mentors been, either in movement or music? C: I've been fortunate to study with some incredible mentors - in all of my endeavors. I've always sought answers very avidly and, for better or worse, impatiently - so, if one my mentors wasn't getting through to me, I would seek another answer. Of course the downside to this is that I have been a somewhat of a fickle student.
In New York, I studied violin with Joey Corpus, who is just a total savant. He extremely creative about solving violinistic issues - he has no set system, his eye just seems to see. Also, somewhat ironically for a paraplegic, his instructions are extremely kinetic, an approach that resonated with me.
In terms of bodywork, I absolutely adore Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Her work on embodied anatomy, living in our bodies instead of our minds, was and remains a game changer for me.
Erika Bloom has been an incredible Pilates colleague and mentor. We met up in New York in 2006, where I was a member of the team that opened her first studio. It was so refreshing to work with someone who prioritized education and truly kept themselves and their team abreast of current anatomical and neuromuscular scholarship. I think that's becoming a more common model now, but not as much 10 years ago. I continue to work for her now, having moved to LA to open her first West Coast studio last January.
K: What has the intersection of movement and music done for you?
C: They are the same to me. Vehicles of expression that demand massive amounts of devotion, drilling, sacrifice, and self care. But pursuits that are more rewarding than anything under the sun. Being a musician makes me a better dancer and vice versa. Pilates, yoga, and bodywork are truly my therapeutic recourse personally, but also teaching is both something that fills me up and enables me to give back in a really tangible way. Of course performing arts make people's lives better, but that can sometimes feel somewhat abstract? In teaching Pilates I feel I can make people's lives better in the moment, which provides a nice counterbalance to the occasional loneliness of artistic pursuits.
K: What are you currently fascinated with in your own movement practice and what do you want to learn more about? C: Oh that's such a great question. Last year, after a fairly stressful couple of years, I was working in the Caribbean and I had lots of extra time. My obsession then was limits – that I had always been focused on finding and pushing my boundaries and limits, but I wanted to take that time to find a real comfort zone – not pushing boundaries and leaning into ligaments, but really making my muscles stronger and becoming fluid and confident within my own skeleton. That was a really helpful direction to take and I do feel much more grounded now. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's work has been really influential recently, especially her studies on how we somatize emotion and, similarly, how movement is far more than a physical therapy, but also tremendously impactful on emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual levels.
K: What are some upcoming projects? C: Playing-wise, I am getting in shape for orchestra auditions. Given the variety of my interests, even if I could win a full time orchestra job, that wouldn't so much be my ideal life, I'm more focusing on getting in better shape to that I can play with better pick-up orchestras? My dream is to meet some local chamber musicians, that is of course my favorite thing. I had that in New York - people with whom you play for fun but people who are serious and professional so that a bunch of gigs came our way and we actually did quite well in the classical nightlife scene there for a few years!
In terms of dance, I continue to dance here in Los Angeles, mostly studying with both visiting and local Flamenco artists and performing a little bit, just casually. I'm still pretty new to Flamenco, so there is so much to learn! But what I especially love in this art form is that the dancer is the musician.
I'm probably most deeply involved right now in getting Erika Bloom's studio up and running in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. I'm really excited for what our studio can bring to this city! In my experience here thus far, Pilates is usually lumped in with fitness and the whole magic bullet/vanity industry, which of course it can be, but we offer so much more than that - a really holistic approach to wellness, movement, and fitness that is about so much more than this typically-LA obsession with looking good - and an approach that is directed by arguably the best education available in the industry at the moment.
K: Thanks so much, Cicely!
For more on Cicely, visit her website at www.cicelynelson.com