Wednesday, February 22, 2017
We say “Jump for joy,” because joyous bodies move. Babies inherently know how to move to music. Youtube has an abundance of cute-baby videos, including of babies dancing upon waking up to music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mruxjn__Oc)s).
Our cells respond at the most intimate and microscopic level to the vibrations of music—the lullaby voice, the choral voices of our community, the calling and responding voices that connect us. All dancers dance for joy, those without any formal training and those who have mastered the utmost technical challenges. Music itself expresses emotional tenor; or we invest our listening of music with a panoply of emotions. But our emotional life, our joys and excitements thrive even without the addition of music, and inspire our bodies to move in concert with our moods, the weather, and the needs of our physical persons (have you ever watched a cat or a dog wake up in the morning and stretch luxuriously?).
Dancing–wholeheartedly dancing–turns on the artspirit. Our artspirit consciousness requires no additional discipline to quiet the ‘monkey chatter’ of our minds. In mindfulness meditation we quiet our bodies and learn to gently bring our focus back to the breath, to the next-to-nothingness between each interruption by these sweet or ferocious monkeys that chatter, chatter, chatter all ‘mind’ long. But when we dance—on stage or at the disco, or in the country line or in a trance dance or in the fitness studio or even while listening to the radio—we interrupt the monkey chatter and let our bodies take over. What a beautiful conspiracy the elbows, knees, hips and shoulders achieve in heightening our experience of living while shutting down the opposition—the naysaying, judgmental, catastrophizing, list-making nags that occupy our own minds and plot our every hour. How euphoric and exotic a transport on two little feet, our muscle memories bringing back a choreography or allowing us improvisational freedom.
Dancing increases our perviousness to the energy around us, just as our pores open. Our edges expand. We reach beyond our reach. We see beyond our seeing. We feel beyond our smallness. Dance can embrace us in an all-encompassing experience, as completely in-the-moment. On some level dancing is tribal, and those who move to the same music become our extended families, become part of the history of our laughter and singing.
The arts of dance may require hours upon hours of dedicated discipline and practice, honing and fine tuning every joint in the body, every muscle, every rhythmically beating cell. But on stage great dancers let their bodies think for themselves, and their bodies become conduits for the artspirit.
At a nightclub or a wedding, we dance for joy; moved, almost as would be a puppet, by the pump and sway of the music, and by the surrounding waves of exuberance. Like runner’s high, we can dance like there’s no tomorrow, or, as the saying goes, “like no one’s watching,” yet not feel the exertion of it–the hard breathing, the pressure and madness of the blood, the sweat making slippery our arms and legs and shining our faces with shear, unadulterated glory.
Much of our lives we pursue the stated, the mandated, the mundane and necessary. We forget to play. The ludic escapes us in its full bodied manifestations. More and more today, we get our dopamine squirts from watching television and playing video games, or from endlessly posting our selfies on Facebook and Instagram. We get our fill from these two dimensional or three dimensional look-alike adventures. But there is little texture to it. It does not feel like grass or a gust of cold air, or the warm press of a cheek, or smell like damp leaves in the thawing of winter, or tax our calves with the ache of accomplishment after a long walk or a challenging hike.
I feel wowed, awed and impressed by the brilliance and continuing technological innovations of our age, but like everything we can imagine coming into being, we cannot anticipate all of the potential ramifications, or how aggressively the downsides will vie with the upsides for ascendancy.
Martha Graham, a queen of modern dance in the twentieth century made many quotable remarks about dance, but I love this one: “Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the preeminent ballet dancers of the twentieth century, who came to the United States from Russia, said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world.” And many have written about how the arts, and here I speak about dance, give shape and voice to our most human experiences in this world. Football players dance after scoring a touchdown. Dance has been used to celebrate weddings, births, to bring rain, to enter a trance, to celebrate deities. To flirt. To prepare for war. To honor peace. To captivate and entertain.
I spent much of my life involved in dance—recreationally and then professionally—and as I segued into a chapter of life after dance, the transition felt profoundly difficult, even grievous. I could barely watch a dance concert without crying. But over the years I realized that dance had become part of me in some integral, hard-to-articulate way, but surely as a filter through which I honed my observations of body language and rhythmicity, of gait and gesture, of posture and expressivity. And of the subtleties of resonance or awkwardness in how people connect interpersonally. Grace is, after all, not something fancy or complicated, but the efficiency of movement for its outcome’s sake, whether utilitarian or aesthetic.
At three years old I asked my mother for dance lessons, interrupting her as she napped. I didn’t know anything about dance as an art form. The top of her bed and my face met. I remember that, and my paternal grandmother playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, prompting a three year old’s rabid dance to such profoundly driving music.
My mother made good on my request. From a converted barn in Lexington where Isadora Duncan style “free” movement was encouraged to the Cambridge Ballet School in Harvard Square, to a long succession of dance schools and styles and graduate education and teaching contemporary dance and choreographing in a University to writing dance reviews, my love of dance evolved. For many years I lived, breathed, slept and thought about dance. And went as far in the field as I could, given the anatomical limitations of my feet and back that made a professional performer’s life just out of reach. Yet dancing was always good therapy and I was able to bring that to patients in an acute hospital setting. Moving their bodies animated them and moving together with others brought them into community in a powerful way, where isolation had prevailed.
In spite of that, I had had enough experiences rehearsing and performing to know the sensation of heightened euphoria, when the music and the muscle memory take over your body, and you attach to an energy beyond that of yourself. You move, in the moment, electrified, and perhaps a bit electrifying to watch. Perhaps, like the adrenalin rush of a sky or cliff diver, the physics that govern our bodies seem somehow suspended, and in this magical landscape of the stage, or the nightclub, we leap, balance, accelerate, float, and fly as if defined by a different kind of magic.
Last night my three sisters and I attended a dance concert at the Portsmouth Music Hall. The Momix company’s ‘Cactus.’ The tensile strength of the dancers, utilized playfully in the slithering, darting, staccato and sensual movements of the animated desert creatures—lizard, snake, fan tailed birds—as well as the suggested tribal dances of courting, fighting, or rain-making for an indigenous culture—captivated us. At times two dancers, intertwined, cantilevered, or extended from each others’ bodies in silhouette, created the image of a creature, plant or animal, with jutting or wheeling appendages.
In some dances long poles, like vaults, suspended the dancers a bit longer and higher than gravity would allow without these extensions. And so we found ourselves lifted into the arena of brilliance and light that imagination occupies: the extraordinary. Accomplished by ordinary humans doing ordinary grunt work. Over and over again. Try happiness as a form of dance.
Camel Saddle: What are your best experiences dancing? What were the messages you received about dancing while growing up? Did you feel inhibited about moving your body or encouraged to express yourself in movement? Have you ever “lost yourself” while dancing, and become one with the music and the movement? Are there other experiences that have captivated you in that same way?