Gail Baranello sat in the audience of a production of “The Miracle Worker” last spring at the Southampton Cultural Center and cried as the boots on the ground theater company reenacted the story of Helen Keller.
Those tears nurtured seeds of inspiration.
Inspired by the portrayal of Keller, the activist and author who, as a child, had lost her hearing and sight after enduring a serious illness, Baranello began to think more deeply about the connection between the mind and the body.
“Helen Keller’s breakthrough was her simultaneous sign language and the physical experience of each object. What they were doing was they were saying — touch, sign, touch, sign, for years and years and years,” said Baranello, a professional dancer, dance teacher, actor and model from Hampton Bays. “Connecting more than one sense at the same time is so much more impactful than separating them. I found that to be so interesting. It got my wheels turning.”
Drawing on the inspiration she felt while watching the play last spring, as well as her own experiences using dance as a means of self-expression and connection with others, Baranello has launched a new dance workshop series called “Moving Through.”
Intended to help people cope with difficult situations, she calls her technique “movement healing” and will begin teaching it this spring at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, the Riverhead Public Library and Yeshiva University in Queens. She has also written a workbook that each participant receives as part of the program. The first series this year will help people “move through loss,” she said, and future topics may tackle addiction and seasonal affective disorder.
“I’m bringing people together based on a common thread, which is different from people coming into a regular dance class,” Baranello said. “No matter what their loss is — it could be through death, through transition of a job or a big move or divorce — there are different things that I think people connect to the grieving process. I am simply guiding people through movement to try and help people become more self-aware, and hopefully heal themselves with these tools and by connecting with others who are dealing with a similar experience.”
Having attended Stony Brook University’s Center for Somatic Learning, Baranello said she learned to develop and trust “authentic movement” within her and then connect it to the outside world and to intentions and experiences.
“The movement is connected to a feeling, a word, an emotion,” she said. “It’s a whole different way of learning dance, of choreographing dance.”
As the co-owner of A&G Dance Company with her husband for the last 15 years, Adam Baranello, Gail Baranello has learned firsthand that keeping active is therapeutic. Having been to support groups and talk therapy sessions, she noticed that “what really worked for me was just staying active” and creating new works in the company’s repertoire.
“Things that might seem like a dance that people think is pretty, the movement is usually coming from someplace deep within my soul that I’m working out through choreography,” she said. “I don’t want to say that talk therapy doesn’t help. I think the mixture of the two, for me, has helped me become more self-actualized.”
As the seeds planted by her experience watching “The Miracle Worker” grew, Baranello began researching. She interviewed people about their problems, like loss, and the emotions, barriers and needs associated with them. Patterns and solutions began to emerge.
And so she arrived at “Moving Through.”
There is no technical dance experience required for the workshops; the movements can be adapted to any level of physical ability, and for any age group. The program consists of five days, spread over five weeks, each tied to a particular theme. In the “loss” workshop, for instance, the five stages of grief outlined in the well-known Kübler-Ross model — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — are the basis for the sessions.
Baranello said during each session, workshop participants will create their own “body positions” based on words relevant to that day’s theme. There will be some work with partners and larger groups, with the goal of eventually “moving through each body position with grace and ease to create patterns designed to move through the emotions.”
There is also a “self-soothing” element and an emphasis on thriving in social groups.
Envision emotions as something physical stuck within the body, she said, that can be physically isolated and pushed out. Her movement healing methods are based on that basic theory.
“A lot of people suppress their emotions, and there’s theories out there that say when you suppress your emotions it manifests physically,” Baranello said. “Based on that theory, we’re bringing the emotions to the surface. It may feel uncomfortable. The point is to move them to the surface and move them out of the body for release, to feel like you’re not walking around carrying all of this weight.”
Author and social worker Hilary Jacobs Hendel wrote last year in Time Magazine,“Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.”
After a recent run-through of a “Moving Through” workshop at Artful Home Care in Southampton Village, Beth McNeill-Muhs, the owner of the business, called Baranello “a gentle leader” who approached the session with consideration and thoughtfulness.
“She guided the program in a manner that I think will be welcoming for many different personality types,” McNeill-Muhs said. “People associate movement and dance and a lot of people feel uncomfortable, but growth and progress happen when we’re willing to make changes, and that means stepping outside of what might be comfortable to you.”
She said Baranello helped her achieve a mind-body connection that she had not ever made for herself.
“It was great,” said McNeill-Muhs, who has been so impressed with Baranello’s workshops that she signed on as a sponsor. “It wasn’t about what the personal loss was. It was about feeling what things felt like and trying to engage your body and understanding where it took your mind.”
Baranello stressed she is not a certified therapist or social worker, but rather a dancer with an academic background in psychology who has also worked with children in local special education programs. She said she just wants to help people.
“I’m pushing myself through what my heart has been pulling me toward for years,” Baranello said. “I’m a positive person, but I also know that I’ve been through a lot, so I can sympathize with people. I’ve learned through movement myself to accept where I am and enjoy life, and I think that that is a good place to start to guide others in that direction.”
Artsy, Active, Restful, Restorative
Dance is only one way of releasing pent-up energies for a therapeutic effect. Here are some other programs on the East End that may offer a similar benefit.
Qi gong is an ancient Chinese practice that emphasizes smooth, focused movement incorporating balance, breathing and weight bearing. The techniques are said to be beneficial for people of all ages, physical conditions and ability levels. Bridgehampton Acupuncture teaches a free, drop-in class at noon on the second Sunday of each month at the meetinghouse of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, 977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, as well as classes at Joshua’s Place in Southampton and the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital Wellness Center. Call (631) 537-8163 for more information.
Yin yoga bears similarities to the traditional vinyasa yoga practice that many people are used to, but is less rigorous. By relying more on breath and gravity, yin yoga is said to reduce stress and create space for the body to become healthier on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Yin yoga is taught at Hamptons Yoga Healing Arts in Westhampton Beach. Call (631) 355-1855 for more information.
“Functional Fitness” is an aerobic exercise program at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital fused with strength and balance exercises and flexibility training for seniors 55 years old and up. Supervised by physical therapists, the program is targeted at seniors who want to stay active and healthy. Call the hospital at (631) 726-8520 for more information.
Artful Home Care in Southampton Village says art therapy helps people address “inner turmoil through creative expression” by working through problems, difficult feelings, limitations and behavioral issues using fine art media. No formal art training or experience necessary. Call Artful Home Care at (631) 685-5001 for more information.