Wisdom From the World of Dance

What does a modern dancer learn from dancing about how to live?

Posted Nov 30, 2017

This week a young dancer responded to my book, Why We Dance, with a question that surprised me: “If everyone has the capacity to dance—if everyone is a dancer—then why should I or anyone else spend years of my life trying to become one?”

I pondered parallel questions. Why practice writing if most people can read and write? Why practice drawing if everyone has the ability to color on paper? The questions seemed to assume that if a person wanted to read a book or admire a picture, she could write it or draw it herself. Did the dancer think the same of dance? My whole point in affirming that everyone has a capacity to dance was to affirm that people also have a capacity to appreciate that what dancers do and know is relevant for them.

Then I realized that the dancer's question represented, once again, a nearly unconscious ignorance, even among dancers, of how valuable their art is, not just to themselves but to humanity at large; not just for the world of dance, but for the task of living in a given time and place. This value is not a function of physical gyrations or extreme flexibility alone; it might best be described as an ongoing search for wisdom. 

I spent yesterday reading about wisdom traditions, mostly Christian, where people engage in bodily practices of meditation, silent prayer, scripture reading, and chanting in order to calm their minds, expand their hearts, and learn to live in love. It occurred to me: what if I considered contemporary concert dance, alongside other arts and spiritual traditions, as a wisdom tradition, a place where people seek to learn not just how to make particular bodily movements, but how to live fully.

Here, I offer a playful, preliminary exploration of some “wisdom” I have learned through my study of American modern dance and contemporary ballet.

1. Every bodily movement matters.

I remember finishing class at the Martha Graham School one day, and not wanting to move a muscle. The movements I had just made in class seemed so pure and clear—every one of them. Each contraction and release seemed to sculpt space and gather time so precisely as to slice open the present and reveal it in its fullness —in its potential for joy. At that moment, I wanted every move I made from then on in my life to be as conscious, to feel as important.

Bodily movement matters, and not just in the sense that it is important. Rather, it is important because bodily movement makes matter into matter. It matters.

In class, over time, I felt this mattering happening. The bodily movements I was making were making my bodily self – forming my muscles and my bones; expanding and refining my sensory awareness; and pulling new thoughts and feelings into these sensory spaces. These bodily movements rippled my expectations and crested into a desire for more. My movements were making me, changing me, slowly, gradually, into someone whose movements could reveal to others how movement matters.  

So many cultural messages today disparage this incredible ability of bodily movements to create who we are. We are taught to want to do whatever we feel like doing with our bodily selves, and not face any consequences -- as if bodily movement doesn't matter. If I sit all day my back hurts. If I don’t do some movement practice every day, I feel depressed. If I eat highly processed food, I feel ill. These facts are not unfortunate constraints on my freedom. They are evidence of the degree to which movement matters.  

Every movement I make is a potent source of knowledge about how to think and feel and want in ways that will nurture the health and well being of my bodily self. 

2. The smallest movements matter most.

Another demi plie? At the beginning of my ballet training, I couldn’t wait to get away from the barre and onto the floor. I wanted to move. To erupt through space! To glide across the floor. I was impatient with the small actions that didn’t seem to require much effort at all. A gentle bend in the knee. A flexing of the toe.

When it comes to dance, it is so easy to be dazzled, as I was, by splashy leaps, high extensions, and daring spins. Such moves are exhilarating to perform, and exciting to watch. Yet their success is wholly dependent upon the small bends that even beginners can do.

Movement matters. Small movements wake up sensory awareness all along the length of a limb, the flexion of a joint, mapping their reach and range and limits. Small movements exercise connective tissues and build awareness into every increment of possible sensation. Small movements help a bodily self unfold the movement potentials enfolded in our flesh, developed over millions of years, by ensuring that knee moves over toe, and hip over heel. Small movements lay pathways capable of carrying the energy and intention needed to fund bigger movements that erupt farther and faster along established trajectories, making a bodily self into one who can.

When it comes to great leaps of kindness and love, of thought or insight, the same logic holds. Small actions, regularly rehearsed, prepare the way for explosions of care, compassion, and creativity.

3. You can’t make the same movement twice.

I was fuming. My whole sensory self sizzled with frustration. I had done the pirouette perfectly five minutes earlier. I had had it! And now I couldn’t repeat the movement. I kept falling to one side or the other, unable to find the sweet spot. Why?! My body was not a machine, as much as I wanted it to be.

It took years for me to realize that it is impossible to make the same movement twice. No matter how hard you try to recreate the very same patterns of attention and effort, you are different than you were in a previous moment. You are more or less tired, nourished, eager, attentive, confident or doubting as a result of the movements you have just made. The challenge, then, in any moment, is how to mobilize who you are in that moment into a movement whose clear shape sheers the present.

What a dancer exercises in the seeming replication of a jump or turn is not a robotic ability to repeat. He exercises an ability to sense and adjust to the micro-differences present in every new moment—and not just in ways that match patterns he can imagine possible. He practices receiving impulses to move that meet these intentions in ways that honor and tease forth the movement potentials of his bodily self. He practices coaxing his bodily self to come alive as its own mobilizing energy.

