Conscious Dance’s First Couple

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

Kathy Altman and
Lori Saltzman


Kathy Altman and Lori Saltzman did not know each other as kids growing up in New York City, but coincidentally migrated to the Bay Area in the mid ’70s, where they advanced the work of dance legend Gabrielle Roth until her death in 2012. A year later they cofounded Open Floor International with Vic Cooper and Andrea Juhan in a mission to form a creative collaboration of seasoned movement teachers from all corners of the world. Previously married, they have been a personal and professional couple for over 35 years and raised a son together in Mill Valley. Born in 1950 and 1955, respectively, Kathy and Lori are respected elders of the conscious dance movement and are using principles of dynamic governance to disseminate their accumulated learning in a radically open-source fashion.

Common Ground: You are a working couple, who together have been advancing the conscious dance movement since its earliest days, over 40 years ago. What is conscious dance?

Kathy Altman: I came from decades of formal dance background, and this is a marked turn from choreography—here you embody your own imperative and not someone else’s steps. The music gives context and inspiration like a diving board, but the swim is up to you. It builds you neurologically when you don’t know what’s going to happen and your body is constantly surprised. It builds capacity for crazy, happy, joyful, spontaneous movement. And profound self-discovery. The reason it’s taken off is that it brings community—similar to church. Now people come and move together, and it is intimate, it is real, it is truthful, it is spiritual, and it is human. You can feel lousy, you can feel great, you could be in love, you could be heartbroken and can bring it to the dance. It is big enough to move and include everything.

Lori Saltzman: It’s funny when people call me a dance teacher—I am not. We don’t learn to dance, we dance in order to learn, which is a reversal of what people think about dance. People may come in afraid, saying, “I don’t know how to dance,” but it doesn’t matter at all. Every human body is born to move. We dance consciously in order to learn about ourselves, free the ties that bind us, tap into our creative source, and connect with other people. It is never about what it looks like on the surface. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I’ve never danced before without having a drink or gotten stoned first.” Here we focus on growing awareness, where we bring mindfulness to our movement. We’re supported to dance until the “me” disappears, and the movement enters the effortless meditative zone of “I am being danced.”

On whose shoulders are you standing, advancing this kind of expressive movement?

LS: We’ve each had a number of influential teachers in our lives, but we have been most profoundly and directly influenced by our decades with Gabrielle Roth, who we met in the ’70s. We have also been shaped by studies with Chris and Dick Price, Pema Chödrön, Adyashanti, aikido masters, and artists of all kinds. Gabrielle, in turn, was inspired by shamanic, ecstatic traditions, formal dance study, her early years with Oscar Ichazo, and her work as a theater director. She brought those various lineages to birth her own brilliant body of work—the 5Rhythms.

How did you meet Gabrielle Roth?

KA: In 1976, I had just moved here from New York and was working at Planned Parenthood and not exactly making a lot of money. A friend of mine said, “You have to come to Esalen and study with this woman, Gabrielle Roth.” I saved for a year to go to Esalen, danced for seven days, and it changed my life. I went from outside choreography to the choreography that comes from inside of one’s self. I started working with her professionally. By then Lori and I had become partners. Lori said, “Okay, I’m in,” and we began working together producing her workshops. We brought her work to the Bay Area.
LS: When we met Gabrielle she had a relatively small, passionate following, but it was more or less a well-kept secret. Over the years that we worked side-by-side, the 5Rhythms completely caught fire and became a global movement; Gabrielle got the Western world moving again. This is what you’re seeing now, this conscious dance explosion with so many offspring.

With Open Floor, you’re doyennes of this infamous Sausalito Sunday morning Open Floor, formerly called “Sweat Your Prayers,” which has an international reputation.

LS: There are schools that have been around longer, but it is probably the oldest continuous expressive movement community in the world. And yes, it was infamous for a few years back in the ’90s. Gary Beauregard, one of the local teachers, came to us and said, “What I really love is working with music—not so much instructing. Can I start a Sweat Your Prayers as part of your school?” The first week he had 11 people at the same MLK gym where we are now—probably all his friends he asked to come. He would open the doors. He played music masterfully. And then when it was over he’d sweep the floor and close up. He showed up every Sunday, rain or shine, holidays, 52 weeks a year. He did that all singlehandedly. Before long it grew to 200 people in the room. And yes, we heard it had become a travel destination.

