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.
Category Archives: Stop Moments
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.
“It is not uncommon for the arts to leave us somehow ill at ease or to prod us beyond acquiescence. They may, now and then, move us into spaces where we can envision other ways of being and ponder what it might signify to realize them. But moving into such spaces requires a willingness to resist the forces that press people into passivity and bland acquiescence. […] To resist such tendencies is to become aware of the ways in which certain dominant social practices enclose is into molds, define us in accord with extrinsic demands, discourage us form going beyond ourselves and from acting on possibility.”
– Maxine Greene 1
Clunk, screech, crash, thud!
“Why do we have to move the desks every week?”
For the last two and a half years of studying Arts Education within the academy, my classmates and I have moved our desks around the room, reconfiguring them in hopes of creating a learning space that is less hierarchal, more inclusive, and more freeing.
This week there is extra bitterness in my voice.
“Rows? If they want to sit in lines, they should have to move the desks!” I grumble as I throw more wire framed chairs into a stack.
Finally, we stand in the open space we have created for ourselves. I exhale and feel the tension leave my body as we begin to play.
We are just a minute or two into a short exercise, marching, singing, swimming, sliding around the room when our class is interrupted by another student at the door.
“You are being too loud,” she says.
We are frozen mid-play.
We do not apologize, but we do accommodate her.
Of course, we all have to use this building, and our classes have different needs, but I feel hot with annoyance because I know that our class’s activity is seen as less important.
“BUT THIS IS HOW WE ARE LEARNING!” I want to yell.
What kind of learning do we encourage by sitting in rows, by being silent, and by taking orders from the top?
Does it nurture students who feel safe in their bodies, who speak with courage, who embrace vulnerability, who engage in honest interaction, who know themselves before leading others?
Today these two experiences exemplified the struggles [arts] educators face every day, even when we know wholeheartedly that a classroom of learners not only sits and listens, but also moves and makes sound.
1 Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995), 135.
As I drive around the corner, a tiny dark shape appears on the road through the fog. It’s already past midnight and I’m longing for bed, but I pull over and get out of the car.
A pigeon is sitting still in the middle of the lane. I crouch down close to it and I see that one leg is retracted protectively.
I approach the bird with a towel and it stumbles in circles.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I scoop it into my hands and hold it as carefully as possible but the pigeon cries out.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I lay the pigeon down underneath a bush.
In bed that night, I think about why holding the pigeon “stopped” me. Realizing the rarity of being within touching distance of a wild animal makes me feel disconnected from the natural world, but realizing the rarity of being an active witness makes me feel disconnected from my humanity.
How many times have I been silent while witnessing an act of discrimination on public transit? How many times have I kept walking when being addressed by a panhandler? How many times have I neglected to ask if a stranger who may be struggling needed help?
In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier retells the biblical story of the beggar Lazarus in order to illustrate the gulf that exists between the privileged and the poor.
“What is the abyss that separates people? Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?
I suspect that we exclude Lazarus because we are frightened that our hearts will be touched if we enter into a relationship with him. If we listen to his story and hear his cry of pain we will discover that he is a human being.”1
Pulling over to hold the pigeon reminded me of how easy it is to remain isolated and ignore the needs of others. As an educator, I know that I must model being an active witness and allow my heart to work past fear so that it may be touched by compassion.
1 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2008), 70.