By Rachel Straus
Class: Dance composition or any studio dance class
Objectives: To make connections among seeing, writing, and moving; to improve self-awareness, critical thinking, and descriptive writing
Overview: Two assignments that involve teaching and learning movement, watching movement, and writing about it
At some point in dance writers’ careers, most feel compelled to experience the sweaty side of the art form. Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of the New York Times, described attempting petit allegro jumps in the privacy of his home. Joan Acocella, dance critic for the New Yorker, studied dance as a child. Wendy Perron, editor in chief of Dance Magazine, performed with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. As a writer for five dance publications, I love to dance. My class-taking experience recently reached the quarter-century mark. Studying dance keeps me connected on a gut level with the art form. It also informs and improves my critical writing. Like a dancer seeking full-bodied physicality and grace, I seek to describe with vivid words the energy, emotional arc, and visual qualities of a performance. In reviews I include at least one detailed description of what a dancer did with his or her body. Hopefully, that sentence gives the reader a visceral experience. Following are two exercises I’ve used to bridge the divide between dancing with my body and writing with my mind.
Part A: Select a dance phrase you were taught that covers space, involves dynamic changes, and is at least 36 counts long. After class, rehearse the phrase several times until it becomes part of your muscle memory. Then teach it to a classmate whose movement quality you admire.
Part B: Several hours later or the next day, ask your classmate to dance the phrase. Write a paragraph about what you see with the aim of describing it to someone who has never seen the dance. Do any visual metaphors come to mind? Does the movement belong to a recognizable style? What is its mood? Is it virtuosic or pedestrian? What are its rhythmic qualities? Because you can feel the dance phrase in your body, notice if your language has more specificity, more active verbs, or immediacy. Hopefully it will. Now invert the exercise.
Watch a dance phrase (no longer than one minute) that you are able to see at least twice. (It could be from a video, a class, or a rehearsal.) Write a paragraph about what you see. Use the previous questions, if needed, as a guide. Focus on what you find most compelling or mysterious or, if neither of these characteristics exists, why it lacks greatinterest. Then learn the phrase. While learning the movement, notice aspects of it that you missed when looking at it. Notice if there are any moments that are physically challenging but didn’t look to be so. Notice the speed: Does it feel faster or slower than it looks? Does it incorporate more of the body than you were aware of? Does dancing it evoke an emotion such as melancholy, exuberance, or tranquility?
Compare your first experience of dancing and then writing with your second experience of writing and then dancing. Which of the two pieces of writing do you prefer? Which one used words that better capture the movement vocabulary? Which one was easier to write?