KA: In the early years, without a container or the discipline of practice, it got pretty wild in there. People would be flinging themselves against the walls, hanging from the basketball hoops, wrestling on the floor. It was dangerous and a little over the top; it had lost the spirit of what we were there to teach, so we began to set boundaries, bring some intentional practice and meditative awareness to the movement, and make it safer. Freedom does not mean free-for-all. Great expansion can be found inside a structure. Over the years our Saturday and Sunday dances have matured into this gorgeous community that holds itself in a shared practice of mindfulness, connection, and fun. It has its own critical core, a culture of welcome and inclusion, and we are just there to serve it now.

Is there an objective to Open Floor dance?

KA: Presence. Being more present and more mindful with what is. We all talk about authenticity, and on the dance floor we practice moving and including whatever is true in the moment. Getting unstuck by noticing how the body is feeling. What is stiff? What feels good? What feelings are driving me? What thoughts are running through my mind? What is coming to the surface now? Can I feel my connection to the spirit that animates my body? We encourage people to include their pain and suffering as well as their joy and excitement. In a world that asks us to hide whatever doesn’t fit in, we practice including all of ourselves, which in turn helps us be whole, truthful, intimate human beings.

LS: You can surmise how people feel by the way they are expressing themselves on the dance floor. This is how “tight and uncomfortable” moves. This is how “relaxed and released” moves. What is the difference? How do you navigate between the two?

The facilitators are teachers, not DJs.

LS: Correct. Everyone who leads our sessions are very studied teachers, often in disciplines beyond movement. On Saturdays and Sundays the session is lightly facilitated. Fun and respectful, enlivening and deep—we’re here to dance in community. Instructional sessions are more geared to working with specific practices to figure out what’s moving and what’s not, to learn about our repetitive patterns. A good teacher will look at a room and be able to determine what is not moving here. Is it the hearts? The feet? Are people stuck in their thoughts? And a good teacher will have the skills to help the dancers to bring mindfulness to getting unstuck—in the most delightful ways.

Verbally or musically?

LS: Both. Instructions will lead you from fixed to fluid, relationally, emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Music is a great co-teacher that has a huge effect on the energy of the room, but I have watched some people for 25 years and see how they stay in the same movement patterns. They still might enjoy themselves, but in terms of creative expansion or releasing what binds them as human beings in that fixed, repetitive shape—that usually requires something more than just someone playing music.

KA: I work with 20,000 songs and spend hours preparing when I offer music. Music is like a siren, a mistress beckoning in a certain direction. And it’s satisfying to offer music, but many times I won’t use music—in order to reveal the impetus that comes from inside when left to our own devices. That can reveal a beautiful other world, like being in a flotation tank. Gorgeous internal music can happen.

What is your experience showing up to work and seeing glowing people moving on the floor?

LS: It is a wonderful way to serve—to get up in the morning and share wonderful music and hold a container where people move and then get to watch the change in their faces, the endorphins flowing, the letting go of tight spots and tensions we all carry, all the individual “me’s” becoming a unified “we.” I feel blessed to do this work. What’s your experience?

I am still new to it, and at first I struggled with some insecurity about what I call “white man’s disease.” Do I move like the woodman in the Wizard of Oz? It’s essential to warm up and stretch. I try to use the opportunity to align myself in presence—the Eckhart Tolle thing. I have to slow down to a full stop and close my eyes and then start noticing muscle movements very gradually. I try to still my racy mind. Often, I find myself in an internal dialogue, saying, “What will happen when I open my eyes and witness the external parade? Will I stay present?” I was much more shy and internal in the beginning and have become more extroverted. I find that dance offers infinite opportunity for creativity, moment by moment—that I love.

LS: You’re naming it all yourself, naturally—the human experience of what we call the four essential relational hungers.

What are those?

LS: The hunger for deep solitude—to go all the way in by myself, with myself. The hunger for intimate connection with another, to meet in the alchemy of relationship. Then there is the hunger to belong. After all, we are herd animals. And then the hunger for spirit, to join with what is larger than the boundaries of our own skin.

It’s rare for a romantic couple to also work well professionally. How did you connect?

LS: We both grew up in New York City. We didn’t know each other as kids but moved to California at the same time and met about six years after. We were both previously married to men and don’t identify in any way with the label of being homosexual even though we have been together for 35 years. When we came to California in the early-mid ’70s, it was a radical exploratory Renaissance period but still relatively old-fashioned compared to how wonderfully gender fluid the youth culture is now. In retrospect, our relationship, which was always dolphin-like, seems to do with destiny. In terms of working together, we knew that rarely works and heard of couples wanting to kill each other, but we decided to try and if it didn’t work we would stop—that the relationship came first. After the first day we checked in and asked, “So, how’s it going?” “It’s going pretty good.” That was it. We never talked about it again. We are graced in the way we flow together, and there is a deep river of love and respect between us.

