The language of dance

Last night Hobgoblin and I went to see a dance performance in New York City. This was a new experience for me as I’d never been to a professional dance performance before.  We went with a colleague of mine and her husband; she is the one whose class on creativity and the arts I am sitting in on this semester in order to teach it myself in the future. Part of the training process I’m undergoing is for my mentor and I to attend some arts event of our choosing, which the school will pay for. So I decided I wanted to see an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, hence our trip. 

We saw a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company; there were two dances in the first half of the show, the first one loosely telling a story about a woman at a beach who meets a sexy but amusingly ignorant man. The second one was more abstract; it had music by Rufus Wainwright that used poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the lyrics. What stood out to me most was the point when the lyrics began repeating Dickinson’s line “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”; the entire dance was performed in simple costumes with nothing on the stage and lighting that would change with different sections of the music, and at the point where Dickinson’s line began, the light warmed to a bright orange color and the dancing was exuberant and acrobatic – hopeful – with lots of leaps and pirouettes. After an intermission a longer piece was performed with five sections, each one with different music and a different concept. I didn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fit together, but each one had, if not its own story, then an idea or a feeling that the dance communicated.

I have trouble when it comes to describing the dances themselves, though; I have a much easier time writing about costumes, lighting, and music. These things seem more concrete to me. In my colleague’s class we are talking about terms with which to analyze dance, terms such as line, stage use, symmetry and asymmetry, geometrical patterns, and form. I was able to pick out some of these elements in the dances; I noticed now and then the use of the canon form, or I’d see how the bodies were symmetrical or the use of line was particularly effective or the choreographer was using space of the stage in an interesting way. 

But when it comes to dance moves themselves I don’t really know what to say; I recognized some moves that come from ballet, but there was much more going on and I have no vocabulary with which to describe it. I watched some of the more intricate scenes, and I couldn’t imagine how the choreographer could possibly think all this up. I know there must be a dance language, a vocabulary of moves and a tradition of how to put these moves together – a syntax I suppose – but I know nothing of the language and so feel speechless.

We talked about this after the performance and I found others felt similarly uncertain, and it reminded me of how some people feel about poetry and the challenge of analyzing a poem. Readers don’t need a critical vocabulary to respond to poetry, but without it they can feel at sea and so shy away from attempting a response at all.

What was interesting for me, though, was the degree to which I was comfortable with knowing I was not fully getting it, knowing that while I was appreciating the beauty of the dance there was so much communicated through it that I couldn’t understand. I think I am much more comfortable dealing with not getting it in dance than I am in poetry, an area I have much more experience with; when I come across a poem whose meaning I feel I can’t penetrate I can get frustrated because I feel I should get it, whereas with some of the more obscure dance sequences I didn’t mind feeling lost. There was something freeing about not having the expertise to fully understand what was going on. I could relax and just let it happen. That’s not to say I would ever want to give up what expertise I have in order to approach a poem with that freedom, but I did appreciate how experiencing something new forced me to find the pleasure in being a beginner.


Filed under Life, Poetry

13 responses to “The language of dance

  1. It is interesting what you say about approaching a new art form and being more at ease with not “getting it”.

    It’s almost as though the more we know about an art form — like poetry — the more obligated we feel to participate, to prove our “mastery” of the subject.

    Perhaps with an unfamiliar art form we are more comfortable just being the audience, with just being receptive to the experience. We know that we are beginners and there is no “performance anxiety.”

    I would loved to have watched something with music by Rufus Wainwright and poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. It would have been fun. And probably a little baffling.


  2. I think it’s a lovely idea that as beginners or novices we can allow a performance or an art form to just wash over us since we lack the tools to analyse it. Glad to hear you enjoyed that process.


  3. Cam

    I think this feeling of being lost is also experienced when people look at contemporary art. Unfortunately, I think many equate the “don’t get it” attitude with “not worthwhile”, because they think that art should be about pretty landscapes and portraits. In this case, they think they know what it should be so it falls short of expectations.

    The blend of dance, music and poetry sounds interesting, as does the class you are auditing.


  4. what a great post, Dorothy. I love dance performances but I don’t think I’d be able to describe them either. I’ve actually started some dance classes again just for my own pleasure and I keep thinking how somethings (just sometimes) writing was more like dance – more physical – more obvious when you are doing something beautiful, or clumsily. I’m hoping you’ll post about your teaching of this class when the time comes…


  5. I know I risk becoming a huge bore on this topic, but Joan Acocella’s book of essays features a chunk on dancers that are just brilliant. But you write beautifully about your experience, Dorothy, as ever!


