Amanda Czolek

Moving emotion

Amanda Czolek is helping children understand emotion through physical literacy.

Amanda Czolek and Susanna King
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10 minutes

On any given weekday, you can find Amanda Czolek, 52, standing among a group of about twenty 5–6-year-old children, shaking her head, her torso, and her arms as the children mimic her sounds and movements. While it may seem that these children are just making noise and jumping around, Czolek has carefully designed her workshops to focus on developing physical connections between words and the ideas they represent. Czolek is the founder of the Children’s Kinetic Storytelling Workshop in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and has become somewhat of an icon among local families.

He’s started picking up on how others are feeling just by looking at their body language and then making these really attuned comments. I’m just amazed by his ability to communicate these things. I tell every parent I know to get enrolled in her workshops.

My son has a stronger sense of bodily awareness than most adults I know, and he’s only 5,” Janet Smith says, pointing at a boy currently immersed in an exercise in posture and expression.

“He’s started picking up on how others are feeling just by looking at their body language and then making these really attuned comments. I’m just amazed by his ability to communicate these things. I tell every parent I know to get enrolled in her workshops."

The workshop, which is in its tenth year, now has a two-year waitlist. Czolek has been working with this particular group of kids for six weeks, teaching them how to use their bodies to express thoughts, feelings, and, in this case, stories.

“It is remarkable to see how unselfconsciously they learn how to try on these characters and experiences. I’m in constant awe of their growth,”

Czolek says of her students. They take turns moving around the room as their classmates call out what thought or feeling the mover is expressing.

Park Slope kids gym, 2019, photo by Jenifer Holdren
“Make no mistake,” Czolek says, “this is not a dance class. This is a class in understanding our own humanity.”

Ambitious though it may be to introduce children to concepts of social sensitivity, the workshop’s goals are rooted in cognitive and physical sciences. Czolek has advanced degrees in Physical Therapy and Developmental Psychology, and her research into the effects of therapeutic movement on stress response in the developing brain was recently published in a journal for child psychology. She has brought her research to life through her workshop, and families are seeing the impact this work has on their children.

“When I brought my daughter here three years ago, she was experiencing tremendous social anxiety,”

recalls Michael Johnson, who has two children enrolled in the Children’s Kinetic Storytelling Workshop. “The first week of Kindergarten was a nightmare for us. She was bouncing between lashing out and retreating into herself. We were at a loss. Now she’s the first one to go talk to the new kid in class or to comfort a classmate. She has so much confidence in herself now, it’s like looking at a completely different kid.”

Czolek understands that many of her clients come to her after they have recognized difficulties like the ones the Johnson family experienced.

“Being of service to people who are in pain or going through a challenging time, that is really why I do what I do and why I expanded my focus to address the inner work we all need to do at some point,”

Czolek says. Before she founded the Children’s Kinetic Storytelling Workshop, Czolek was a physical therapist with her own private practice and a dedicated following.

“When you put people first, when you put their wellbeing above all else, they are that much more willing to trust you with their healing journey. That trust is crucial. It’s an incredibly rewarding responsibility.”
Interview

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE KINETIC STORYTELLING?

For my purposes, it’s a catchall term to describe movement that conveys expression or experience. Sometimes those movements are close to dance, sometimes more like theater, and sometimes they are simply representative of our daily motions. From an audience perspective, Kinetic Storytelling is a chance to deliberately observe the body and consider what it does for us physically and emotionally. How do we think when we think through the body? How can our bodies tell stories? In our groups, we do some narrative storytelling and some freeform. Either method, we listen closely to what the body is saying.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE BODY IS SUCH AN EFFECTIVE STORYTELLING DEVICE?

We tend to think of the body and the mind as separate entities, often diametrically opposed. On top of that, we think language belongs to the mind and emotion to the body, so when we feel big emotions, the words are harder to access, and when we spend a great deal of time in our minds, the body can grow tense. What I do with these kids, who are just learning about their bodies and their minds, their feelings and thoughts—even their communities and where they belong—what I do is help them create connections. What does your body feel like when it’s sad? What does happy look like? What does purple feel like? What does it feel like to be a circle? By giving these children a chance to use their bodies to step into character, or shape, or idea, they are practicing appropriate expression and learning how to communicate with and without words. So when we connect word to body, body to movement, movement to story, we’re really reaching across multiple levels of communication to touch on something universal.

IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT EMPATHY.

Oh, absolutely. We’re given these tools—touch, sound, gesture, posture, volume, tone—but we aren’t explicitly taught how to use them; we just sort of pick it up over time. There is a lot of room for trial and error with that and a lot of opportunity for miscommunication or misunderstanding. In these groups, we work on thoughts and feelings as whole body experiences. Using the body to tell stories is one way we can practice feeling what someone else has gone through—how their experience feels in our bodies and how that might impact their perspective.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BRING THIS TYPE OF ENGAGEMENT TO CHILDREN?

Children are so raw. It’s like working with raw material. Each child has their own qualities, and those qualities are worn so close to the surface that it’s almost like these kids are walking around with a list of adjectives scrawled all over them. Adults have had a lot of time to temper those qualities to fit more seamlessly into this category or that. That’s not necessarily bad, as long as that tempering doesn’t completely hide or destroy who that person truly is and what they’re all about. When I’m moving with the kids, I make sure we’re also talking about how to show respect for the space between their natural expression and their performance. I think with children, we have such an exceptional opportunity to learn what it means to be human in the world because they are only just discovering that—that they are human. If we, as adults, can share in that learning process, if we can think and feel and move and flail and make noise, then I think we stand a chance of learning how to be responsible for the incredible impact our thoughts and actions can have on those around us.

THAT’S NO SMALL TASK. HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR WAY TO THIS WORK?

It was not a straight path. Few paths are. I have a history of throwing myself completely into my interests. There is a voice inside of me that repeats I know it’s connected, I just need to figure out how. That voice can be relentless. That voice is the reason I ended up studying Kinesiology, Ethnochoreology, and Developmental Psychology. I felt driven to follow these threads and see how they belonged together. During my time as a physical therapist, I worked with some competitive athletes, and I saw how much focus and control they exhibited on their mental state. They conditioned their minds as much as their bodies, and I thought to myself Yes! We can excel when these modes are in agreement. The messages these athletes told themselves manifested in their performance. From there, I kept hunting for ways to bring brain and body into alignment.

WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP FOR YOUR WORK?

Just as there is a natural progression in storytelling from beginning to end, there is a natural progression to the body. I am currently designing an iteration of the Kinetic Storytelling workshops for our senior population. I think it is so important to keep an ongoing conversation with ourselves as we age. It’s equally important that the senior members of our community can share their stories. What’s so interesting, too, about aging is that our bodies become foreign territory. Movements that used to be automatic have to be thought about in a new, more effortful way. Sometimes there is a loss of language. These changes can be heartbreaking for family members to witness, but even more so for the person experiencing them. What better gift could there be than to approach the unfolding of that last chapter with curiosity, compassion, and maybe even celebration?