Humans are creatures of habit. We want to find ways of being that work and then to repeat them, so as to protect ourselves from being wrong, or being hurt, or being unsure. Yet dancing teaches us what we need more than fail-safe responses is an ability to trust and adjust. We need to cultivate a capacity to trust that the ongoing sensing and responding of our bodily selves—as trained by movements we have already made—can and will produce the nuanced adjustments needed to coordinate what we want in the moment with where we are and who we are becoming.

Such trusting and adjusting is the work of love. 

4. Mindfulness must be mobilized.

Neuroscientists puzzle over a phenomenon that dancers work with every day. A human being can lift her arm spontaneously, without thinking, in order to block a ball hurtling toward her head. A human being can also imagine lifting her arm, going as far as to feel the sensation of doing so, while her arm lays still on the table. So too, a human can lift her arm consciously, imagining the move, thinking about it, and doing it all at once.

From the neurological point of view, it is hard to tell the difference. The same neurons fire. From the perspective of dance, the difference is everything.

A dancer knows: mindfulness is not enough to make an arm move in a particular pattern. I can think about it. I can want to do it. But in order to do it, I need to invite and ignite a sensory awareness of arm, and release its potential for moving. As I do, in so far as I am trying to match an image I have (or that others are demonstrating), I must also pay attention to the stream of information that the action of lifting produces in me. In other words, I need to be able to mobilize my arm while also sensing and responding to where this arm is, how it feels, and what it can and wants to do. 

While concern with mindfulness dominates conversations in contemporary spirituality, a dancer knows that mindfulness is only part of the story. In order to move with clarity and conviction in the present, an emptied mind must also learn to receive what a moving bodily self knows: how to move, what to want, and where to connect in ways nurture greater health and well-being.

5. If you want to go farther and faster, relax.

“You are working too hard! Just relax!” How I hated that advice, given to me by several teachers over a number of years. I wanted to succeed! I wanted to be good! I was trying to get better. Relax??!

My effort was getting in the way. My mind was getting in the way. The fear that I would not get what I wanted was getting in my way—balling my muscles into tight knots. I held on with every sensory surface so tightly that I could no longer feel. I could not breathe. I could not yield to what my bodily self knew about how to accomplish what I most wanted.

It took years to realize what dance was teaching me about what how mind and ego can impede spiritual and artistic progress. It is not just the constant cackle of judgment and doubt, nor the menace of distraction. A mind that thinks itself in charge is not doing its job. The mind exists to serve the ongoing rhythm of bodily becoming. The mind exists to imagine movements that are desirable and possible, and then hold space so that the bodily movements I have created and become can respond in ways that my mind can neither predict nor control.

To dance—and to live—is to play this tension between “mind” and “body,” ideal and actuality, effort and ease, push and pull, give and receive. What we can think is finite. The movements we can make are infinite, and infinitely creative. In the buzzing hum between moving and thinking we discover what is possible and allow our actions to make it so. 

6. Move down to go up; move up to come down.

Up, it can seem, is the way to go. Up in income, up in status, up in influence. Up into our minds. Up into a place where we will be safe from the vagaries of the natural world and our own unpredictable desires. Up to where we can be in control of what our bodies do.

Nevertheless, a dancer knows. Standing on tippy toes will only take you so far. The way to go as high as you can go (on your own) is to bend your knees and press into the earth. And the way to come down again without falling, softly and firmly, is to pull upward while releasing into the floor. The floor is your friend

In spiritual teachings, dance is often used as a metaphor to signal a peaceful unity of what thinking splits into opposing realities. Yet a dancer knows that what makes dancing powerful is movement between differences, or dynamics. Moving from one height, length, side, emotion, or stretch to its pole creates energy, tension, and a powerful awakening of sensory awareness.

Dancing does not dissolve dualisms. Nor does it reconcile their inherent conflict. Rather, it reveals the terms of any dualism as moments in a generative rhythm: movement between the two produces shapes of insight, intensity, and connection. Movements that matter. The loftiest leap and the gentlest touch. The most distant god and the most inward spirit. 

7. Center is something you create inside yourself and carry with you.

For the longest time I looked and looked for a center that would serve as ground of my being, source of wisdom and insight. I looked to god and to books, and for god in books. I thought I would find a word, an idea, a belief that hooked my heart and pulled me into a place of feeling that unconditional love I had heard so much about. Then, for a while, I thought I had no center, only an empty space. Then, I started to study dance.

In the world of modern dance, center is what happens in you as you make movements that align with the movement potentials of your bodily self. It is what happens as you move from and return to your axis. It is what happens when you breathe, consciously, deeply, in stylized patterns of contracting and responding, exhaling and inhaling, creating yourself into a capacity to unfold and refold in an instant. It forms within you as you move out and come back; or tip off balance and return.

Center is the “place” that emerges as the movements you make make you. It may be located in one spot or another—the solar plexus or the pelvic cavity. It emerges in the wake of your movements that work as the place where those movements begin. It makes further movements possible. 

Dancing, I learned. Center is not something you find outside of yourself or something you can learn from anyone else. It is a sensory awareness that you must invite and welcome—a sensory awareness of how and where you receive impulses to move that matter (to) you.

I shall stop at seven, barely sketched, but interesting to me.

What do you think? What is the wisdom of dance?