My friends have long made fun of me for how I dance. I have long lanky arms that swing when I move. I have a strange habit of shifting my elbows in robotic motions to the rhythm of a song. My legs stay firm while my upper body moves. I look like some odd machination. And yet, I don’t care. I love to dance, to feel the music hit my body and compel me to shift around. I think most of us do.
Dancing is unique: unlike other artforms, such as visual art or music, dancing is an activity that most people enjoy doing rather than merely appreciating from afar. We do not go to a typical party expecting to paint, cook or sing (though I always love a theme), but we do go to a party with the expectation that we will move our bodies to music. As a shared social activity, dancing is ubiquitous. It is everywhere: in our house parties, our clubs and bars, and on our streets.
This is to say, there is an egalitarian, un-fussy element to dancing; most people enjoy it, even if they admit sheepishly that they’re no good at it. Get someone excited enough, put on something loud and pulsing, and you will almost certainly see them move.
“Dance” though, as in what’s practiced in theatres and concert halls, seems to be regarded as the exact opposite. Unlike the social activity, “Dance” can seem esoteric, elite, and odd to many. “Dance” is not the joyful activity of a typical weekend night, but a difficult, intimidating medium.
It’s a question of awareness and access. Most people do not even know where to go to see a dance performance. And if they do, professional choreographed dance is likely to be financially inaccessible to most. Finally, if money or awareness is not a barrier, contemporary dance’s relative obscurity may make it seem prohibitively unfamiliar to an unaccustomed viewer.
Even as someone who grew up in a major cosmopolitan city such as Los Angeles, I cannot remember a single instance in my childhood where I went with my family to see something specifically defined as “Dance.” The closest was maybe a Broadway musical or an opera, but a “Dance,” as in an event where we are primarily there to see bodies move on stage? Never. It wasn’t until I was in college that I sought out choreographed work.
At Bard College in Annandale, where I am on exchange from, I casually went to see the dance department’s yearly recital. I was amazed by the range of offerings that the dance majors had put together: some delicate and classical, some robotic and bizarre, some set to music, some done in silence. It was my first time realizing the scope of this medium, all of its possibilities and potentials. But it’s sad that I was only able to do this because I have the privilege of attending an institution where seeing dance is as basic as attending a free performance on campus. If it weren’t for this, I would likely never have gotten to admire an entire artform.
And that’s a shame. We all have bodies. We all move them in unique and specific ways. And all of us at some point dance. It seems that this chasm — between dancing as we do it and “Dance” as it is practiced in halls and theatres — can be rectified with a straight forward change of perspective. For those of us lucky enough to have any opportunity to even see dance, but avoid it out of apprehension: what if we looked at “Dance” as merely the ways professionals explore and experiment with one of our most cherished social activities? And not as some intimidatingly fancy endeavour? And what if we look at such dancers on stages as not that different from all of us who dance socially? Sure, what is happening on stage may be more physically daring or difficult to execute, but they are bodies moving in space like us.
I thought about these questions as I moved in abstract motion in my dance class taught here at Bard College Berlin. Though I felt somewhat silly doing improvisational motions that probably looked like a parody of contemporary dance, I tried to remain present, and non-judgemental of myself. I felt that I had to be there, in that class, doing these avant garde motions; I knew that this was a rare chance to explore the medium.
In the course, which is taught by Eva Burghardt, we don’t learn choreography or work on traditional techniques. Instead, we explore our movement via various imaginative exercises. “Imagine you are in a small box, and you are expanding it with your movement.” “Dance as if you’re in clouds. Now imagine you are in clay.” “Everybody, walk around and match each other’s pace.” These exercises, though they may feel childish, allow you to interact with your own body in a way that gives you heightened awareness. Throughout the day we slouch, run, stretch, stumble, recline. Rarely though, do we pause to take note of what we’re doing with our bodies and how we’re moving them. Imagining that you are walking through water, for example, forces you to gain a heightened awareness of the speed of your gait, the way your foot falls on the ground when stepping, the fluidity of your motion.
Seeing dance in regards to these exercises helps me to humble the idea of “Dance” as an artform. It does not need to be regarded as lofty and intimidating. Maybe, like my course exercises, it can be seen as artists making choices about how bodies can position themselves. Instead of seeing the movement of bodies on stage as an interpretive challenge, we can drop in to notice how such bodies move and then let the challenge of making meaning come later. For the lucky few who have the opportunity to see dance but still regard it as novel and difficult, this approach of simple noticing and unfussy observation can help them approach the entire medium and enjoy its subtlety and drama.
This relatively straightforward approach to dance helped me the other night when I attended a performance of a piece choreographed by Wassily Kandinsky, the iconic 20th century modernist, at Akademie der Künste. Known for his painting and theories, Kandisky’s dance work (or “stage composition” as he called it) is lesser known, and maybe for good reason. The dance was filled with rigid, poetic text, ruminating on the meaning and purpose of art. A live projection of a canvas being painted filled the stage. The dance was barely a dance, with an immense amount of stillness and then occasional violent theatrics. At one point, an operatic piece was sung. I was perplexed, maybe a bit bored, challenged at times, and angered at others. I wanted to make meaning, but felt I did not have the tools, was not smart enough, to approach high minded “Dance” such as this. I reverted back to my stereotypes of dance: “This is not for me. It is too abstract, too perplexing.” But then I remembered my course and the lessons I have learnt thus far. “This isn’t a riddle,” I thought to myself. “These are just bodies moving on stage.” This foundational shift in mindset allowed me to quiet my busied need to make sense of what I was seeing and instead marvel at the abilities of those performers on stage, to see how sound shifted motion, how performers interact and work together. Though I did not feel particularly strongly for the performance, there was still something to notice, something to admire in the bodies moving deftly. This mindset helped me reframe the experience from one of frustrated perplexion, to curious acceptance.
Dance, intimidating as it may be, does not need to be perceived that differently than the activity I love to do with friends on weekends or from the curious motions I perform in class. Dance is bodies in motion. Receiving it as such can help us shake some of the guilt and shame of “not getting it” or being intimidated, and allow us to be present with professionals moving their instrument. Even though I didn’t love the Kandinsky performance, I was glad I had the sensory tools to observe it without internalizing feelings of frustration. I don’t think you need to take a class as I did though to still grapple with dance, be it a challenging or familiar piece; the act of allowing the work to be a sensory, rather than an intellectual experience is good enough. It took me a whole class to understand this, but hopefully you won’t need that. You probably love to dance, so why not see it in action? It may not be as different as you think from that joyous act you do with friends.