Dance with me, not on me
Living in New York City sometimes feels like an experiment in claustrophobia. There are times when I get the impression that the city is testing the limits of my personal space; for example, as I jam myself onto the L train at rush hour, or find myself at my favorite restaurant seated not a foot from my neighboring diners. Working as a dancer in New York City brings a whole new dimension to the spatial experience offered here. Ever tried to squeeze yourself in onto the bar at a packed ballet class? Better angle in! Or, even worse, attended a Broadway cattle call? Dancers in New York not only navigate the crowds of the streets and subways, we also face the unique challenge of crowds in classes, on tiny stages, and in auditions.
Dancers are trained to understand and manipulate their bodies in ways that defy the mundane, day to day workings of human kinetics. Often times, dance requires stretch, length, and height, needs that are taxing at the best of times, and daunting when confronted with the close quarters of the many of the settings in a dancer’s life. It can be frustrating, attending a class only to find yourself trapped between colleagues. Learning combinations sometimes means being unable to do the movement fully until the class is broken up into groups at the very end. Auditioning often means warming up in a scrap of floor no bigger than an oven mitt. Dealing with other dancers can mean getting stuck next to that individual who refuses to conform to the constraints of the crowded studio and insists on kicking, smacking, and stepping on you in order to move full out. Yes it can definitely be frustrating, sometimes even pushing the most patient of us to huff and puff. But lately, I’ve been thinking of spatial constraints less in terms the space around me and more in terms of the people dancing next to me. Through this lens, the experience becomes less self-centered.
Dance can be a very intimate, internal experience. There is a good reason for this; dance is a learning process, the best dancers will tell you that a dancer is a student their entire life. This learning process occurs not only between the individual and the outside world, but, perhaps most importantly, between the individual and themselves. In order to improve, dancers must learn to manipulate their own body, a practice that requires self-knowledge above all else. Such demands can draw a dancer’s focus inward, sometimes at the expensive of external awareness.
In my experience, this kind of isolation is particularly prevalent in technique classes. In class, dancers can focus on many things, technique, artistry, getting the combination, but all of this often comes down to one thing, wanting to feel good about their dancing, wanting to feel as though they are improving. Whether a dancer wants to feel as though they applied that correction, got that leg an inch higher, or brought themselves to the movement, a drive towards accomplishment is often present in the studio. This focus on the self can often alienate the outside world, not to mention the other dancers in the room. The self-oriented goals described above are also encouraged by the deep sense of competition embedded in the dance world. Dancers are constantly reminded how there are more of them than there are jobs to be had, and that there is always someone better, stronger, or more flexible out there. Under these pressures, the quest for self-improvement can border on obsession, making awareness beyond the self even more difficult to obtain.
Self-centered dancing can become problematic. Firstly, it clouds the fact that dance is, first and foremost, a form of communication. Communication must occur between at least two people, when a dancer is decidedly focused on themselves, communication is limited to a discussion between you and say, your leg. Another challenge brought on by this kind of introversion is the challenge of navigating the densely populated dance world described earlier. When focus is so internal, it can be difficult to also gauge the distance between yourself and your fellow dancer, especially when that dancer is but 2 inches from you.
The subject of spatial awareness and awareness of those dancing beside me was brought to my attention during two workshops I took in the past 7 months or so. The first was conducted by Nicole Walcott of Larry Keigwan + Company at Peridance, the second was led by Alexandra Beller at Dance New Amsterdam. During both workshops, these artists highlighted the act of dancing with in different ways.
During Nicole Walcott’s class, we were taught a combination without timing then instructed to make our own musicality as we performed it. As we went through the combination the last few times, Ms. Walcott told us to take cues from our fellow dancers rather than trying to make all the decisions ourselves. I found this bizarre at first. I worried that as I followed other dancers, I would fumble in my execution of the movement. This however was not the case. As I danced with those surrounding me, I felt removed from the conscious execution of the movement. In a sense, my body was liberated from my mind because my mind was otherwise occupied. This exercise took the focus on execution outside me gave some of this responsibility to my fellow dancers. After class, Ms. Wolcott told me that that last performance had been my strongest and that by submitting myself to my fellow dancers I had freed myself from much of the anxiety that has been known to creep into my movement.
Alexandra Beller’s class was part of the company class series at Dance New Amsterdam. This series provides the opportunity for dancers to experience various companies’ rehearsal processes. Beller’s entire class was dedicated to an improv exercise that culminated in the creation of a piece. In this piece, spatial patterns were created by a pre-defined relationships between dancers; dancers took cues from one another and moved as a group trying to maintain different spatial relationships in different directional facings. As we set up the piece for its first performance, I looked hesitantly at the dancer standing not 12 inches from me, and prepared for all kinds of trouble. Instead, what I found was an ease of movement supported by everyone’s adherence to the ‘rules’ of the game. We became something bigger than ourselves. This kind of unity in movement tends to arrive after an arduous rehearsal process rather than a one hour and a half class. Experiencing this kind of unity among strangers was a real revelation.
As dancers, we often get so stuck in our own goals and desires that we forget to see the world around us. Often times, it is our colleagues that are the first people to disappear from our field vision as we push, push, push to dance, dance, dance. We want to be the best, to stand out, to get the job. Walcott and Beller’s classes reminded me of the value of joining the crowd; the beauty in submitting yourself to something greater. From these experiences, I learned two valuable lessons about spatial awareness and dance. Firstly, I learned that a lot can be gained by submitting your awareness to the world around you and your decision making to a collective environment. Secondly, I learned that navigating tight spaces becomes a lot more enjoyable when each individual has some focus on the group, instead of themselves exclusively. I do not pretend that I adhere to both these lessons every day, but I am happy to have them in my toolbox.
For dancers, an awareness of the space around you becomes most important in performance and rehearsal settings. Sometimes, it is easy to turn on that mode, sometimes, if we’ve been living in our head too long, it becomes harder to integrate spatial awareness into our dancing. With this blog post, I invite my readers to investigate the space around them and those who share it. Rather than become frustrated with the limitations of our environment, engage with it; don’t push against it, delve into and make it meaningful. Yes, cattle calls will still suck, yes that girl kicking you is going to upset you, but hopefully, as you twirl about the floor you’ll experience the magic of dancing with rather than against the strangers in the room. And there is something quite wonderful about that.