I notice that when I work on process based dances that mine my emotional life, patterns of beating up on myself emotionally are mirrored in physically damaging and strenuous dancing. The content of my dance works have shifted since I had ankle surgery because there are a lot more physical restrictions on what I feel I can safely do. A lot of my strength and range of motion has returned but it is an interesting challenge for me to make an emotionally charged piece when the usual ways I articulate it have drastically shifted.
Yesterday was the last day of a week long dance intensive in which I taught Improvisation. There were fruitful things in all of my classes, but the most growth I saw was in my level 2 class, students around 8-12 years old who I saw and worked with every day. The classroom became a place to try moving and interacting in a new way, and to talk about how we were moving and interacting in new ways. I saw them going from not knowing or caring about improvised dance to actively participating in setting a score for their performance. I watched my students talk about their obstacles with giving each other trust, their anxieties with receiving trust from another, and the thrill when an exchange of trust lead to something exciting or successful. I heard them reflect on their times of anxiety, their responses to overcoming obstacles, and their stories of becoming agents in situations of fear or discomfort. I was there when they identified differences between constructive and hurtful feedback, set their own rules for the feedback they would give each other, and stick to these rules all week.
It’s interesting that the very thing that make the class so productive and amazing are the things that tear at my feeling of legitimacy. I wonder what students say about the class when they talk to their friends or family. I wonder how the class reads when another teacher or the dance studio owner peak in and we are engaged in conversation or in trying something that doesn’t end up being successful. I doubt myself when I’m trying to relay what went on in class and it seems that my listener isn’t compelled by its magic. I doubt myself when I hear other teachers talk about their continual success and it strikes me that growth in improv can feel and look like a streak of discomfort. I wonder which things stick with my students. I hope my own doubts do not contaminate the magic they take away and I wonder if it hits them in the same way it hits me when they re-enter a world with such little vocabulary about trust and risk and communication and boundaries. I wonder if my students will, like I do, feel the wisdom of their teachers blooming in unexpected ways a decade and a half later. I have anxiety that they, like I, will end up with doubts and neuroses if something a teacher (me) says is a volatile mix with their inner lives. For all of our talk of trusting one another with our bodies, we trust each other with the wisdom, doubts, and lessons we share, too.
Today my day of decompression from this week was cut short upon learning about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. It is another blow in a wave of tragedy. I see this all from my corner in Helena – which seems to proudly and blindly proclaim itself a corner, not diverse enough to take a loud stand on the epidemic brutality against black and brown bodies. I see a rift in my social media, some friends on the ground with voices hoarse from rage and sorrow, some friends sharing everything but their thoughts on the matter. I feel selfish to have relished the beauty of my inner life this last week in the foreground of so much pain, and then I feel ashamed of being so quick to dismiss beauty in a world filled with pain. I see ignorance and I see willful ignorance. I see people choose silence because silence is easier. I see people chose silence because the pain is too much to bear.
I wonder what to say and what to do. Reiterate that this is terror? Reiterate the deep layers of racism – the protesters, the media, the words we use to talk about it? Reiterate that racism didn’t just bubble up here as a freak occurrence or isolated incident, that it’s in the fabric of our society and this is a snag in the sweater? Reiterate that kindness is so necessary but maybe not enough?
This reiteration connects me deeply with people I cherish and helps keep our heads above water in a time of darkness. But I also cherish people who chose not to see or speak about what is going on. I worry about my total lack of control of the reactions of others and set up the impossible task of feeling that if I can find the right combination of words and actions, they will see and feel the rage and sorrow, they feel the importance of using the voice they have to speak. I wonder what to say and what to do. Eventually I exhaust myself.
Yesterday afternoon, we had an informal showcase of the work all the classes had done over the week for parents, teachers, and other students. A group of my students came up to me and asked anxiously, “Is it okay…if we *don’t* perform our improv piece?”
It was disappointing to hear, but I told them, no, of course they didn’t have to perform. They nodded in relief and scurried back to their clump, waiting for the showcase to start. About five dances in, our group was called to the stage. I crouched by their clump and told them, “I know you are nervous about performing. We’ve been working this whole week in our own room with just us, and it changes things to have a big audience watching what you’re doing. If you feel too nervous to perform, that is totally alright, you don’t have to. I just want you all to know that I saw you take some very amazing risks this week and I’m proud of all of you, no matter what decision you make right now.”
Every single one of my students got up to perform. It was not their best piece; they clumped in the far back corner away from the audience and got stuck in the same movement patterns, unable to break into something new. But they did it. I don’t know what role this week of improv class will have in their lives, but it gives me hope that they deliberately rose to the occasion of their fear and took a stand.
