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On Dance as a cultural phenomenon

Once a year I have been asked to give a talk at Portland State University, addressing the Arts in general and Dance in particular, with a focus on the local community.  The students are usually engaged in Arts Advocacy or something similar, and as I understand it, by exposing them to me (a toxin) the hope is that they will become inoculated in some useful way.

Often the subtext in the post-talk question and answer period is whether Arts in general are useful or worthy of our time, energy and funding.  Now I’m sure there are thousands of scholarly papers written by greater minds than mine on this, but bear in mind I’m addressing a room full of younger people, using only my own experiences as a dancer, teacher, artistic director and choreographer.

I am often challenged with the belief that the reason Dance doesn’t succeed to the level of Music or Theater, is that it’s an elitist art form.  The democratization of Dance through TV shows, movies along with the popular meme that Dance is for everyone and everyone’s efforts are worthy, seems to be the dominant narrative.  If I understand my questioners correctly, this means that equal consideration, attention, value and funding should be given to any individual or organization irrespective of entertainment value, merit, education or relevance.

Also, rather than assigning value to the effort based on skill, craft, imagination and training, value is awarded based on the particular cultural or social niche that is being used as a central reference point.  That is to say, a company’s work is more relevant if it represents a particular socio-cultural subset, without needing to worry overmuch about whether the work is “good”.

Good is an interesting word in this context.  For example my cousin who can’t play guitar randomly strumming and singing atonally is good in the sense that it’s a start and harms no-one.  The stance that this good translates into a compelling reason for funding his concerts, writing scholarly articles about his creativity and asking $100 for tickets to see him…not so good.

A well trained musician has spent either years in an academic learning environment with high standards or done years of solitary practice and has learned to excel (or survive) accordingly.  The same with most theater actors, not to mention lighting, carpentry, sound and all the other “tech”s that support the performers.  The idea that an untrained or under educated persons efforts are as valid as the seasoned and experienced is misguided.

Likewise, a professional dancer has also spent many years learning and developing their craft.  Rhythm, musicality, theatricality, technique, partnered work, choreography (sometimes) and like any other human endeavor, the more time they put in, the more skilled and sophisticated their work is.

But the questions and outrage I often get from the students is that amateur efforts are not as valid or worthy as the professionals and this “elitism” is why Dance suffers.  Dance should be for everybody, they say and get genuinely offended when I offer the point of view that a fully trained, experienced and educated dancer might have more to say, and what they say may have more importance.

After all, do you go to the man who’s fixed cars for 6 months or 6 years?.   Is it OK if your Doctor only did his first year of medical school, do you still trust him to operate on you?  The homeless man pretending to play the recorder on the street corner has as much value as the flutist in a symphony orchestra?  Only in Dance does this narrative survive beyond the first few seconds of a serious discussion.

Make no mistake, Dance is for everyone to enjoy and participate in, just be sure to make the difference between untrained enjoyment of natural movement patterns (dancing around your living room), hobbyists with limited experience and vocabulary (most small companies) and trained professionals…most especially make this distinction in funding and support.

Next I’ll speak about the idea that having been a professional Dancer qualifies you to manage millions of dollars in Arts Funding…

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The faces we wear…

I am adopted (well.. halfway).  My father is an unknown due to….drugs, partying, music, the 60’s or all of the above.  Therefor, while I can ascertain certain physical traits and know that they come from my mothers side, there are many unknowns about my physiognomy that are only now becoming apparent as I age.  When younger my face was freckled and buck-toothed, my body compact and skinny and my hair was long and blonde.  In adulthood my face became longer and narrower, all my features crowded into a small space, eyes slanted down at the corners and a tiny mouth.    As a performer,  I learned to enhance my face for the stage, becoming intimate with my cheekbones, my brows, my chin and so forth, creating a bigger, more dramatic version of my features to read across the footlights.   In many ways this face I saw countless times in the mirror, getting ready for a performance, became my internalized picture of myself.   Now at 53 I am starting to see what is most probably my father’s features begin to surface.  Evidently he had small jowls and a permanently down-turned mouth.   In spite of a lifetime of smiling happily, my face looks like I’ve been recently released from solitary confinement, sour and unhappy.  I have most of my hair, but my body became quite stout and has rebelled against many foodstuffs I once took great pleasure in.  On my arms my skin has a faint scaled quality I remember from my mother’s hands and arms and somewhere in my past there is some tendency towards a vigorous love of drink.   As I age, it will be morbidly interesting to see what other features surface out of the DNA soup that made me.  I’m hoping that health, extraordinary longevity and an inexhaustible libido are among them…Scan90008

