I joke with dancer friends about it all the time. Inevitably we face the pervasive question. You know what it is, it haunts you at parties, lurks behind the wine glasses at art openings, the beer cups at music shows. It follows you on dates and foils you while writing resumes.
“Oh, you dance? So, what kind of dance do you do?” Dammit.
“Um.” I scrunch my nose or grin thinly, and look up toward the ceiling as if Trisha Brown or Gertrude Stein might magically float down and bestow the right words to express contemporary art as dance training on me. I consider the options. Who am I talking to and where am I? How familiar might they be with various forms of dance? How familiar might they be with art, as a general subject? Is the person at all drunk and/or leery-eyed?
I might answer with a tentative “modern?” But I cringe a little inside because I know the polite-blank look they give betrays that they know next to nothing about modern dance. And, that “modern dance,” as a great, big, giant, catch-all category could mean vastly different things. Maybe as I try to describe training with Sara Shelton Mann they picture the Alvin Ailey show they once saw. Modern dance in its traditional Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham-like sense (though this reference does not usually help) does not describe what I do very well, either. By mid-college I successfully, unwittingly, turned into some sort of varied post-modern dancer: one who studies any assortment of techniques from Butoh to Qi Kung, ballet to Body-Mind Centering, anatomy, Capoeira, Pilates, yoga, etc. (This mix academically known as “bricolage” or “eclectic” or “pastiche” are terms which usually require unpacking). Plus release technique classes (“What’s release technique?” “Uhh…”) that may incorporate work from any of these practices, while working with various forms of experiential physiology, and attempting to utilize the laws of physics/biomechanics in order to facilitate throwing oneself around the room with apparent wild abandon. (Take a deep breath, I am still attempting to explain my training background.) While backgrounded in European dance-theater and improvisational performance. (European dance-theater? Experiential-pasta-bricko-facilitate? That definitely gets the glazed-eye with my sister’s co-workers). And then contact improv, that’s a thing…
So, what artistic tenets do I have to base myself in? How do I explain myself? Do I dare attempt a definition of contemporary dance? How do we, as trained dancers of any genre, explain ourselves to a general, untrained audience? Can we explain ourselves as dance artists without marooning our art form?
To make matters worse, as a contemporary dancer, the aesthetic rests on something historically fluctuating: a shifting core of values that seem to refine themselves according to the latest tradition upended. Whatever you learned as a student, redefine as a working artist. In “modern” dance we appreciate narrative, then non-narrative. Then narrative deconstructed. Narrative mixed with self-reflexive analysis. General abstract human landscapes, narrative rising out of the body’s architecture. Yet the thing about dancing, about movement, I cannot pin down in such descriptions. Even if I practiced a classical form of dance, one with an ingrained set of thousands-of-years-old values and aesthetics, I still could not explain what it is, what it feels like, to engage with dance as an artistic medium.
Or, could I? Can other people? What does it feel like to practice a dance form thousands-of-years-old? I begin to question other dancers. What kind of dance do you do? How would you explain it? How do people respond? Do you feel understood when you explain? I talk to contemporary dancers I rehearse and/or train with. I ask a stripper I meet at a tea house. My mom who does Scottish Country dance. I begin to schedule interviews, talk to a professional bellydancer, a professional dancer/graduate student in dance from Iran and Tajikstan. To these and others I begin reiterating the questions to which I’ve been rendered speechless. My subjects relate a diverse world of dance comprehension, levels of understanding running low and high. Some feel understood sometimes, but not others. Others feel the glimmer of interest, but not the radiance of true understanding. Many have their form confused for another, or confused for a version that seems tacky or phony. Some feel like it might not be worth it to attempt an explanation at all. Our listener’s responses range from appreciative to apathetic, mixed with vague confusion or excited enthusiasm. What is the world of that dance like? Often, regardless of our listener’s interest, the idea of what that dance is like as a practice, as a performance, as a sensory world of its own, cannot be imparted through conversation. Across the board a similar response begins to ring.
“You just need to do it. You just need to see it.”
Speaking to the experiential quality of dance, direct experience becomes the end point to which such conversations lead. The more direct, the better. By more direct, I mean the closer to one’s own experience. The sense of movement in one’s own body, own memories. A tingling in the fingertips, a sense of entry to the material. The more recognizable to one’s own particular soul the movement is, the more legible that dance becomes.
I feel this recognition when I see the show of a familiar choreographer. When I train with a certain choreographer, I study their movement (look at it, feel it in my own body), internalize their aesthetic values, learn their process when constructing a dance. I learn what to look for in their shows, how to comprehend the intention behind their artistic voice. In seeing a performance of someone whose work I have studied, the movements of the choreography come alive in me as I see them performed. The emotional and physical memories built up, from having literally done it, create a magnified level of understanding in me, an embodied engagement with the work. Comprehension becomes dependent on my body, itself. How to explain the details of what I feel in this physically-captivated state? I am not only seeing performance, I am eating and breathing and living it, as when I am dancing myself. Can I explain what it’s like to understand the dynamics of the abstract in a literal, verbal language? When the audience comes from disparate artistic backgrounds, can dance artists expect to transmit their own sensory world to their audiences, without first defining its precepts?
Transparent artistic intent in dance remains so elusive that many incorporate ephemerality straight into their aesthetic. Consider Merce Cunningham, his descendants, and chance art. “The audience will make meaning out of it as they will,” being the method of explanation. But I am interested in accessing the choreographers’ meaning, or at least their frame of reference. I’m interested in initiating the people I know to these frames of choreographic reference. If one needs to be trained to see what the choreographer sees, how do the untrained gain access? Do audience members gain access to dance as a poetic form without initiation into dance vocabulary or history? In this loophole, enigmatic artistic intent hovers on the brink of failed outreach. Those lost might be just who we attempt to explain ourselves to while at parties, openings, shows…
In the end, I can identify myself to other people familiar with a specific dance community. (“Oh, you take Kathleen’s class? Ok.”) But to almost anyone else I have two options: 1) remain enigmatic or 2) remain vague and incomprehensible.
I am tired of being incomprehensible. But my artistic leaning does not involve enigmatic forbearance, as posh as that might make me. I desire understanding, from dancers, from friends, from the greater arts and philosophical communities at large. After all this investigating, I still rely mainly on the answer “I don’t know how to describe it. Modern? Experimental?” when attempting to explain “What kind of dance do I do.” I’m interested in the aesthetics of kinesthetic dynamics, I sometimes tell people. Or even launch into my best history and explanation of modern and postmodern dance, at rare times. None of it exactly satisfies. I still receive the questioningly-raised eyebrows I’ve come to expect. What is that dance really like?
You just have to do it. You just have to see it.
While dancing song or words we begin to live them; we begin to understand what one sings or what one says; we begin to live the verbal or musical emotions.
—Raymond Duncan, 1914, La Danse et la Gymnastique.