CosmiComedy: Genevieve!

Of course I don’t believe in reincarnation, silly. Everyone knows we are living all our lives at once. What I did as the fugitive daughter of a woman burnt at the stake for witchcraft (nowadays we call it herbalism) in 1222, what I’m doing now (teaching people the value of rolling around on the floor) and what I’ll be doing in 2843 (performing in a zero gravity circus on Andromeda) are all bleeding into and informing each other, creating the present moment by moment.

Lavinia Plonka. Photo by Ron Morecraft.

For a while there has been this popular saying that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Southeast Asia can create a hurricane in Florida, or something like that. I like to think of our dance through space and time the same way. Particles from the past (after all, every moment, I’m breathing the same air as Genghis Khan) have created a reality where I’m free to not have to wear panty hose or even a girdle. Stay with me, all will be revealed.

Lots of people like to fantasize that their former selves are Cleopatra, or Galahad, or even Thomas Jefferson. And who knows, maybe all of them were, and are now manifesting in multiple bodies carrying only aspects of their characters. (Think Obama as Galahad, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, oh wait – she actually played Cleopatra!) But for every historical celebrity and hero, there are countless others who, like the proverbial butterfly, sent waves of influence into our current reality.

In the hit movie “Hidden Figures,” the three African-American female protagonists conquer racism at NASA not by protesting, marching or fighting. They conquer because of their intelligence and dignity. As I cheered them on, I reflected on the history of civilization (one of my favorite pastimes), and the women who have shaped the world. For every Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman and Joan of Arc, there have been hundreds of others, who like the women in “Hidden Figures” have quietly upended civilization. From Dorothy Day to Beyoncé, who of course, is not so quiet, these “women of power” have defied perceived limitations and changed our world for the better (Lucrezia Borgia not included.)

If I were to identify, imagine, and fantasize who I am in other lives, I don’t think it was Napoleon (although I have been accused of having my own issues about being short.) No, I think of a woman of power you’ve never heard of, who elegantly, brilliantly, and invisibly influenced feminism, fashion, modern dance, health and so much more, the most famous woman you’ve never heard of. Only now are certain scholars beginning to acknowledge that much of what modern women (among others) hold dear began with… Genevieve Stebbins. Who?

Travel back in time with me to the turn of the 20th century. Women of middle and upper classes were forced into corsets that squeezed them to breathlessness and apoplexy. Their only hope of ‘success’ was marrying someone wealthy. The only possible careers for other women were as teachers, and some made it to nursing. Poor women labored in sweatshops or took in laundry. The female entrepreneur did not exist. Female performers, with the exception of the occasional Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse were ranked with whores. The idea that a woman could be an equal was actually considered a laughable concept – even among women.

Then in the late 1800s Genevieve Stebbins opened the Delsarte School of Expression. Based on the teachings of a 19th century French teacher of Oratory, the Delsarte System looked at human movement and expression as a science that could cure everything from lack of confidence to bad posture. A male reporter for the NY Times wrote a scandalized review of a class he observed, where apparently, “women were twirling around in flowing dresses without the benefit of any corsets, falling down and getting up again as if drunk.” The popularity of Delsartism led first to the marketing of the “Delsarte corset” that allowed more freedom of movement and breathing, and eventually to the dumping of the whole damn idea. We would have never been burning bras if Genevieve hadn’t first suggested tearing off those crazy corsets.

Women who graduated from Stebbins’ schools began to open their own studios around the country. It was one of the first professions where women could assert themselves as “bosses of themselves.” As someone self-employed for most of my life (oh and teaching movement LOL), I like to think it’s because she’s “bleeding through” from 1875 to guide me on my fool’s errand. (Or is it the other way around?)

In the late 1800’s, the world of dance was ruled by males and ballet dominated. The emphasis was on particular techniques that originated with Louis XIV (who by the way fancied himself quite the ballerina). As both men and women learned the power of expression through Delsarte’s system, they broke out and created what we now call modern dance. Think Isadora Duncan, whose wild and wonderful movement changed dance forever. She studied at a Delsarte school. Dance historians will tell you that the Denishawn School began modern dance. But guess what? Ted Shawn studied with Genevieve Stebbins!

In the book, ‘Poetics of Dance,’ Gabriele Brandstetter says, “Stebbins’s main contribution to modern dance – her emphasis on the dynamics of dance movement – is still underestimated even today. She was the first to no longer regard dance from the perspective of dance technique, muscular training, or the systematic development of articulation, emphasizing instead its energetic principles. Stebbins’s elaboration of the Delsarte system heralded a paradigm shift in modern dance in an attempt to redefine dance movement on the basis of a vitalist understanding of dynamics.”

Power is not just about rule. Power is the ability to be authentically yourself and through that be able to help others realize their dreams. I imagine Genevieve in her later years (she died in 1934,) watching flappers, seeing footage of Isadora wildly twirling, and perhaps best of all, women running their own businesses and smiling, knowing that thanks to her future life as Lavinia in 2017, she was able to dare to open up her own movement studio. Why not? Thinking of her just makes me want to twirl around, fall down and get up again.

Lavinia continues the tradition of freedom through movement by teaching The Feldenkrais and Alba Methods and her own unique synthesis of E-Motion.

Want to reclaim your power?  Join Lavinia at the fantabulous Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, NC MAY 4-7 for a rejuvenating, inspiring retreat.  Besides the fabulous Feldenkrais lessons, there’s yoga, meditation, three meals, a spa, hiking trails – a true way to connect to all your senses

Lavinia Plonka
Written by Lavinia Plonka