Winter’s Life-Affirming Dance — And the Genius of Martha Graham

I walk outside for morning chores. The flashing of sun on the snow sends signals that my retina instantly reads as distress. SOS — Sun On Snow. Without warning, my eyelids clamp shut. Darkness. I try to lift my lids. When I fail, I surrender and stop. Chilled air splashes my cheeks, slaps my forehead awake and stings the edges of my nose. I smell cold air, cold hay, a cold barn in the distance. I smile, because I am warm, bulked up with so many layers that I waddle like a penguin. I dare the cold to try to steal my inner heat. Squinting to admit the tiniest sliver of light, I plow on through a landscape luminous and sparkling with sequin crystals.

Winter where I live is a time of extremes. It is the prying apart of pairs that otherwise can seem tightly nested: cold and hot, dark and light, night and day, silent and loud, covered and bared, sleeping and wide awake. Between the two a vast space appears, across which sensory awareness shuttles back and forth, accelerating along the way, boosting the experience of each pole to such a degree that tiny increments of new movements appear at the far edges of what was previously possible. Winter invites this dance.

In winter where I live, the difference in temperature between cold and hot, outside and in, day and night can stretch to 60 or even 80 degrees – up to twice the range of spring, summer, or fall. As I leave the house, moving from inside to out, I don’t slowly transition degree by degree, I plummet, as if there were no numbers in between 60 F and zero. Winter renders me acutely aware of these extremes.

In no other season am I colder than when winter’s icy envelope seals itself around my bodily self, and succeeds in sinking inches below my skin, compressing my inner warmth into a small fist. In no other season am I ever hotter than when basking and melting in the billowing heat that radiates from branches burning in our wood stove.

Temperature is only one of winter’s extremes. Where I live, there is no white whiter than the brilliance of sunlit snow; and no black blacker than the bare branches on which it sits. There is no light more illuminating than the weak rays of a short-lived day; no dark deeper than the frigid night sky. The earth is never quieter than when its stalks are withered, and never louder than when the blizzard winds wail through them; its curves and contours never more hidden than when blanketed with flakes, and never more revealed.

Winter here propels my sensory awareness back and forth from one extreme to the other. While the speed of the transitions can be shocking, and immediately so, the experience is not unpleasant. For neither pole of a given pair is ever as delightful as when it is needed most as a remedy for its other. Each extreme appears as the antidote that doesn’t cure or fix a pain but folds it back into a rhythm between them that enlivens and invigorates my sense of well-being. The key to well-being is not to get stuck at one extreme or the other, but to keep moving between, not too cold. Not too hot.

Moving back and forth in such rapid arcs has a clearing, clarifying effect. The warmth never felt as nourishing; the cold never as refreshing. The light is sweeter; the dark inspires greater awe. The silence calms to the core; the wind’s din sobers. These sensory oscillations clear out the muck in the middle – opening up a roaring appetite for life – and a desire to move with its primal rhythms. To become hot/cold, light/dark, awake/asleep and back again. To participate. The movements we make make us.

In the early 1990s, I took a dance class at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance with the formidable Pearl Lang. One day she asked us all – what is the secret of dance? No one spoke. To our waiting ears, she delivered her own answer: dynamics. It is not the speed nor direction nor lift nor spin that makes the dance, she explained, but the difference between fast and slow, up and down, left and right, high and low. Her point was clear: if efficacy of expression lies in the distance between differences, then the dancer’s task is to find, explore, and push the extremes.

The genius of the Graham technique is that Martha built it on a rhythm capable of modeling and guiding such explorations: the movements of breathing. Air moves in and out as the diaphragm moves down and up, and the spine straightens and curls. Graham distilled the movements of breathing into what she called contraction (exhaling) and release (inhaling).

Contraction and release are not positions. They are not ends or things or forms to which a dancer conforms. They are vectors of action that, while directly opposing one another, nonetheless pull each another into being. Pushed to its farthest reach the release rebounds in a contraction; and as the contraction sinks deep into the dancer’s tissues, it goes as far as a dancer is able to feel before exploding into a release. In the Graham technique the movements of breathing not only chart extremes, they ensure that each peak is not an end in itself, but the beginning of another becoming. Each extreme makes a difference.

Said otherwise, the movements of contraction and release guide dancers to pry the ends of breathing apart and open up between them a vast space across which their sensory awareness can shuttle back and forth, testing and discovering nuances in gestures, thoughts, and actions. Contraction and release are not two parts of a unified whole. They form a circuit – a divided spiraling whole that moves in tension with itself to pump sensory awareness into being in and as the bodily self of a dancer. These movements catalyze participation the rhythms of bodily becoming.

In a similar way, so do the extremes of winter.

Graham dancers practice what winter demands: an ability to find, open, and explore the extremes between which sensory awareness may move freely, rapidly, productively. To dance is to learn to sustain this dynamic – this rhythmic friction of a bodily self moving back and forth in relation to itself – and so build in oneself an ongoing awareness of how to move without pain or injury, making movements that communicate participation in this elasticity.
It is dark. Before heading out for evening chores, I sit by the fire, feasting on the flames. With each breathe I kindle a warmth within me that bleeds through me, dissolving into the radiance that engulfs me. Slowly, my skin thins, and I am molten core, touched by light, spilling outward. I am ready to become cold in the dark again.

I put on my headlamp and step outside, the cold rushes towards me, drawing me forth to play like a snowflake, twisting and turning in the crosshairs of gravity. And I can. My warmth aura glows, inches around me. I keep moving, feeling my feet as I go.

Note: Inspiration for this post came from a person who read my blog post “Falling for Dance” and asked: what about winter?

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