 

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Home #2

My first 9 months back in Portland was a long exercise in silence, physical and mental.  My wife continued to work at her business, spending long hours trying to regenerate and sustain it.  I on the other hand,  had so little that required my attention, that I could, for the first time in decades, focus inward instead of upward.  Our residence at the time sat on a hill above Portland and during the midday was absolutely quiet save for birds and an occasional distant car horn.  I sat for huge lengths of time and stared at walls or trees or sky…there was no sense of reaching, just a stilling of the waters.

On occasion I raged at my own inactivity, spent far too much time cycling through regrets and relived all the worst moments of loneliness, humiliation, despair and longing that had plagued me for 20 years.  On other occasions I did small things that seemed now to hold profound meaning…sitting in cafe’s, walking through the park or making simple music on an old guitar.  The habits, imperatives and assumptions of my life began to shift in mysterious but meaningful ways.  The patterns were new and sometimes difficult, but seemed to hold the possibility of a regeneration of health and happiness.

It’s 2+ years later and the process still continues, but for the first time in my adult life I am becoming something I did not plan or strive for.  I have no real idea what shape I will take as I grow older, but the journey is slow and pleasurable in a way it has not been since I was a child.

Home

Home for a dancer is a fragile thing.  Like many other professions where one moves about at regular intervals, home is always a temporary arrangement.  This can be exciting and glamorous when you are 20, fresh from divesting yourself from adolescent life, family and school.  But as the years go by  this can become, for many,  lonely and unpleasant.

I moved quite a bit as a young person, to New Zealand, back the USA, to Carmel, to Pleasant Hill, to NYC, to Cleveland, to Belgium, to New Orleans and to Oregon.  It wasn’t until I left Oregon to move up to Canada that I began to experience a real longing for permanence, location and Home.  I had lived in Oregon for many years, but always with the temporary mind-set.  I had married, started businesses, companies and formed long associations with several organizations around town…but always with a temporary mind-set.

I turned 50 on a tour bus somewhere in the Canadian Rockies…traveling between one theater and another, sleeping with my head against the window and watching endless vistas of ice and snow pass by.  I was separated from family, spouse, friends and all the other ephemera that make life bearable.  I spent a similar winter season on a tour bus when i was 16…nothing much had changed except my position and my age.  Standing in Victoria, BC waiting for a ferry, I had one of those intense interior sea-changes…without truly thinking about it, it became immediately clear that I was done and needed to get home ASAP.

 

Tattoos

I showed up for work this Tuesday with a huge bruise on my elbow.  I was holding the Thai pads for someone last night, as they practiced rib-high kicks and their foot slipped around the pad and hit my elbow.   The pain was intense for a bit and then faded and it wasn’t till the next morning that I noticed the entire elbow joint was bright purple and swollen.  I have never been interested or courageous enough to get a tattoo, but this particular purple patch over my elbow put me in mind of one.  When I practiced Aikido I would often come home with spectacular bruises on my forearms, pinch bruises on my inner arms and large area bruises on my glutes and sides from high falls.   Some tattoos are transient, they signify something about your commitment and your focus on what you are doing, and some are permanent.  I don’t know what the permanent ones signify,  the ones drawn in ink instead of blood, but I’m occasionally quite proud of the transient ones I earn…

 

 

Teaching and learning

At this point in my life, I teach a great deal.  I began teaching Ballet during the last few years of my career and discovered I had a passion for it.  I trained 4 years to teach Alexander Technique, which I consider the meta-level learning app.  I expanded my Ballet teaching to semi-professional or pro-oriented students and added a little Aikido teaching into the mix.  After my sojourn back into pro level dance, I trained as a Gyrotonic teacher and am now involved in learning Kali, Muy Thai and Brazilian Jui-Jitzu.  I don’t know if I’ll ever teach those last 3 but I now make my living transferring information from my brain to others.