We all are filled with fears – fears for our lives, fears for the lives of those we love, fears of being ostracized from our group. Not all our fears are created equal, nor are our chances to rise to their occasion. It takes courage to understand the substance of your fear and do something about it. We need that courage, because the fears right now are deadly. They will not cease to be deadly, even if you have the privilege of turning a blind eye.
Two weeks after I got surgery for a ruptured ankle ligament, a friend took me to a weekend of project presentations by the Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts, a group of teachers and artists across the state who have worked for the last year to integrate arts education into their schools and communities. I was thrilled at the opportunity, especially since the agenda included a workshop led by Karen Kauffman, dance educator extraordinaire.
But my excitement was punctuated by the comic anxiety of being a stranger on a knee scooter with a poor turning radius, hopping and three-legged bear crawling around the historic (and non-ADA compliant) building where the conference was held. When it came to Karen’s workshop, I was glad to be adept with movement adaptation but I still felt anxieties about standing out in a group of strangers, about choosing “wrong” movements, about looking silly, about not being seen and getting stepped on or kicked.
The magnitude of this anxiety was striking. I was privileged to have a limitation only temporarily, to be able to move freely and (mostly) independently, to be able to communicate my needs clearly and receive little push back or judgement from others, and to be able to use tools and skills I already possess to make a successful experience. During my recovery, joked that it was fitting to be working with restricted movement and limited mobility since I work with adaptive and integrated dance. And yes, injury and recovery was a great and frustrating learning opportunity but I was privileged to be able to walk away (literally) from the experience.
There are blind-spots in the able-bodied world, from our build environments to the language and affect we use to talk about ability, recovery, and injury. To be temporary disabled does not mean I “understand what it’s like” to be disabled because it can’t account for the chronic physical, mental, and emotional fatigue of being disabled in an ableist world. But I do want to take the time to actively reflect on the experience in order to become better ally, advocate, teacher, and peer and encourage others to examine unspoken aspects of our space and language that affect folks with disability or mobility issues.
Dance has affair with injury which threatens nuanced pain
The common narrative of the master dancer includes glorified injury and pain. This narrative applauds restrictive eating, bloody feet, permanent bodily deformity from extensive training, and pushing through to make pain look easy or beautiful as “sacrifice” and “discipline.” (Society’s prevailing view of dance as feminine and its intersection with the aesthetics of frailty/grace are a topic of a different discussion.)
Injuries become battle scars and dancers tell stories about performances with torn muscles and fractured ribs. Injury is more than inconvenience or pain; The ability to move past physical pain and bodily limitations become a statement about dedication, discipline, and devotion. When the body performs and conforms adequately, it is an indication of the strength of the mind and character. But this is a fallacy like classic, vapid Snow White, fairest of them all, whose exterior beauty is an indication of her abundant inner charm and grace.
“Wait, what does a culture that glorifies pain and conflates graceful, beautiful bodies with moral and mental fortitude have to do with disability rights?” you may ask.
Glorifying pain and injury does not create a safe space for people with different pain thresholds and to whom injury and pain may be severely detrimental.
Pain is very real and should not be taken lightly. I have experienced pain that was superficial, muscular, skeletal, and autoimmune and those experiences are all radically different. At its most straightforward, pain is an indication of injury. But pain can indicate more pain to come. Pain can indicate a body that is at war with its surroundings or at war itself. Pain can indicate a limit that shouldn’t be pushed. And sometime pain indicates nothing but its own presence. If we do not listen to pain and understand that it speaks in different ways, we risk causing harm to our bodies, minds, and spirits. We risk gaslighting ourselves and others into thinking that pain is no big deal when in fact it might be.
Advocating that moving through injuries is a sign of dedication sends a really shitty message to people to whom injury and pain can be degenerative. I mean this in a physical, mental, and emotional way. If you are not familiar with the spoon theory, that is a good 101 about how not all thresholds are created equally.
It is vital that we believe people when they express their limits. It is also vital we understand that sometimes we need to go the extra mile to make an environment where people are comfortable expressing their limits since the overwhelming attitude favors stoicism and injury.
We can acknowledge hard work and discipline without glorifying pain or injury.
Movement can be crafted in a way that respects and is responsive to bodily limits and boundaries. We can encourage internal and external exploration, we can applaud people for pushing the limits of their comfort and we can applaud them for being able to establish healthy boundaries. We can applaud and support people when they ask for and receive help and when they give help to others. We can realize that it is always work to dive into bodily exploration.
