Category Archives: dance

What Your Movement Signature Reveals About You

Check it out on Psychology Today:

American modern dancer Martha Graham claimed that she could tell everything about a dancer by the way he walked across the floor of the studio. Walking – head lifted, chest opened, legs long – revealed a person’s attitude towards life, and whether he greeted life with avidity, stepped tentatively into the unknown, or charged with false bravado against unseen resistance. As Graham intoned, “Movement never lies.”

Recently, in an effort to identify movement patterns in individual humans that are “distinct, detectable, and durable,” a group of French and Australian researchers developed a way to measure the “movement signatures” of eighty healthy men and women. As Gretchen Reynolds reports in this week’s New York Times, the researchers attached electrodes to eight muscles in each participant’s leg, and asked the participants to pedal on a stationary bike, then walk on a treadmill in ninety second intervals of varying intensity, and come back for a second session to repeat the two exercises.

After researchers compiled each participant’s “muscular activation” data, they fed data from the first session into a pattern-learning AI software program. When they gave the computer unspecified muscular activation data, the machine was able to identify the participant to whom the movement patterns belonged 99 percent of the time for data from the first session, and 91 percent for data from the second – data it had never seen.

The researchers interpreted their findings as proof that every human individual has a movement signature – “subtle, interior movement patterns” – that are as singular as a fingerprint and are easily detectable by a machine, even when that machine is given muscular activation data from only eight (out of over six hundred) muscles, recorded in the performance of only two common activities.

As responses to the article confirm, this insight is “old news” to many dancers, athletes, martial artists, and those involved in somatic and alternative movement practices. As Graham observed, even when asked to do the same simple movement, no two humans do it alike. Yet she went further, and claimed that those differences are revelatory. What does a movement signature reveal?

For one, the nature of our bodily selves. The fact that we have a movement signature suggests that our bodies are not biological entities that take shape and then learn to move in idiosyncratic ways. Even Reynolds and the researchers seem to presume as much when they identify the implications of this study: improving sports training; refining robotics, prosthetics, physical therapy and personalized exercise programs; or serving as “coal-mine canaries for disease or injury risk.”

These stated implications presume that a body is a self-enclosed set of genetic instructions that learns to move, even if it does so uniquely. They assume that if we can identify “its” durable print, then “we” can manipulate “it” more effectively.

Yet the implication of having a movement signature is that a body is not a thing that moves, but itself made by movement. Movement is the “stuff” out of which a body is made.

If we have a movement signature at any point in our lives, then we have one from the very beginning – from the moment of conception. That signature goes all the way down. And if it does, then “we,” as clusters of cells, are moving in unique patterns before the shape of our bodily self emerges. As a result, the movement patterns that our cells are making as brain and limbs emerge inevitably influence the development of our material form itself.

In fact, there is new evidence that our brains develop in response to this fetal movement as a way to record it. The movements I make pull my body – my senses, systems, organs, and abilities – into form as memories of what has moved me (e.g., light, sound, touch, rhythm, oxygen, nutrients, water, mother), and as trajectories along which future movements shuttle to new degrees. The twitching of the fetus in the womb, the constant gyrations of infants when awake, and the wiggle and wriggles of toddlers, represent the active matrix of relational movement possibilities that comes into being as the bones and muscles and tactile-kinetic coordination of a specific adult human.

The fact that I have an identifiable movement signature, then, implies that my body itself is a dynamic field of movement potentials. It is (and I am) a bodily self. The bodily self that I am is a record of every movement I have made in relation to every other movement that has made me. It is a record of what happened when I made that movement, and what might happen if I make it again. It is the ever-evolving collection of kinetic templates through which I am always becoming conscious of the world around me and within me; it is the font of possible responses I create.

I see what I see because of the way bouncing light has taught my eyes to move. I grasp what I grasp because of the way objects in gravity have taught my hands to move. I think what I think because I’ve made the bodily movements of reading, studying, rearranging, sorting, comparing. Even movements that might seem inward or hidden, like my thoughts and feelings, stand revealed – for those who know how to discern them – in the way I move.