We sometimes co-teach, which can be challenging because egos can get in the way, but after 35 years we can interrupt each other and finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds. If I am teaching and Kathy comes over and redirects in some way, I think, “Oh, good, she saw something I didn’t see. It’s going to make the session better.”

KA: We’re not the pinnacle of the perfect couple, but it’s not a power struggle either. She said, “Give me the checkbook.” I said, “Great. You take the checkbook; I will make the money.” This can be a big deal for some people, and I give them kudos for slogging through. As in any relationship, you have to decide. “Can I tolerate this level of neurosis with this person, or am I better off by myself?”

LS: Are you saying I’m neurotic?

KA: Yes, but a funny neurotic. Lori is wicked funny—one of the funniest people I know. So that’s a glue that binds.

So if Lori is the funny one, who is Kathy?

LS: I keep us laughing at ourselves, but I have learned to trust and surrender to the depth of Kathy’s connection with the intuitive. Sometimes if we are struggling with a decision, Kathy will say, “I can’t even tell you why, but this is the way we need to go.” I am more logical and practical and used to argue with her, but when she speaks in a certain tone of voice I know it’s not coming from her head but from a deep embodied connection to intuition, and I say, “Okay.”

What was the experience of being two moms raising a son?

LS: Daniel was born in 1997. We were at his birth. We were the first women to adopt from a California open adoption agency. We were lucky because he grew up in the progressive bubble that is Mill Valley. When he was a teenager and started bringing friends to the house, I asked him, “Do you tell people that you have two moms before they come over?” He said, “Why? They’ll figure it out pretty fast.”

KA: He had a very different upbringing in white upper-middle-class heterosexual America because not only were we the only same-sex couple in his elementary school, we were older. I was 46 when he was born. And we didn’t have traditional jobs. It was hard for our boy to explain what we did at show-andtell. By the time he was in high school, some of his friends came to our dance and thought we were very cool. Now he’s 19—a young buck—all boy. He just moved out on his own and is loving his life. He had to rebel against his mothers by not dancing, but our relationship is beautiful. While he may have groaned at our insistence on talking things through all the time, growing up with two moms who teach a relational practice left him with an extraordinary emotional intelligence for someone his age.

Another way I know you’re radical is in the way you created and are expanding Open Floor International. But before getting into that, can you explain how Open Floor came into being?

KA: Open Floor was born in early 2014. Vic Cooper and Andrea Juhan, who live in Big Sur, became our partners. There were about 17 other senior teachers who had also studied with Gabrielle, and we formed a creative collaboration. Our idea was to share what methodologies we know work best in the spirit of open-source. We asked ourselves, “What are the universal principles of conscious movement practice? What is the common ground underlying all these disciplines? Let’s name them and teach them to others.”

Just like yoga, conscious dance is not exotic anymore. It is beautiful and ubiquitous. And yes, what is most radical about Open Floor is the structure we have chosen. It’s called sociocracy and was introduced to us by Deborah Jay Lewin, an Open Floor founding member and long-term resident of the Findhorn community.

Who’s the author of this approach?

LS: John Buck, author of We the People. In the US his work is known as dynamic governance. Holocracy is another spinoff gaining traction. Zappos is experimenting with it, and Google is researching it. It’s a brilliant technology for sharing power and mining group intelligence. We work in circles as equals seeking full agreement, but it’s not consensus decisionmaking. I did that at the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective in 1976, and it nearly killed me. This is consent-based decision-making, and it requires transparency, equivalency, and efficiency—and leaving your ego at the door. We work with facilitators, but basically you can’t stand in the way of decisions because of your personal preferences. If you have an objection, you have to demonstrate the risk. It’s great because maybe a risk is being overlooked. Everybody is listening, interested, and respected. It’s not top down—power gets pushed down and out into different functional circles where everyone is empowered and the work is distributed.

KA: We all have blind spots. We make wiser decisions collectively than any single person can make alone.

LS: This radical approach to hierarchy and governance is definitely at the leading edge. We work with a facilitator on conference calls, and it takes time. But our experience is that we have started to trust the group intelligence more than our own. We started with four founders and now work with 35 working members who are empowered to make things happen. It is not just waiting for an authority to make a decision and give permission. It extends the reach of what we’re doing.

It’s so refreshing to speak with you about Open Floor. Open-source. Everything is open, open, open.

LS: We don’t want to own this in the traditional sense. We want to share the best of the best—what we have learned as teachers. Besides, you can’t take it with you. What you try to own ends up owning you.

KA: One of our core values is “everything is a remix, and everyone is original.” Our goal is to train skillful movement teachers and have them go do good work in the world—each in their own unique style.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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