Artist Challenge: Part II

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.” –Rumi

“When you are dancing, you are moving towards divinity.”–Swami Nityananda

I was recently invited by a former student to speak at a local university in support of the understanding that dance was more than just our bodies, that it qualified as an intellectual pursuit.

Certainly, there is room for everything. There are times when, for example, I walk into the studio to teach and have not the foggiest notion of what I will give in class. Then I flick a sort of switch inside and my mind goes into a hyper-focused, computer-like mode where it starts making up steps.

I’ve wondered if it’s a kind of channeling. Sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen peeling oranges or whatever when the ballet screen suddenly flicks on and I’ll start seeing steps. I go into a kind of step-trance. At first this alarmed my husband but he’s grown quite used to it. For me, it feels perfectly ordinary, though I’m aware that it’s not such a common thing for others.

There is a kind of delicious arithmetic to composing ballet steps, the satisfying click of it. Though I have notebooks packed full of classes, I’m always amazed when a new step pops out. They just keep coming and coming. When I land upon a particularly juicy one, I will often write it down. I have slips of papers with my own ballet shorthand in every corner of the apartment, as page holders in books, under tea cups, on my iPhone. Maybe one day I’ll do a Vaganova and compose a syllabus.

Step-trancing is my intellectual branch of dancing, but it’s like a side office. It’s not where I spend most of my time. I spend most of my time in the temple. Dancing is life. So to suggest that dancing is more than just our bodies is to suggest that we are more than just our bodies. Well, that is the great question isn’t it?

I can’t prove that we are more than just our bodies. If I could, I’d be some kind of millionaire. Rumi says that our longing is the evidence we seek and for many years, I danced that longing.

Some argue that ballet can be lacking in emotional depth and that is often true. However, the adagio is an exception. It is the balletic expression of longing. For a long time, I hated it, but eventually gave into it and even came to love it. It is, for most dancers, through the execution, and for teachers, in its composition, the hardest part of class. There is a lot of stillness in this exercise and it requires a great deal of strength and balance because you are holding your leg in the air without the aid of momentum.

I find it an interesting commentary on today’s culture that the longing of the adagio has been usurped by the current fashion of ultra high gymnastic extensions. It is possible to express that longing with a high extension, but more often than not, the gymnastics tend to mask the expression of vulnerability.

When we get to the adagio in class, I usually see a kind of fear come over people. Since most are lacking in the very high extensions that we see plastered all over the dance media, they have come to feel that the expression of their longing is irrelevant. I say, not so. Let us have your longing. We must practice validating our own experience.

What makes one’s dancing compelling is one’s love for it. What draws the eye is the ability to watch someone having a profound internal experience translated into the external physical world. As a dancer, you are a kind of translator for divine energy, the non-verbal prayer.

To me, it’s not a question of whether or not we are more than “just” our bodies. Rather, I look at the body as the most recent train stop on a journey that started a long time ago. It is part of a continuum. It is the physical expression of our being and as such should not be looked upon as separate or inferior to other parts of the self, such as the intellect, the emotions or the soul.

When dancing felt best to me, it was when all parts of myself, some I could name, and some I could not, danced together, without hierarchy. And though I am not a religious person, I had what I’d call spiritual experiences while dancing. They were few and far between, but just a taste of that was so sweet, it kept you wanting more. Such moments absolved the question and the questioning. But like any high, it couldn’t last forever. Chop wood. Carry water.

Nowadays, I dance a little when I teach. I dance with the baby, but not like I used to. People ask me if I miss it. No, I do not. I don’t need it the way I once did. I no longer run from the question. I exist inside it.

2 responses to “Artist Challenge: Part II

  • Ken Ludden

    In your article you muse on the question of dance being perhaps something more than just what the body does. Below is a portion of a paper recently presented at a world-wide conference. It brushes against this musing in a slightly different, by still germane, way.

    Dance is a Universal Foreign Language

    Dance is the only completely universal language. Human movement is native to each of us, and understood by every person, well before speech is learned. Body language is the basis for all communication, and visual design (written words, colors, symbols, images) are an extension of that universal language we all begin with.
    The world would benefit if educational institutions, beginning with the earliest years of training, were to include dance as a mandatory part of foreign language study, and required students (individually or in groups) to work on creative projects in dance as a foreign language. While movement is the only language foreign to nobody, modern society and technologies are making this language less prevalent and less effective. If every student participates in creating a work based on movement, they will be introduced to a different way of thinking and of expressing themselves.
    Imagine if there were no need to explain what a word or concept meant. Imagine if you knew that every single thing you communicated would be precisely understood. Anyone required to create a movement statement {without any literal objects being used) is faced with a challenge – what would you say? If everyone could understand exactly what you are communicating, what would be worth communicating? What needs to be said? What needs to be said again? What is truly important to share?
    Facing this challenge, and succeeding in it, shapes the future for nearly every person. Whether a doctor at a patient’s bedside, a lawyer at a trial, a social worker making a home visit, a dignitary entering a negotiation, a friend lending an ear, a restaurant worker taking an order, a chimney sweep canvassing a neighborhood for new customers, or a young person breaking up with a lover, body language tells the story. It also tells how you feel about what you must do, what you expect from another, that you need someone to really understand or that you trust the person you are confronting. No matter what the communication, our body language speaks first and most truthfully. And to become experienced in this process initiates a facility in the individual that will grow with experience and provide them a tool for prolonged effectiveness in their chosen field.
    A universal language is exactly what is needed to bring together warring factions, millennia-old differences, and holy wars. Dance is the one language that was not affected when the tower of Babel fell, and it communicates with each human being through the common experience of humanness itself. Everyone knows what it means to reach out, to turn one’s back, to hesitate, to rush forward without care, to carefully mete out a resource, to take a risk, to get there in the nick of time or to just stop and refuse to help, staying in the safety of separateness. These ideas are native to all people; they are the base of existence, and the way we move forward, one foot at a time, toward the future.

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