What this study implies, then, goes beyond the need for individualized physical interventions: Every human person, in order to know and honor herself, would do well to engage in some kind of practice that helps her learn to be a responsible movement-maker. Doing so is a fundamental, enabling condition not only of personal health and well-being, but of the health and well being of social relationships, larger communities, and the earth itself. We need to dance.

Really?

If a body is movement all the way down, then the process of learning what it is – who I am, what I can do for others, what hurts and what heals – can not be a process of simply paying mindful attention to “it.” The process of learning who I am is inseparable from the process of my bodily self becoming what it is as “it” moves in ways that evolve me beyond who I was. In other words, I know my bodily self as I exert and release beyond myself, and follow and flow in response.

Dance, for one, is a practice that not only requires such learning, it makes it the focus of the activity. By “dance” here, I am referring to a movement practice that invites us to learn new patterns of bodily movement as a means for expressing ourselves. These patterns may be codified or free form. The bodily movements may be dictated by abstract shapes or inner impulses. What gets expressed in this sense is not an idea or feeling that needs to get out; what gets expressed is a potential for movement-making – a potential for using movement to sense and respond to and thus create and reveal the relationships that make us and the world real.

In dance, the task of learning new patterns of movement is a rhythm the draws on whatever sensory awareness a person has become up to that point. In learning a new movement, a dancer acts and receives. She exerts the energy and effort to mobilize her bodily self, and receives the sensory information that doing so generates in her. With that new sensory awareness, she acts to move again. In this process, a bodily self becomes what it is — capable (or not) of making a set of life-enabling movements in relation to whatever forces, energies, people, environments, or goals move her.

For example, as I move through a leg bend or plie, I receive the sensory information of where in that movement where I am stuck, sore, or held. As I repeat the movement, I allow the sensory awareness of that pain to guide me to make adjustments that release the tension and do not reproduce the pain. As I welcome another round of sensory responses, I adjust again, until I can release fully into a clear arc of movement that strengthens my capacity to move some more. Practicing dance in this way, I can learn to access and align with the healing wisdom of my bodily self.

In this rhythm, a dancer is both agent and recipient; he practices moving intentionally and being moved by his own bodily knowledge. He learns to give himself to the movements of his bodily self, only to have the movement give him back to himself, changed. And the sensory awareness he cultivates gives him a precious resource for moving more consciously in all moments of his life – whether he is eating food, interacting with a furious child, or choosing his life’s work.

A final implication of this study, then, is that dance traditions are rivers of knowledge about how to cultivate effective ways of moving in relation to sources of life-enabling power. Every dance tradition that endures does so in so far as the patterns of movement it guides people to make have served to help at least some people access the power and pleasure of their own movement-making.

Of course, not every dance tradition or technique works for every bodily self. Every style of dancing has its own history, contexts, and aesthetic. Dance itself, like any primary pleasure (such as food, sex, spiritual attainment), can become an object of addiction – an outlet for thwarted desires. Even professional dancers, and especially professional dancers, need to remember to keep cultivating the sensory awareness of their own movement making as a guide, and not get caught up in the pursuit of abstract forms.

However, in so far as we humans exist in the medium of movement making, practices of dancing also offer us one of the best resources we have for cultivating a sense of the value and wisdom of our bodily selves. Through dance, we can learn to discern which styles of dance remain faithful to this wisdom. The challenge is to find an approach that meets your bodily self where you currently are — as the patterns of movement you have created and become — and helps you express your own signature in accord with what heals.

If you can’t find one, invent one.

Graham was a particularly astute observer of kinetic shapes. Rest assured that not everyone has the ability to see a self in a walk. Still, if anyone learns to read your ever-evolving signature, let it be you!

 

References

François Hug, Clément Vogel, Kylie Tucker, Sylvain Dorel, Thibault Deschamps, Éric Le Carpentier, and Lilian Lacourpaille. Individuals have unique muscle activation signatures as revealed during gait and pedaling. 14 Oct 2019https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01101.2018

Reynolds, Gretchen. “Something in the Way We Move: We may each have a movement ‘signature’ that, like our face or fingerprints, is unique to us.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/well/move/something-in-the-way-we-move.html?te=1&nl=well&emc=edit_hh_20191024?campaign_id=18&instance_id=13319&segment_id=18180&user_id=0f6fd25a998ff59f1880a7e150a81e21&regi_id=47270092. Accessed October 30, 2019.