This has put me into contact with some pretty amazing people.  One  of  my clients has a doctorate in computer science and worked in AI, another has a doctorate in psychology.  I have surfers, dancers, interior designers, Nike designers, businessmen, film directors and many others…all brilliant, funny and enchanting people in their own way.  A much more varied group than my peers for the first 50 years of my life.

I have always taught from what I know…my own body,  my own perceptions and my own experience.  Whatever the modality, whatever the specific information,  I model it first in my own nervous system, imagine what it would feel like to address the problem on my own body and proceed from this “embodied” construct.  The difficulty of this approach  is keeping your own ego, your own assumptions and your own habits out of the mix.  I don’t know much about say…ski-jumping, but I can model it internally, apply my knowledge of psycho-physical mechanics, neurological processes and make some accurate choices about how to help.

The problem with learning is that is is always maddeningly incremental, even when your perceptions tell you otherwise.  This means patience, consistency and a good sense of humor are prerequisite.   Pushing too hard, either as a student or a teacher is just a good way to frustrate and complicate, not to mention elongate the process.

Oversharing and cathartic writing..

For many years I avoided letting anyone, even close family, know what I was actually thinking.  This tendency began in early adulthood, where I was typically mocked or censured when I showed any actual emotion.  I armored up pretty quickly, and showed a cool, unemotional surface to all but the most affecting circumstance.  While I felt everything very sharply and suffered the usual adolescent and post adolescent pains, this armoring pattern deepened when I moved to NYC.   The anonymity and danger of NYC during the 80’s made vaguely threatening strangers out of 6 million other residents sharing an incredibly small amount of space.  An emotionless visage and seeming indifference to the chaos served me well.   After my big attack, once I recovered enough to return to my usual class/rehearsal/work routine, I had to rethink how to walk down a street, ride a subway or enter and exit my apartment.

New Yorker’s avoid the crazy, homeless and obviously violent or intoxicated with finely honed reflexes.  One conducts a constant surveillance of surroundings and even the hint that something might be awry can change your trajectory, turn you around or cause you to suddenly decide to shop at a convenient store.  This is called being streetwise and it can reach a near mythic level, such as when you turn onto your street, sense something wrong and decide to go for coffee…and watch the police/swat/ambulances enter or exit your street soon after.  This happens, and while you could probably figure out what the cue was, in the moment you just know you can’t walk there now.

It also means if a thief or mugger is sizing you up, you know almost instantly and can adjust your behavior just as fast.   Just watching you catch on is enough to tell your average mugger that you’re not a good target, and they’ll move onto someone less aware.  I once ran (never a good idea) up to the entrance to my building in a rainstorm, and upon entering was immediately aware of 2 men standing to the sides waiting.  If I had been paying attention, I would’ve never even walked into the building, but the impulse to keep dry short-circuited my alarms.  The man to my right stood off the wall, lifted something up in his coat pocket and moved towards me.  I never stopped moving, keys out and just as he stopped next to me and began to speak I said:  “you want to come inside out of the rain?”  He looked at me for a moment, dropped whatever he had in his pocket and shook his head…”naw man, I’m good” he said.  I turned my head left and looked directly up into the second mans eyes…meanwhile my hands had opened the door and my feet had moved into the opening.  “Cool, stay dry” I said and closed the door behind me.  It took me 3 or 4 steps to really realize what had just happened, I turned back to look and both men were standing by the window in the now closed and locked door staring at me in confusion.

I ran up 5 flights of stairs faster than Carl Lewis at the Olympics.

My armor saved my life…+5 armor of nonchalance…