Bodies and Souls

InterPlay fuses movement and storytelling to create spiritual discipline

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The Minneapolis dance studio is packed with people of various ages and sizes. Some seem wrapped in reverie; others are intensely focused on one another. Groupings of bodies develop and dissolve in motions that look a bit like dance, a bit like theater, and a bit like aerobics. But it's not a rehearsal or an exercise class--it's movement for its own sake. There's a feeling of cohesion, of something being cooperatively created.

This is InterPlay--a fusion of movement, storytelling, and interpersonal awareness that, according to its founders, is also a spiritual discipline. Practiced in some 120 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, and Thailand, the American-grown alternative to yoga provides both a way for adults to play and a serious tool for personal and social change.

InterPlay is the brainchild of Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, two modern dancers with an affinity for matters of the spirit. In the late 1970s they were members of Body and Soul, a dance company that taught and performed in Bay Area churches. 'Movement was an important part of our theological understanding,' says Porter. 'There are elements of the spirit that are beyond words, and one way to contact them is through the body.'

When the company folded in 1988, Porter pursued solo projects and Winton-Henry followed her Christian calling all the way into the ministry. She soon realized, though, that her denomination defined clerical dignity in ways that bridled her dancer's body. 'I was always getting into trouble for moving even a little bit,' she says with a smile. She reconnected with Porter, and the pair decided to explore the intersections of movement and spirit beyond the boundaries of religion.

Both dancers enjoyed group improvisation. 'Acting in the moment, I was accessing a lot of information that was in my body and doing it with others,' says Winton-Henry. 'I loved that.' They believed that a practice based on these values and focused on experience rather than performance could change people's lives.

Their choreographic training suggested that structure was needed, too. 'If you want to play and create with others,' Porter explains, 'it helps if the elements you are playing with are limited.' They developed what they call 'forms,' which became the building blocks of InterPlay.

In InterPlay groups, basic vocal and physical warm-ups are typically followed by the leader's choice of a form, such as 'Walk, Stop, Run.' The InterPlayer is free to do any of those three movements, in any order, alone or with others. There's no critique, and anyone can opt out and become a silent, motionless 'witness' at any time.

Simple forms like 'Hand Dances'--in which pairs of players move their hands, shake hands, or take hold of each other's wrists--help new (or shy) InterPlayers build confidence. 'Everyone is responsible for doing only what feels right for them,' says Twin Cities InterPlay teacher Celia Swanson.

'Babbling' brings in an element of storytelling by inviting people to talk for 30 seconds. 'I might suggest: Babble about what you see out your kitchen window,' says Swanson. 'Or I might make up a nonsense word and have people babble about what they think it means.' At a more advanced level, 'Big Body Stories' combine movement with storytelling, letting the body elicit a personal story that inspires movement.

The spiritual dimension of InterPlay is fourfold--'moving your body, telling your stories, honoring your personal voices, and claiming your stillness'--says Winton-Henry. 'If you're not doing these things in your own way and being witnessed by others as you do so, chances are you're not feeling the vitality and wholeness that comes from possessing your own soul.' In a world where work, relationships, anxiety about the future, and a host of other things claim pieces of our souls, Winton-Henry sees this act of soul-repossessing as vital for spiritual and psychic health.

In some places InterPlayers have explored both spiritual and social change. In Oakland, California, where Porter and Winton-Henry are based, and in Nashville, Tennessee, InterPlay leaders have deliberately brought together people of all colors to experience one another in more direct and personal ways. 'InterPlay turns out to be a healthy, easy way to move through the tensions between us,' says Winton-Henry. Similarly, Oakland-based InterPlay teacher Masankho Banda has led groups in juvenile detention centers and prisons.

However it may be elaborated, though, InterPlay's idea of community always begins with individual bodies. Swanson, a self-confessed 'former couch potato,' says InterPlay taught her that 'my body is beautiful and full of wisdom,' and that self-knowledge helps her connect with others. 'There are people in InterPlay whom I only know by their first names,' she says, 'but I would give them the keys to my house.'


Jon Spayde is a writer and performance artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota. His book How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith will be published by Random House in 2008.