 

 

Remembering Slavery: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The central theme in The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel about slavery in 19th century Virginia, is easy to grasp: memory is life. In the words of Harriet Tubman, a character in the book: “To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die… memory is a bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom” [sic]. The corollary of this theme is less accessible:  the act of remembering, Harriet insists, is “just like dancing.”

The Water Dancer has a lot to say about how the memory that liberates works. For Harriet, as well as for the novel’s narrator, Hiram (Hi) Walker – a slave, or one of the “Tasked” – the act of remembering feelings and experiences provides a way to access a magical power called Conduction that they can use to move themselves and others from “the coffin” of the South to freedom in the North. It is when Harriet is teaching Hi how to go on this memory trip that she says: “It’s just like dancing.” But how?

The Water Dancer begins a year earlier in the middle of Hi’s second experience of Conduction. He is nineteen, and drowning in a river at night, when he sees a vision of a woman wreathed in blue light, dancing with an earthen jug filled with water on her head. “No matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown.” He recognizes the water dancer: she is his mother. Her dancing guides him towards the light. He is found on land, two miles away from the river, not knowing how he got there.

Other than this tantalizing vision, Hi cannot remember his mother. When he was nine, his father, the white plantation owner Howell Walker, or the “Quality,” sold his mother Rose, a Tasked, to another of the Quality. When Hi was eleven, his father, appreciating Hi’s otherwise phenomenal memory, invited Hi to work in the big house. Hi learned to read and write, and served as a slave for Hi’s older brother by a different mother. When thinking about his mother, all Hi sees is fog.

Hi cannot remember his mother, and he also doesn’t dance. When his friend Sophie asks if he can, he replies: “Not even a little.” The excuse he gives is that, in this respect, he “favors” his father. Like the Quality, he doesn’t dance. Sophie chides him: “Ain’t about favor, Hi, it’s about doing.”

Later, as the Tasked celebrate the Holidays together and dancing begins, Hi just watches. He notices that the dance begins and blooms “seemingly of its own accord.” A circle forms, and in the middle he sees Sophie, dancing a water dance, “a flurry of limbs, but all under control,” just like his mother in his blue-lit vision. Sophie sees Hi, slides the jug off her head, and gives him a sip. He drinks the whole jug, but still doesn’t dance.

Hi then spends the bulk of the novel gathering the experiences that will enable him to access his memories of his mother and his power to Conduct. He tries to run to freedom and is jailed, chained, molested, tossed in a pit, hunted by night, and finally freed into the care of the Underground. He learns to spy and hide; to forge documents and find friends; to trust and be trusted. He learns that freedom is its own kind of master, requiring his service. He trains as an agent for the Underground. His love for Sophie carries him through, and he vows to save her from slavery, as she has saved him.

As Hi matures through these experiences, he also learns the significance of dance. Dancing is not only what his mother and Aunt Emma did fabulously well when the Tasked would gather together in the woods at the end of the week, far from the eyes of the Quality. Nor is it only what his African grandmother, Santi Bess, did when she led forty-eight Tasked into the River Goose, and disappeared.

As his first contact with the Underground, Corinne Quinn, explains to him: “the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, [knows] more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe… And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This is why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself.”

Corrine is Quality. She is also Underground, fighting for freedom. From her vantage point between worlds, Tasked dancing affords insight and wisdom that escapes language. As such, dancing not only appears on par with a written library as equally illuminating, it also reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim exclusive knowledge over others. As Corinne claims: “Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend.”

As dance scholar Katrina Hazzard-Gordon explains, in the Yoruban traditions from which many of the Virginian Tasked came, dance is the medium in which  people learn about, commune with, and are moved by the spirits or Orisha. Of particular importance to  enslaved Africans was Yemaya, the water goddess, Mother of All, Mother of the Ocean where all life begins, and the fierce protector of mothers and children. Dances performed for Yemaya consist of swirling, spiraling movements, like waves snatched by the wind. Water dances.

