Last month Veritas forum facilitated a wonderful conversation by three artists around the theme of lament and creativity. Makoto Fujimura (visual artist), Lecrae (musician), and Alissa Wilkinson (writer), engaged in a discussion instigated by this quote from Andy Crouch:
“…lament is the seed of creativity. It’s the seed of genuine creative action.”
I am an admirer of the speakers, and have been honored to be a collaborator with Makoto Fujimura. This response is meant as a further offering to the conversation from the perspective of a dancer.
The time that we are currently in has profoundly affected our beings. COVID-19 has changed our entire context by threatening our bodies. Our physical relationship with our environment and one another has been dramatically changed, and limited. Alissa Wilkinson mentioned in passing, “We are not beings without bodies.” However our culture seems to affirm this truth less and less.
Dancers are uniquely equipped to speak to our physical nature. Our practice trains us to be highly aware of our bodies. In the best of cases, we develop a healthy relationship with our bodies, as we learn how to embody and share stories through virtuosic technique. As a tap dancer of more than 35 years, there are a few specific things that I’d like to share that I hope will add to this conversation.
Much of our present culture has relegated “dance” to either the stage or the club. While a few successful subcultures remain that have local dance traditions, our popular culture is almost completely commercialized. We consume someone else’s dancing, or learn the latest fad dance (electric slide, Macarena, the Toosie Slide). It’s easy to see then why sedentary lifestyles are prevalent. We lack daily movement unless our work demands it. Some of the things I’m going to share would be ingrained in us if we had a culture that danced.
First, it is important to acknowledge that dance is an ephemeral art form. It happens and then it is gone. Other forms (painting, drawing, photography, film, etc.) leave an artifact by their nature, and have even been used to document dance. Some dance has been created for the express purpose of being seen through film, but at its core, dance is a time- and space-based art form. The artifact of a particular dance lives on in the bodies of the dancers, and the memories of all those in attendance for that particular moment – nothing else. This is not unlike other live forms (especially those that incorporate improvisation). Jazz music comes to mind. The difference here is that music has had a longer history of being recorded (and industrialized for the market) than dance. The industry of dance requires the dancer to be present, and to dance, otherwise there is no product. Without the combination of dancer(s), space, and audience, there is no dance industry. There is no shared experience of dance. Once the moment is done, we celebrate having been a part of it, but mourn the fact that it will never be replicated. This is a natural part of the dancer’s process. We know how to lament.
When the mandates to self-quarantine, to distance, and ultimately shelter in place, were handed down, dancers lost everything. Every live venue, every dance school (at least for a time), and every way of communal training, was gone. More so, many dancers don’t live in a space that could accommodate their own movement (and sound, for the tap dancers). Our rehearsal studios are designed for running and leaping and training a body to fill a space much larger than itself. The idea of sheltering in place for a dancer is like putting a wild gazelle in a cage. The danger here is that over time the gazelle will forget its gazelle-ness. Having been acclimated to the cage, it will think that it was designed for stillness, or worse, for others to take pictures of it as a representative of its former self.
What of lament?
A dancer trains their body for a particular amount of exertion of energy per day, and a particular relationship with themself and their surroundings. The amount of care we put towards tending to our body is on par with most athletes. Yet, our craft is fundamentally that of story-telling. Our movement is tied to the emotions of the story. We are integrated beings. We process things physically, and share that physicality for others to bear witness to it – ultimately to feel a part of it. After all, we are of one body.
The experience of dance in a live setting is dramatically different to that on film. This holds true from the performers’ perspective and that of the audience. The feeling and the energy are different. The ability to share in that live experience is now gone. All experiences are now mediated through technology. The flatness of the screen extends to a flattening of the experience. I hope we don’t forget what the live experience was like.
Dancers will lament our personal practice, our communal practice, and of course, the final sharing on a stage. Our bodies will ache for the space to run and leap and make noise, by ourselves, and then again with our friends. We will search for ways to stay ready for the time when we can return without going to a gym or studio. We will search for ways to care for our colleagues, our communities, our crafts, and our audiences.
As we have seen, many dance studios have gone to online video calls, dancers have taken to instagram to run class, and organizations have mobilized to offer support (mental, financial, and emotional). Some of these are admittedly market shifts through economic pressures. But what of the more personal shifts? I wonder how many dancers will suffer for lack of movement? How many will find ways to give their dancing to new audiences (not just those who are technologically connected)? How many will turn, or rather re-turn, their dancing into prayer?
Dancers understand the limited nature of the body. While we often do the unimaginable, we do it within the context of our limited bodies. We have to know our limits, otherwise injury is waiting in the wings. This limited approach to craft is an analogue to localized experiences. Not every country in the world is on lockdown, not every individual will have the same story coming out of this. It is important to remember that just as each of us has a unique physical body, we will each have a unique story, and they are all important. The cultural trend towards globalism (consolidated governance, markets, and stories) does not often affirm the local. Dancers have no choice – we exist in both the limitations of bodies and geography, and the seemingly limitless global ideal.
Lastly, a word on the predisposition of western societies towards linear thinking. Dancers are not linear. We are embodied and multi-dimensional. We exist in all our emotion, thoughts, movement, and imagination. While a dance happens across time, the dancer exists fully in every moment. This is true for all of us, for we are all embodied. That means that our experience of grief in this time will not be linear (neither will our experience of joy). We will not go through the cycles one at a time in an organized line, checking them off as we complete each one. Emotions are embodied. Like popcorn, they will interrupt our day. We will need to go through them as they pop up. We will need to learn how to move through our emotions as we move through our day. We will all need to learn to dance a little.
In this case the dance isn’t a series of steps that you learn to do, one by one in sequence. The dance is a way. It is a kind of movement that has a certain quality that is unique to each dancer. It encapsulates and expresses their voice, what they are experiencing, and how they are sharing it. As Christians we have someone who said, “I am the way,” in Jesus. He had a certain quality in the way He moved on this earth. His voice, what He experienced, and how He shared it are our guides. Not in a step by step list, but as an embodied, multi-dimensional, experience.
When it comes to embodiment, I’m not so worried about the dancers. We have the tools necessary to care for our bodies, and move through our emotions. My hope is that in the midst of our confinement, our societies will not forget what it means to move, and that we need to move. The magnitude of this shift is not about the products, the shift of economies or markets, or even the change in the arts. It is the shaking up of our lifestyle, our culture, and the way we embody what we believe. What if this shaking up allowed us to re-orient, re-commit, and more fully embody a way of caring for our colleagues, our communities, our crafts, and those we can reach relationally, that will outlast our current context?