We concluded our dance workshop with a jam circle that was safe and celebratory. At the end, with sweat dripping from our smiling faces, we held our palms out towards each other and felt our collective energy.
After months of telling my friend Laura that I would show her linocut printmaking, we finally had a chance to get together. Her dog Tundra was sleeping on the kitchen floor, and proved to be the perfect muse. It felt good to create a small (~4″x4″) artwork in a couple of hours.
Their mouths hang open gently, their eyes flick back and forth, and their pencils move slowly across the page.
Earlier that day, their teacher and I discussed how unfocused and distracting this group of students can be, but right now, I am witnessing these boys in the zone. Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play, might say that they were “disappearing” into the work. By disappearing, Nachmanovitch explains, “Mind and sense are arrested for a moment, fully in the experience. Nothing else exists. (…) Attention and intention fuse.”1 They are so immersed in their work that I am inspired to draw them, and I become similarly absorbed.
Later, in the next class, a student sees my sketch. She asks me about it and when I explain the moment to her, she says, “Yeaaaah, well good thing you drew it because that’s something you’re probably not gonna see again.”
1 Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990), 51.
“That was fun!” The studio director smiles and pats me on the shoulder.
In her costume she blends in with the dozens of students she joined on stage for a studio-wide production. Her performers are of all ages, levels, and abilities, and she acknowledges each one with gratitude. They smile back.
Her words catch me off guard. I am working backstage at a touring dance competition, and over the course of cueing up over five thousand performances, I witness mostly stress, frustration, and fatigue. I watch teachers biting their nails in front of the backstage monitor. They shake their heads, cringe, and grumble, “That line is ugly,” and “Ugh, that was bad.”
It is the students from the same dance schools who most frequently run off the stage, crying, and verbally abusing themselves. “I messed it up! I ruined it! I was so bad!” They sprawl in the curtain wing, and we have to gently move them so the show can continue.
“In many respects, teaching and learning are matters of breaking through barriers – of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition,” writes Maxine Greene.1 Another barrier is the fear, doubt, and erosion of self-confidence that restricts our freedom to learn. I look at these young dancers crumpled on the floor and I wonder how many of them will continue dancing as adults. Will they ever dance for the sake of dancing, and forgive themselves for stumbling?
1 Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995), 14.
“Let curiosity replace ambition,” repeats Anne, instructor at EDAM Studio.
Her voice peacefully washes over us as we roll and lean into each other, trying to incorporate the mechanics of contact improvisation into a flowing dance.
In this case I think she is using the word “ambition” to mean “ending”. She is asking us to be present in our movement, and to not be aiming for any kind of conclusion – to avoid trying to “get” anywhere. I have decided to apply this mantra to the other kinds of social dancing that I do, and to broaden the application. I wish to remove my ego from my dancing. If I pass judgement on another dancer (which might, for example, appear as a smug thought about their movement, or a hesitation to ask someone to dance), then I am part of the problem. This week I challenged myself to ask whoever I saw first when the song began, no matter if they were beginner or advanced, no matter if I knew them or not. If I felt a negative thought coming on, I reminded myself to let curiosity and playfulness guide my experience. I greatly enjoyed dancing this past week. This is definitely a practice that I will continue as my performative inquiry deepens.
“The beauty of playing together is meeting in the One.”1
“This is so magical,” I hear again.
This time the voice comes from below, where friends bundled up in hats and scarves lie in the sand and watch hundreds of lanterns travel above.
Seven thousand of us have gathered to observe the release of these lanterns that mark the end of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Cheers and laughter float across the beach each time another lantern is released. The paper aircrafts tilt and dance upwards uncertainly until they catch speed. Soon, the points of light become indistinguishable from sparkling constellations.
We are called to this ritual.
We are drawn to a unifying experience.
We are hungry for magic.
1 Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990), 94.