Yet, Africans relocated to the United States didn’t just bring knowledge of how to do particular steps. They brought knowledge of how to use dancing as a medium for creating relationships with the powerful forces in their lives. Their ability to dance was the primary means left to them for exercising their autonomy and creating a way of life for themselves distinct from that of the slave owners. They not only used familiar patterns as material for communicating in new ways with one another across ethnic and linguistic differences, they evolved new dances. Through dancing, the enslaved had a method for moving with joy in the world they were given. For feeling free. For remaking the world.

Still, Hi can’t dance. Now free, attending a large gathering of people fighting to end the slavery of women, children, Africans and more, he hears the drums and songs of a dance beginning. “I felt them tugging at me, I felt myself swaying in the August heat. It was all too much. I left and went to roam.” The next day he meets Harriet who teaches him that memory is the key to Conduction.

In the end, Sophie is the person who helps Hi understand the significance of the water dance, and thus opens a path to remembering his mother. She tells Hi a story of an African king who took control of the slave ship that was carrying him and his people across the ocean. When the army of Quality approaches, the king tells his people to dance on the water, “to sing and dance as they walked” because “the water-goddess brought ‘em here, and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” Yemaya. Sophie continued, “And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see? As we must do all things, make a way out of what is given… ‘It’s like dancing.’” To flip it. To find a way out. To feel the joy amidst the losses, the freedom in the midst of slavery. To remember it all, and keep dancing.

Hi finally realizes what is keeping him from remembering his mother. “I was too young to survive with the memory.” The memory was too powerful. It would have wrenched him apart and destroyed him. So he had to forget it until he had learned how to “flip it,” how to “stay with the sound” and the story, how to hold open sensory space in his bodily being for accepting both his losses and his loves, his Quality father and his Tasked mother. As he insists, “there is no pure.”

Hi is finally able to embrace “the warmth of the muck… The facing of facts”: he vows to love as his own the child that his father’s brother forced upon Sophie. Only then can he access the memory of his mother, of himself, that enables him to Conduct his first slave to freedom. As he does, he sees people dancing – his mother, his aunt, and many others — and then in chains. “I do believe my mother, my aunt Emma, danced as they did because they knew what good there was could not last.” Hi vows to keep remembering… so that the dance may continue.

The Water Dancer renders vivid the task of remembering slavery for everyone involved, regardless of race. It is not just about recalling life-denying experiences of oppression; it is about staying with the sound of the story; feeling the tug of the drum and moving with it. It is about cultivating the sensory strength to feel the pain as a reason to choose love over anger, vengeance, and pride again and again, in the midst of the muck. It is creative and bodily; it involves discipline and skill. It’s just like dancing.

The Mind Body Problem That Wasn’t

Posted today in Psychology Today!
*
I am going to make a brief comment about a big problem.

The big problem is the “mind-body” problem.

My brief comment is that this “problem” provides ideological cover for violence perpetuated against “the body” – violence that comes to seem inevitable.

How did I get here?

The Big Problem
This mind-body “problem” assumed its modern shape in the seventeenth century in the work of philosophers and theologians who posited a distinction and even opposition between “the mind” and “the body” as difference between consciousness and a material object. Once separated, and ever since, scientists and scholars across fields have wrestled to articulate the nature of this relationship, and address the intellectual, social, personal problems caused by “fact” of this separation.

Such issues include: How does consciousness emerge from matter? What happens when we die? When does life begin or end? How do we heal our bodies? Our minds? How do we make good decisions for ourselves in the realm of health and well being, or love and relationships? How are mind and body related? How should they be related? And how do “we” make it happen?

The Brief Comment
My brief comment is inspired by an article I read about Ibram Kendi’s National Award winning book on racism, Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi argues that racism emerged in the U.S. as an ideology that justified the practice of enslaving black Africans. The economic benefits of slavery came first; the ideological rationale followed. Kendi’s conclusion: no amount of love and education is going to change the ongoing legacy of racism. What is needed are specific policies that eradicate ongoing practices of racial discrimination.

