O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Shall we dance?
It was at high noon last Tuesday that the unlikely dance-partners – the lovely Sheelagh Colclough and myself – took to the unlikely dance floor of a QUB’s Lanyon Building lecture theatre under the direction of Federica Banfi who was presenting, by means of a workshop: ‘From ‘active perception’ to connection: Engaging the Senses in Argentine Tango’.
Rhona’s Dance Studio
I love dance – all types – but my preferred kind of dancing has always been couples dancing. And it seems appropriate while attending a conference that dealt with the topics of memory, perception, sensoriality and imagination, that I revisited, in a half-remembered, half imagined way, my old dancing days at Viva Dance Studio in Cork. The shapes and touches in Tuesday’s workshop throwing up all sorts of old information like so many messages-in-bottles coming in to shore.
‘A few and bad’
‘A few and bad’ (poco y mal – excellently translated) was how a Spanish friend described his dancing and it always makes me smile. I wasn’t actually terrible. In fact, I might have been quite okay except it really was a hobby for me and I didn’t have the time or the willingness to go the more competitive route, which was, to be fair, less about winning things and more about mastery.
Couple Dancing – Men and Women
The Coulters’ set up particularly appealed to me because women never danced with other women. They begged, borrowed and stole male and female bodies to ensure equal numbers in every class. (Yes, there were classes where women had to be drafted in to make up the numbers). As I continued with the classes it came to me that the project was as much about teaching men and women to be in a cooperative space – albeit for a very short time, with little talking and sympathetic music – as it was about learning dance-steps. On a lighter note I also suffer from petite-womans’ guilt which Sheelagh reminded me of with her ‘tall women always get to play the men’s role’. In Rhona’s dance studio, me and the less height advantaged men, particularly, had a good thing going.
Couple Dancing – Leader and Follower
I remember the leader/follower shake down as happening like this. The men didn’t need to say anything – they had to be the leader and I don’t have any recollection of any of the ‘leaders’ saying ‘This is a bit out of my comfort zone – I’m more of a natural follower’. In the follower’s camp – team woman in this instance – opinion was more divided but only somewhat. Most women owned that leadership position was more in their line – and participated in a way that I like to call ‘leading from the back’. I was the only one I ever came across who had a distinct and happy identification with following. In that world, at that time, I was a natural follower. I always felt when I said it there should be shame attached. But I felt none, what it meant for me is that I punched well above my weight very often in who I danced with. I remember being taken out for a test drive by one of the very serious competitive dancers who was looking for a new partner. He danced me round the room with one arm, metaphorically, hanging out of the window – it felt like flying.
A Balloon and the Individisble Dance of Two People
On Tuesday, Frederica asked us to dance with a balloon in the middle as the only thing holding us together – the idea being to sense the connection that you make in that instance (which was the project behind all exercises). It was a bit up-close-and-personal and I was grateful to have somebody I already knew there on the morning, but I’ve got to say Sheelagh and I weren’t ideally matched for this particular exercise given the height difference but we did what we could in the happy cause of process and understanding.
For me, the balloon was like some kind of brilliant indicator species – here indicating the change in connection from two people battling for control of the space, to two people cooperating – with one taking the forward motion route, and the other the guided path.
The thing about when you are controlling you tend to breath in, in anticipation of resistance. The body tense and held away, many (from my perspective of a follower) of the bodies natural communication channels closed down with a single dominating idea of what should happen and the expection that the other person won’t be on board or able to do what you need them to – or worse a dual between two dominating ideas (from my perspective of, euphemistally-speaking, leading from the back).
When either person went into control mode – the balloon lightly flew off, like a canary, in it’s own direction – connection lost, the space collapsing into ‘yours and mine’.
It wasn’t the purpose of Tuesday’s workshop to work on that core-to-core connection, but my memory brought back some wonderful instances where there was such a flow between me and the man I was dancing with that there was a sense of all-one-ness about it (gathering in the music, other people, the room, everything). I can’t really explain it, like there’s been a shift in gears. Did I mention it felt like flying? It’s as close I think as I will ever come.
Vulnerability and the Knowing-Dancer
And the minute either got a controlling thought, the flight would begin a tail-spin. Easy to correct. In a poem of mine called ‘Social Dance’ (Darkhaired), I talk about the traditional roles of leader and follower being worn away. I mean this, of course, in the gendered sense but also in the sense that the leader and follower roles, no matter the gender/sexuality of the body that plays either role, have to have an equal place in the dance – no matter who the dancers are – or the thing won’t take off. Even in the above, I’ve gifted the leader the poll position but, in my heart of hearts, I know it is not so. The follower has to be equally proficient in their own space – otherwise in the poetic words of an ex of mine ‘it’s a battle for light and space’.
Learning the steps jointly, and two people jointly doing them right, is easier than the vulnerability of giving up control – communicating from the core of yourself – body, mind and spirit – until you arrive at a place of trust of both yourself and your dance partner. But my small experience tells me that what I’m calling the ‘Knowing-Dancers’ (the ones who are dancer and dance and who can tell the difference) have to travel that vulnerable road.
Timing and Leadership
And who sets the time? The composer, the musician or the leader? This line of thinking is prompted by (but not in any way explaining ) an earlier paper in the same conference – ‘Sensing Timing in Participation: an Enactive Approach to Musicking’ by Juan Loaiza Restrepo.
Even if you dance without formal music- an earlier incarnation of the ‘Knowing the Dance‘ dance~poems had natural sound as the accompaniment – the measure it seems to me is taken from the outside and this entrainment, as it were, is a different kind of leadership. A disinterested and not quite visible call to the floor which continues whether the dancers are flying or falling or sitting it out, but one to whom the partners must surrender in order to move gracefully in the updraught of the air.
A Word of Appreciation
Thanks again to Federica Banfi and all those at the Evolving Fields conference for including ‘Knowing the Dance‘ on the programme. It seemed a very good space to showcase the work of the project and my thanks to those who generously participated in the space/workshop exercises. A big thanks, too, to Paula Guzzanti the dance partner in this project which explores the meeting place between poetry and dance and holds it as a creative place in its own right – and to Martin Della Vecchia for bringing music to the space.