Among the many things you should know about the Gaga dance technique, perhaps the most important is that Gaga the dance has nothing to do with Gaga the Lady.
It does have to do with movement — pure, uninhibited, and ever-flowing. Gaga dancers twist, wiggle, bend, stretch, fall, jump, and “float,” each move building on another and helping performers discover their bodies’ strengths and weaknesses. Developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, Gaga is a movement language intended to help practitioners raise physical awareness by focusing on (or in Gaga terms, “listening” to) the rhythm of their bodies, letting them direct their movement and the pleasure that movement brings.
Gaga performers adhere to various codes and rules. There are no mirrors. There are no observers. There is no choreography. Gaga isn’t intended to be viewed. Some performers don’t even know what they look like when they dance Gaga.
For many around the world, Gaga is seen as a way of expressing yourself through your own range of unique, improvised movements. It’s a toolbox to expand people’s boundaries on how they can move their bodies and improve on them. It works for dancers, for nondancers, and even for those pretending to be dancers — in training for her Academy Award–winning role as a prima ballerina in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman practiced the technique to hone her skills.
At Harvard, both introductory and advanced Gaga courses are offered, and those who’ve taken them have found the technique helps them let go of external pressures and learn to focus their energy inward, achieving self-care and healing.
“It’s a sense of letting everything drop away,” said Amy Thornton, a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is taking her first Gaga class this semester. “It’s like a meditation but very different. You’re letting everything in your life drop away so you can feel an energy that feels like it’s emanating from your core. Your body flows from that energy.”
“Gaga is a return to innocence,” added Mario Alberto Zambrano, a lecturer in Theater, Dance & Media. “It’s all about sensation and letting the body tell you what to do. It’s about going beyond what you think is right or wrong and just doing it.”
Zambrano, who has worked in the performing arts for 30 years and trained in Gaga at Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company with its founder, Naharin, teaches both Gaga courses at Harvard. In them, he tries to move students past trying to do Gaga right or simply imitating his own movements, instead getting them into their own bodies and their own unique rhythms, he said. In short, Zambrano tries to get students to think and feel movement as a sort of energy coursing through the entire body, continuous and unimpeded.
Aesthetically, Gaga can look like tai chi or yoga at times, but without the mannequin-like positioning or the strict movements or form that define most dance techniques. “In other traditional or conventional techniques, the form is the primary attention,” Zambrano said. “The focus is directly to the form. That’s what you’re trying to execute, this clarity or specificity of what every movement is. In Gaga, it flips things upside down. It’s about the flow of movement that already exists in the body and giving into it. You want to allow movement to pass through so that there’s a constant circulation of energy rather than aggressive places in the body where there isn’t any movement.”
With that goal in mind, Zambrano began a recent class by dimming the lights inside a gray-floored studio at the Harvard Dance Center and walking to its center. About 20 dancers rose from their warm-up stretches and circled around him. “Move like you have plenty of time,” said Zambrano, whose body now seemed loose and free, as if he were floating in water. “You need to open the passages to let the movement in.”