InterPlaying With Ourselves

Founded in Oakland, InterPlay incorporates free-form movement and speech into a New-Agey form of expression that's gained a worldwide following.

Inside the airy InterPlay studio on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, a small group of men and women are running at full speed, the dull slap of toes and heels on the hardwood dance floor filling the air. They stop, then change direction. Some are waving their hands, some are moving backwards. Some are emitting low hoots.   

To outsiders, this freewheeling exploration of movement and sound might raise an eyebrow or two — or, at the very least, resemble a caricature of West Coast ethos. It’s not interpretive dance or theater, even though it looks like those things. And it’s not just another New Age fad. According to adherents, InterPlay is a powerful tool for healing and development, offering stress relief, meditation, exercise, and fun in one package.    

The approach has garnered its fair share of supporters. Since 2005, the number of participants in Bay Area classes (there are several locations) has nearly doubled, from 1,800 to 3,200 students annually. The message is finding a home nationally and abroad, too, spread by devotees in Australia and India, and at international conferences.    

Founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, who both have backgrounds in dance, philosophy, and movement, founded InterPlay in 1989 with the idea to move beyond narrowly focused disciplines and develop a form of expression that provided an integrated, holistic approach to healing and communication.

Some of the stretching in InterPlay is a lot like yoga. Breathing instructions echo Buddhist meditation. And the storytelling forms borrow from intro-to-theater classes. But what elevates InterPlay, followers say, is the integration of all of these into one holistic practice. And it is this approach that has inspired social workers and caregivers to adopt InterPlay techniques to provide a new dimension to their work. The wide variety of exercises, some beginning with extremely limited movements, allows for all levels of abilities and mobility to participate.   

“Many of the homeless persons coming in off the street are very tense and angry, and InterPlay has reminded them that they can have fun … a healthy, non-chemical calming technique,” said Shirley Cheney, a case manager at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, where workers incorporate InterPlay into the services they provide for low-income seniors and families.

Local chaplains are also using InterPlay with hospice patients. According to Porter, one InterPlay leader uses the technique in her grief groups, and several who are therapists and social workers use it with their clients. Others have used InterPlay with HIV patients at the Prasad Community in Pittsburgh, and with people recovering from addiction at the Recovery Café in Seattle. InterPlay India founder Prashant Olaleker has focused efforts on India’s rural poor, tribal populations, and prostitutes. InterPlay leaders in Australia have applied it to grade-school students and in private healing practices.

Winton-Henry claims that InterPlay provides an easy means of stress relief. And Porter is confident that InterPlay provides a great benefit, even if it can’t always be precisely measured.

“At the moment, scientific research on neurology and behavior is supporting what we have taught for years: the neurological effects and bio-chemical activity that are created by certain activities like meditation or repetitive activity and how helpful they can be,” said Porter. “Although we welcome this confirmation, it can also serve to make a point that we have made for years: Do we need to have scientists to tell us that it is good for us to breathe?”

Maybe the science is firm on that point. Anecdotes and testimonials abound about InterPlay’s benefits, but case studies are harder to come by. Are the benefits real? Why InterPlay and not yoga? Will it work for the virulently anti-touchy-feely?

Naturally, these questions lend themselves to firsthand investigation. So I selected my finest storytelling/dancing/meditating pants and headed over to the Tuesday-evening class at InterPlayce on Telegraph Avenue. We met in a room with a giant hardwood floor and exposed brick.

The class consisted of three women, three men (including myself), plus instructor Gretchen Wegner. The session began with a few deep breaths. When we exhaled, we were encouraged to make an exaggerated sigh. We inhaled, making an exaggerated sigh. The loudness of the exaggeration was jarring at first. By the third time I sighed as loudly as everyone else.

We moved from movement exercises to storytelling. Seated across from our partner, we were asked to speak for thirty seconds on a “green light” in our lives, something that is going well. We switched roles, and my partner was tasked with devoting thirty seconds to a “stop sign,” an obstruction. My partner laid claim to an abundance of stop signs.

From there, we moved on to an exercise called “Run Stop Walk.” We were instructed to run where we liked, at whatever speed we liked, and to stop when we liked. We were also instructed, if it so pleased us, to lean up against a partner. People began leaning against one another, resting that way for thirty-second stretches. Then they ran again, slow, fast, in straight lines and sideways like excited crabs.

As the activities progressed, vocalization came to the fore. At first, it was daunting to “make whatever noise comes naturally to you.” But after a half-hour’s worth of immersion in a room full of people making whatever noises came naturally to them, it seemed, well, natural to do so myself. We capped the hour-and-a-half class with an exercise called “Dance Talk One.” We were asked to dance, without form, and speak about either a green light or a stop sign.

The structure of the class, and the welcoming environment, made walking and dancing and touching strangers completely accessible. I found myself sharing personal information with these six strangers in a way that surprised me.

But whether InterPlay will ever gain mainstream acceptance is doubtful. The unstructured, New-Age aspect of it may be a hurdle for many. There are plenty of benefits to relaxing activities that stimulate creativity, joy, and self-expression, but there are still a good many people who will not brave the frontiers of free-form dancing and vocalization to get there.

At InterPlay, you can dance if you want to. Whether or not you find InterPlay relaxing, meditative, and fun is likely to depend on whether or not you want to.

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