  6. The performance sounds like it was very enjoyable. I would love to see the piece with the poetry in it. It makes sense to me that dance and poetry should be combined since dance can be a sort of poetry. I like what you said about the pleasure of being a beginner. We place such a high value on expertise sometimes that we forget what a joy it can be to simply be a live in the experience.


  7. Dark Orpheus — yes, that’s exactly it — we feel we have to show mastery and put on a performance with all our knowledge, and that’s anxiety-inducing. Too bad we so often think that way! The performances were a little baffling, but that was all part of the fun 🙂

    Charlotte — yes, and this makes me think it’s too bad that we can’t easily return to that state now and then with areas we’ve studied.

    Cam — I think you’re right; people can be so quick to dismiss what doesn’t make immediate sense to them; I see it in my students sometimes. It’s hard to live with uncertainty, yes, but I think it’s such an important skill!

    Courtney — how wonderful to be taking dance classes! I think that’s a great idea; they can be so much fun and I always wish I’d done more of it. I’m sure I’ll have things to say about the class when the time comes!

    Litlove — I’ve been curious about her because of your mentions and because of her articles I’ve read in the New Yorker; I’ve been hesitant to pick up her book because I know so little about dance, but since I’m going to be teaching this class and learning more about it, I think I should take a look!

    Stefanie — we do value expertise so much, particularly in an academic setting, and of course that makes sense, but not every experience needs to be an intellectual one! I think you’d really enjoy the piece with the poetry — it was really beautiful. I wish I could see it again.


  8. I don’t think even having the specific language is helpful in describing dance. The most important thing is that the dance move you, heighten your emotions, not terms like arabesque or battement. Even dancers try to demonstrate rather than describe portions of dance. It’s odd that I’ve never really thought about that before…but I do know that dance choreography (labanotation) at least for ballet, is a series of symbols and is extremely complex.


  9. What a beautiful post. Like you, I am not ready to give up my expertise as a reader, even though I too love the beginner’s freedom to enjoy without the pressure of analyzing (for me that happens with classical music). I do think it’s important to keep the dark side of the impulse to demonstrate “mastery” (that Dark Orpheus mentions) securely in check, especially in this blogging venue that is so open and magnanimous. And I love Stefanie’s point about not forgetting the joy of it all.


  10. You do write about your experience very well Dorothy. I’m not sure I could even manage to describe the costumes and lighting well! I feel pretty ignorant when it comes to any kind of dance and most music. I do think you can still appreciate these art forms without necessarily having the language to talk about them. With dance at least, it’s so visual that just watching it can be aesthetically pleasing (same with listening to music). You hit the nail on the head, though, when it comes to talking about poetry–that’s me.


  11. zhiv

    Great, interesting post. I’ve seen what seems to me like more than my share of dance. We don’t go to much theater or symphonys, just few and far between, mostly a fair number of movies, but we kind of get ourselves to 2 or 3 dance performances a year. Not a lot of ballets in there at all, by the way. I always like it and find it enjoyable and thought-provoking. One of my friends from growing up became a major performer and choreographer, so that probably got us started. But I never thought about writing about it. Very good thought for a post, and it should be interesting to see how you follow it up over time. I will say that if you seek out good dance companies and performances I think you’ll really like them–it’s a truly amazing artform and practice. I appreciate it even more now that I’m doing yoga. A few dance classes as a youth, maybe some gymnastics, and a little less basketball, would have helped out quite a bit with the lifetime fitness. Lots of dancers in pilates classes. Have to catch up on your training blog–have you started swimming yet? I wonder if there is any good fiction about dance and the dance world.


  12. Jenclair — interesting point; of course it makes sense that dancers would want to demonstrate rather than describe. It does make me want to read more dance criticism, to see how they do it, if they spend much time describing the movements at all.

    Deborah — thank you! Perhaps it’s best to have a few areas that you enjoy without mastery, simply to keep that kind of experience alive. And, of course, it’s impossible to master everything!

    Danielle — you’re right that you can appreciate dance even without “getting it” — perhaps it’s easier to do with dance than with poetry, as the bodies are beautiful in a simpler, more direct way, than language is.

    Zhiv — well, I’d like to keep attending dance performances, and perhaps I will, as I’ll be teaching it, if only in a limited way. Certainly I’ll see more examples, if only on video. I’d love to read your post on the subject! I thought about yoga as I was watching the dance — about how much flexibility and strength the dancers has. One dancer was doing a shoulder stand-like move that was pretty cool. I’m not surprised lots of dancers take pilates — they must have tremendous core strength.


  13. What a fabulous post. I’d say it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the “expertise.” Quite obviously you were affected, which is what’s most important. And need I say (as I always seem to do these days) that I’m jealous of your experience? It makes me want to race to NY this minute (which would mean jumping on a plane for five hours) to seek out any dance performance I can find (even street dancers).


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