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Healing Steps

Keith McDonald
West Australian newspaper TODAY
“Alternatives” section,
Monday, February 18, 2002

A career-ending injury saw dancer Michelle Locke step out in a new direction which has inspired the creation of a dance therapy. Keith McDonald talks to her about Wu Tao.

At the age of 23, Michelle Martin’s world collapsed. On the threshold of great things as a ballerina with the WA Ballet Company, her career was ended by a back injury.

She damaged soft tissue during rehearsal and battled through her pain for almost two years, still performing on stage, before bowing out in 1987 after three years with the company.

“I used to get pain from the lower left back, down my left leg and up my left side to my neck,” she said, 15 years later. “It affected the whole left side of my body. I couldn’t turn out my left leg properly.”

Trained by Dame Kira Bousloff, the legendary founder of the WA Ballet, the aspiring young dancer – now Michelle Locke – says she wasn’t desperately ambitious but giving up dance was almost unthinkable.

“It was a huge part of my life and my identity,” she said. “I loved ballet probably more than anything else in the world.”

“I had to come to terms with the fact that my back wasn’t going to get fixed. You go through a long grieving process and I don’t know that you ever get over it. But I am a fairly positive person and got on with my life.”

She went to many chiropractors and physiotherapists but it was only when she discovered the Japanese therapy, shiatsu, that she got some real relief.

Shiatsu not only took away the physical pain and enabled her to have a relatively normal life, it turned into a new career as she established the Shiatsu School of WA and trained about 100 people to be practitioners.

Now she has moved on again. She has sold the business to one of her students and developed Wu Tao (The Dancing Way), a therapy which combines dance, music and Chinese medicine.

Shiatsu, with its roots in traditional Chinese medicine, is the thread that weaves it all together.

The touch and pressure techniques of shiatsu stimulate the healing flow of chi (energy) in the body’s meridians.

“When I first found out about it in Adelaide in 1987, I had a couple of treatments and felt an instant relief,” Ms Locke said. “It never totally removed it but it made the pain bearable.”

She also decided to learn the techniques.

“The whole process of learning it was very good for me and for my back,” she said. “Your awareness of your body is heightened.”

Returning to Perth in 1992 and setting up the school the next year, she has been instrumental in popularizing the therapy here.

But her daughter Isabelle’s epilepsy – she takes her to Adelaide every two months for specialist treatment – made it difficult for Ms Locke to run the school and look after her other daughter, Dakota.

So two years ago she sold the school and tried to develop something new based on what she had learnt from oriental medicine.

“I was interested in looking at how I could get people to work with their own energy and balance their own chi without having to have someone else put their hands on them,” she said.

The result is Wu Tao, a mixture of original dance and ambient music which she describes as “the ultimate way to indulge both body and spirit in healing, balancing and invigorating experience.”

“Not only is it a physical workout, it is a healing one as well,” she said. “It is a therapy for body and soul, and works on many levels – the physical, energetic and spiritual.”

It is a 25-minute routine that creatively expresses the five elements of air, water, wood, fire and earth.

“Each element governs a pair of meridians or channels,” Ms Locke said. “That’s where the energy flows. For example, the air element governs the lungs and large intestine, while the kidney and bladder meridians belong to the water element.”

Her choice of music reflects the quality of each element. She said Bill Douglas’ tranquil Deep Peace captured the abundance of life which was embodied in the earth.

“The earth element is the last dance that we do,” she said. “It’s where everything comes together. It’s very supportive and nurturing. It’s like a prayer of gratitude.”

Wood, on the other hand, governed the liver and gall bladder and is like the energy of youth or a tree growing. The music – from Cirque de Soleil’s Saltimbanco – is much more upbeat, giving a sense of growth.

Ms Locke feels that Wu Tao will help people “feel at home in their bodies and be comfortable with the energy of being here.”

“It’s about reconnecting with your body and the earth in a way that’s beautiful,” she said.

“A lot of people try to escape the body. We blame the body for a lot of things – the physical pain we might feel, even emotional pain. But a lot of it is in our mind.”

“Lots of religions talk about having to transcend the body to become enlightened or released. However, I think that if we were truly to engage in the body and our physical existence, there’s a real bliss there that we probably miss.”

Ms Locke is starting Wu Tao classes this month at Churchlands, Fremantle, Cottesloe and Melville, and she says they are suitable for all ages. No previous dance experience is necessary.

“If you do all five dances, you will work up a bit of a sweat but it’s not excessively demanding,” she said.