Kendi reminded me of what I know from my study of Marx: an ideology can serve as a cover – not an account of what is true, but a sugarcoating that masks the reality of what is happening and makes the pain of it palatable. Marx, for example, described religious beliefs as an “opium” that deceives laborers into thinking that God is responsible for their sense of alienation, and thus renders them unable to pinpoint the source of their suffering in capitalist relations of production.

It struck me: the mind-body problem itself is an ideology in this sense. It works to convince us that particular kinds of personal and social pain are inevitable; and then diverts our attention away from the sources of our suffering, such we are unable to address them. In this case, at least one source in question is… reading and writing.

My brief comment, then, is this: The mind-body problem provides ideological cover for the violence that practices of reading and writing require – especially in relation to “the body.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I love reading. I love words. But I also know that reading and writing alone are not all that humans need in order to make sure that what they do with their words aligns with their ongoing health and well being.

Explanation
The modern manifestation of the mind-body problem owes much to changes in literacy, education, and book use brought about by the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people – not just monks and rulers – began to practice sitting for lengths of time previously unimagined in order to learn to read and write. They learned to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.

In the past I have written about how the increasing time spent reading and writing created opportunities for (some) people to learn to perceive themselves as agile, mental agents living within still and sitting bodies. The mind-body dichotomy, I have argued, is a concept made possible by the sensory education of reading and writing. In this reading, the negative effects of mind-body separation are simply unintended consequences.

Now I want to take the argument a step further. The idea of mind and body as two separate and separable entities serves to justify discrimination against “the body.” In this view, the mind is the seat of the human soul/self/spirit; the body exists to serve the mind. Thus, whatever must be done to “the body” in order fully to lift and liberate the mind is worthwhile, even desirable – including learning to ignore and override one’s own sensory and kinetic awareness. We come to believe that we have to control our bodies so that they conform to our expectations; we lose touch with what our bodies know. We believe that pain involved is inevitable, and that the results are worth it. The shift from books to screens amplifies the problem, in so far as our range of motion shrinks, even as the possibility for mental stimulation via moving image and sound as well as word increases.

This shift in argument makes a difference. Why?

For one, it makes it clear, as Kendi says of racism, that love and education are not enough to heal the wound between mind and body. It is not enough to “love” our bodies. It is not enough to engage in mind-driven practices that aim to unify “mind” with “body.”  Nor is it enough to study how the evolution of modern culture requires and perpetuates an ongoing repression of bodily agency.

Our ignored and neglected bodies are a mess. They are craving, addicted, overstimulated and undernourished, over-worked and under-exercised. Our minds are anxious, addicted, and depressed. Our actions and activities have made them that way. And our solutions, so much of the time, perpetuate the problem by focusing either on mind or body to the exclusion of the other, and in particular, by ignoring the self-creating agency of a bodily self.

The practices  we need, then, are ones that gradually restore a sense of agency to our bodily selves. “We” need to recover the wisdom that resides in our capacity to move.

We don’t need to stop reading and writing all together, only sometimes – enough to engage in actions that educate our sensory awareness in complementary directions.

Seeing the mind-body problem as an oppression-enabling ideology also illuminates why dancing, as a practice and as a source of ideas is so important to us in this historical moment. To dance is a radical act. It is radical, as I describe in my book Why We Dance, because it exposes the mind-body problem as ideology. The mind-body paradigm cannot explain the persistence and prevalence of dancing. This dancing cannot be explained as a matter of a mind’s choosing to act, or a body’s submitting to communal example. The world presence of dancing can only be explained as a sign of what the mind-body problem exists to ignore: that the source of human life lies in its own relational bodily movement. 

From such practices, then, ideas will emerge that do not discriminate between mind and body when discussing knowledge, truth, wisdom, justice, goodness, health, and beauty – or gender and race.

There is no mind-body problem. There are only bodily selves, creating themselves, creating their minds, with every bodily movement that they make.

