All About Swift Flow

July 6, 2009

Modern dancer and choreographer Arthur Aviles recently gave DS a sneak peek at swift flow, a modern dance technique he created in 2002. Standing in the vast loft of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!), which he co-founded in 1998, he cups his hands in front of his chest and flexes each finger. With tension between his palms, as if holding a round lead ball, Aviles moves the invisible sphere to kiss one shoulder and then the next. His torso starts to sway and then his shoulders, hips and head undulate and twist. The momentum carries his body, controlled and composed, in space like each limb was a moon orbiting around its own planet with a circular, seamless quality reminiscent of either a complex solar system, or the teacup ride at Walt Disney World: each cup spinning with a different momentum depending on who’s sitting inside.

The technique is unlike most other forms of popular dance; legs aren’t involved unless the body is forced off-balance because of momentum from spinning. During our private performance, it becomes clear why critics have described swift flow as “Puerto Rican tai chi,” and Aviles admits to the form’s connection to many folk-dance styles. It has a peaceful quality and derives much inspiration from nature—a stark contrast to the graffiti-lined street in the Bronx where it was born. Swift flow demands dancers to trust their bodies, take risks and move in a way that isn’t often taught in the studio. It comes from Aviles’ background—a unique mixture of swimming, diving, gymnastics and wrestling (as well as training in Cunningham and Limón techniques while a student at Bard College).

After Aviles retired from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, of which he was a member for eight years, he realized that in order for him to set choreography that came from his body organically, he’d have to train the members of his company, the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre, in his own technique. “I created movement ideas, and after time, they were translated through different bodies and different histories. That frustrated me,” he says of his early creations. “Then I realized how unique my training was and that it was difficult for my dancers to give me what I wanted. I said to myself,  ‘You need to develop a language to move forward and not get frustrated with these interpretations.’”

Aviles Creation

Swift flow is not yet codified, and Aviles has created only movement studies using solely the technique. However, most of his choreography incorporates the ideas it was founded on. Aviles teaches the style in college residencies all over the country and sporadically at BAAD!

Uninterrupted motion in sequential circles using movement to propel the body with as few pauses as possible is the basic premise of swift flow, but with one important rule: The arms and hands, never the legs, initiate the movement. Aviles encourages his students to not even think about their legs. “It intentionally avoids lines and the action of the foot. It’s the movement of the arm that’s going to move the foot,” Aviles explains. The arms, though, do not actually have the strength to propel you through space like your legs can, so the technique relies on imagining that your arms are heavier than they actually are. “If you’re falling, for instance, imagine that your hands are holding onto a rope above your head—your torso will feel lighter and you can fall lighter,” explains Aviles.

Swift Flow Specifics

Each of the four basic exercises of swift flow is initiated from the fingers, arms, elbows and upper back, and each explores how this initiation can influence movement throughout the body.

The Wave
begins with the dancer standing in a shallow parallel second position; fingers are interlocked in front of the chest. “As the hands move apart from each other, imagine rubber bands connecting the corresponding fingers,” says Aviles. Feeling that tension, turn the palms down as your weight shifts slowly from right to left. Your hands move across your chest and briefly pause at one shoulder, the middle of the torso, the other shoulder and eventually underneath the rib cage. The hands then make a small wave (a curving motion in space), and then a big wave (a larger undulation in space).

Waterfall into river
starts with both hands at shoulder level, fingers facing front. With weight slowly shifting from side to side, your hands move out, down, up, right and left. While teaching the pattern, Aviles asks students to imagine water flowing over rocks and reaching to the sky.

is initiated from the back while your arms are overhead. “Imagine your body as a stalk and your arms are leaves in water,” says Aviles. Your weight is shifting from side to side but now it also starts to explore levels by simultaneously moving up and down.

Swami Momi starts with both arms out to either side of your body. Motion starts in one fingertip, then ripples through the arm and into the shoulder, which knocks your head to the other side, and subsequently makes your other shoulder move. This motion reverberates through to the fingertips of the hand on that side. “Imagine that your arms are a rope and someone moves one end, which has a ripple effect through to the other end,” says Aviles. Your body moves from side to side.

Each of these exercises traces paths that eventually, and incrementally, propel the whole body through space using a precise counting structure. “The counts are there because I think they bring everyone together on a common path. They allow the route to happen,” Aviles says. “Everyone meets at specific points, but whatever happens in between is wherever the momentum takes you. It’s wild but controlled. Everything is connected.”

Since swift flow is still a seed of a technique, questions about it remain to be answered, like what to do with the head. “Does it follow the hands or is it opposite of the hands?” Aviles asks, who admits that swift flow can also get monotonous to watch. “When you’re in it, it’s better than when you’re outside of it,” he explains, adding that he’s trying to figure out how still moments and explosive movements can fit into swift flow’s framework. “I need for it to do something different—or become alive. Right now it’s stilted technique,” he says. “There’s also this question of validity; but I’m not interested in the validity of the technique but rather experiencing something new in my body.”

One thing’s for sure: Swift flow is about feeling connected and getting in touch with fluidity. “If you’re bent, you’re doing it right. If you’re extending, you’re doing something else,” Aviles says. As long as he can stick to this foundation, he’s well on his way to codifying a unique modern technique. “I hope in years to come you’ll see a swift flow dancer and you’ll know, just like you can spot a ballet dancer when she walks in a room,” he says.

Photo: Charles Rice-Gonzalez