Talking about concrete realities does not replace interpersonal communication
As I cycled through various orthopedic braces for my ankle, people asked me freely and often to share what was going on with my body. Sometimes this was relevant (at work when a brace affected my ability to perform on a team) and sometimes it was not. Some remarks were motivated by concern, some by curiosity, some by the desire to gossip, and some by entitled rudeness (like the time someone asked me, “Do you actually need that or are you just being lazy?”).
Many people were very considerate about tasks they would ask me to perform or favors they could help me with. Some people didn’t bother to try. And some people (who may have felt they were being considerate) were really quite rude. The difference for me was between asking a questions versus making assumptions (eg. “Would you like me to carry that shopping bag?” vs. just taking things out of my arms).
I was moderately surprised at how many people seemed unable to communicate their observations, intentions, requests that pertained to my physical comfort and well-being. While people freely asked me about my injury, they failed to communicate directly about my needs or desires pertaining to that injury. This led me to two thoughts:
The first thought is that having an indication of an injury doesn’t carry the same taboo as a chronic injury or disability (see previous section, you can also replace “dance” with “sports”). If people can talk about injury but can’t effectively ask about the needs of an injured person, how are they communicating (or not) with people with disabilities?
The second thought is that having a visible indicator of injury or disability can validate (for lack of better words) a need for help or assistance. But people with invisible illnesses and disability do not have the same kind of indicators of their exhaustion levels and physical limitations. Basing assumptions about people’s needs based on their physical appearance can maybe be helpful but it doesn’t replace the invaluable information that you get from just talking to a person respectfully about their needs.
It can be emotionally draining to be solely responsible for your physical adaptations and well-being
I have seen a lot of advice that looks a lot like this: “BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE!” While I do think we should all strive to effectively communicate our needs, it can be exhausting and frustrating to feel like you are constantly bringing attention to yourself by asking for help or adaptations. So the question is: how can we all become better advocates? It does not mean speaking for other people, bringing them uncomfortable/unwanted attention, or asking them to do more work by speaking up (because sometimes that is exhausting).
Being an advocate can mean making an environment where expressing needs and boundaries is safe and respected. Being an advocate means taking initiative to check in and communicate and respecting that sometimes communication does not feel comfortable. Being an advocate means not posturing your comfort as the priority.
Part of my adaptive and integrated dance classes involve coming up with physical adaptations for people using mobility devices, who have difficulty moving quickly, difficulty changing levels, etc. Several sessions ago, I witnessed myself have thought along the lines of, “We are just doing the same things as the standing people, why do I need to be demonstrating this sitting version?” I’m pretty uncomfortable with that thought because it has some nasty undercurrents.
The first undercurrent to that thought is that others’ limitations are not my problem. Many of us learned from an individualistic society that unfortunate things happen but there is not much we can do and it isn’t really our concern. And yes, in many dance forms, other peoples’ limitations are not your problem until you are partnering or otherwise physically dependent on them. But the thought reveals an ethical question: do you actively acknowledge and integrate others’ limitations and needs or do you decide that limitations that do not affect your body are not part of your work?
The second undercurrent is that it is a hassle to demonstrate physical adaptations for others. Why does this feel like a hassle? Because it is uncomfortable or awkward? Because it takes effort to translate movement? I can look at these anxieties and discomforts, acknowledge them, and then let them go because my discomfort is not the priority of the situation. I could opt to exercise my able bodied privilege by standing up, feeling more comfortable, and resign a student to isolation and confusion. This leads us back to our first ethical question.
The third undercurrent is that people with limitations should be able to intuit their own adaptations. We don’t expect beginning dance students to successfully execute new steps without supervision, feedback, and guidance just because “they know their bodies best.” It’s obvious to me that our sitting adaptation is the same as our standing version because I have years of training and experience. Somebody with lived experience of their physical limitations can provide insight into the function of their body, but they are in class to learn something new and deserve all of the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile tools we can offer.
Being a better advocate means owning that thought and calling its bullshit. Being a better advocate means acknowledging the ways that I am responsible for that thought, but how it is also a cultural artifact of being conditioned in a particular time and space. Being a better advocate means understanding how similar conditioning is omnipresent and needs to be actively exposed and replaced.
Limitation is possibility but possibility doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating
At the beginning of this post, I revealed that I joked about the opportunity to learn more about physical limitations and dance adaptations through my experience of recovery. And I did. I worked on choreography that excluded my left foot and all left-foot related movement vocabulary. I was continually frustrated by the limitations. I found myself wanting to get better so that I could use range of expression that has been important to me. I also ended up with some choreography that I would not have generated if I were weight bearing on both feet.
I also said at the beginning of the post and want to reiterate that injury is not disability. The experience of temporary disability and movement restriction should not
The limits, possibilities, frustrations, and opportunities of people with disability are dynamic. Needs, feeling, and boundaries are dynamic. The way that we communicate and ask about those needs, feeling, and boundaries is important. Our bodies are already physically structured in buildings, schools, and playgrounds, temporally structured in 40+hour work weeks, often at sitting jobs, and optically infiltrated by thin, fit, attractive, light-skinned people. These are general cultural frustrations but they matter, especially to people to whom these structures are always exclusionary. It is important that we nurture growth and encourage expression and that we also make room to acknowledge the very real frustrations of disability, limited mobility, and restricted movement.
The language I use in dance classes tends to be very figurative; I liken the torso to an elevator, or compare weight transfer to a dragon boat, or tell students that they are pouring soda from the tips of their toes during a prance.
This non-literal language serves a few purposes. It can incorporate play and playfulness into practice and give dancers vivid and directive prompts to help guide their movement. It can help explain a movement concept through imitating an image or metaphor rather than theoretical or mechanical description. It can ask dancers to make observations and connections between their bodies and the world around them. It can help dancers connect with how their movement feels instead of asking that their bodies conform to a particular vision of technique.
I teach this way because I learn this way, but I have to remind myself that this is not a tool that is useful for everyone. Those of us that use figurative language with ease might have a difficult time identifying it because it isn’t an obstacle to our understanding. While it’s easy to spot the metaphor in the dance class, figurative language also appears in our lives as sarcasm (“I have to get a root canal and I couldn’t be happier”), hyperbole (“I was waiting there for like literally 100 years”), and cliche (“Early bird gets the worm!”).
I have been working on developing tools to help students who have either a difficult time processing non-literal language or a difficult time visualizing.
This is the exercise “Hive/Busy Bee.” I usually do this with the kids’ adaptive class after their water break. It is a time to get back in touch with core/distal, explore general space, and return to personal space, where some of our students request tactile stimulation to re-center.
“But wait, Julynn, that still seems really conceptual and non-literal.”
It is. The goal is not to avoid metaphor all together, it is to figure out how to make metaphor a useful tool without relying solely on figurative language. Using the picture as a reference allows you to ask very direct, literal questions that can allow students to find answers and solutions on their own.
“What are the bees in this picture doing? Are they together or are they separate? Are they moving or are they still? Are they touching each other?” (This last question is an example of how you can also use images for class management.)
The budding flower is another exercise that I do after water break to re-center our minds and bodies.
I like to give students artistic license and the chance to personalize their exercise. They seem to respond well to very specific questions, like, “How many petals does your flower have? What color is your flower? Is it a small flower or a big flower?” Sometimes clear parameters are the key to artistic freedom.
There is a lot less room for personalization in “Animal Opposites,” an exercise where dancers imitate animals of opposites size, shape, level, and movement quality. The visuals helped students imitate animal examples of these opposites, but it didn’t help internalize a concept. It would have been just as effective an exercise if the opposites were called “Elephant/Mouse” instead of “Big/Small.” Questions like, “What other big animals can you think of?” generated a lot of verbal response, but the verbal response never translated into movement.
What makes some visual exercises an opportunity for growth but not others? In Busy Bee and Budding Flower, students are imitating an image, but there is room to prompt students to come to their own conclusions about movement concepts. By asking questions about an image and asking them to demonstrate, they are in charge of their exploration of speed, level, movement, and space. With animal opposites, there is less room since the concept (eg. “Big”) has already been equated with an image (eg. “Elephant”).
And therein lies the nuance of figurative language. When I ask my students to think about an elevator or a dragon boat or a soda machine, I am not asking them to just think about objects. I am asking them to come to conclusions about how those things exist in the world and how that might be similar or different from what they are doing with their bodies. I am asking them to play with ideas and their bodies, I am asking them to learn by imitating and drawing inspiration from unlikely places, I am asking them to think about the similarity between things in the world, and I am asking them to think of dance as an exploration and expression of their bodies as well as their exploration of what it means to be a resident in a world of other things.
An open letter to the creator of the work,
Your piece was an attempt to stitch together a feeling, an idea, and a movement style. It was very confusing; you had an artist statement and a description of your work, but I got the feeling that the more you explained your work the more your work evaded explanation.
It is okay if the work you make is not clearly significant to everyone. It is important that you kept trying. It is important that you let it rest when it was time.
Sometimes years late you find this performance and an archive of several rehearsals. It will not be as frustrating and confusing as you felt it was when you were working on it. You’ll see clearly the bruises on your knees, flour coating every surface, noises from the kitchen, friends and strangers in your home, your frustration, repetition, and confusion.
Was it successful?
Archiving is a bitter pill.
It is significant that you keep trying.