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”

“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.

“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.

Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.

“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”

I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.

“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?

“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.

Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.

Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.

We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.

We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…

Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”

We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.

We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.

It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.

We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.

The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.

He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.

At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”

That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.

Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.

Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.

As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.

With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.

Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.

By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.

Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.

Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.

Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.

“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.

We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.

Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”

I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.

The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.

Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.

Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.

Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.

I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.

Thank you, Bright.

Looking for a Purpose? Start trading your talents

There was a time in my life soon after college when I was obsessed with the Will of God for my life. I mean obsessed. I would think about it all the time. I had convinced myself that my life had one purpose; that that purpose was my only path to happiness; and that the Christian God knew exactly what that purpose was, while I did not.

I had to figure it out. My life depended on it.

I was at the time, trying to make it as a professional dancer, and I dearly wanted some confirmation that I was doing the right thing.

I prayed. I asked other people to pray for me. I read the Bible constantly—even on the subway en route to dance class—searching for signs. Nothing. I was so curdled with anxiety, I could barely eat. Finally, I met with a pastor I didn’t know. After I explained my concerns he said: “Sounds like you’ve been working hard on God. Why don’t you let God work on you.”

It was a light bulb moment. I dropped everything—my belief, my faith, my rituals, my religious community. I said to myself: “Whatever comes back to me is mine.”

I walked in the woods. I did yoga. I danced. I ate. I spent time with friends. I did what made me feel good and nourished. As I did, it became perfectly clear: not only had I completely misunderstood what the Will of God is, I had been looking for it in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways.

One of the items that came back to me was the Parable of the Talents (as told in Mark 25:14-30). I had never liked this parable. In fact, I hated it. When I first heard it, I was appalled. I was about 12 years old. As the master handed out talents to his servants, and told them to take care of these talents while he was gone, I felt sure I knew which servant had chosen the right path. My Dad had instilled in me a fierce appreciation for saving all of my allowance, and I did, every week. I knew that the servant who kept the money safe by burying it in the ground—rather than risking it by trade it in the market place—would be rewarded. When Jesus got to the punch line, I was aghast. The master rewarded the risk takers and punished the one who had saved. What do you mean it is wrong to save?

Nevertheless, in the months after I let go of my faith, this story came back to me. What interested me about it was not the “talent” per se – and whether it was actually money, or metaphorically a gift or ability—but the movement, the relationships, and the master’s response.

The two servants who were rewarded traded their talents. They went out into the market place; they found something that someone did not want; they bought it, and then sold it to someone who did want it, for a higher price. In other words, the servants moved their talents. They circulated them. When the master rewarded them, he gave them more of what they had just earned themselves. I began to think of my purpose as a talent in at least three ways.

For one, the value of a talent is not predetermined. It is something whose value you do not know until you do something with it—trade it. Give it away. Receive something back. Give that away. Receive something back. The value of the talent appears through a rhythm of giving and receiving; each time the talent comes back to its caretaker more developed. Each time it reveals more of what it has the potential to be.

Second, a talent creates relationships. It is not something you have just for yourself; not something whose value you can discover by gazing at it—or burying it. A talent reveals its potential when it moves people: it moves the servant to trade, and her trading partners to respond. As a talent moves from one person to another, it creates connections—where one person wants what the other has to give—and by means of these connections it doubles its value.

Third, and related, in creating these relationships, the talent is a source of guidance. For any given talent, not everyone will want it. Not everyone will buy it. The talent determines which kind of exchanges a person can make—it is enough? It determines what kinds of relationships—is it fair? While the parable does not assess the quality of the servants’ exchanges, we assume they were fair. By moving their talents, the servants created relationships between people that were, or at least could have been, mutually beneficial.

My understanding of God’s Will flipped completely. Any purpose for my life was not some judgment on my head; nor was it a key to a stress-free existence. It wasn’t some hidden secret I had to track down.

Any purpose was like a talent: It was a potential in me for thinking, feeling and acting whose value I could not know in advance—a potential whose value I had to discover by giving it away, and using it to create mutually enabling relationships with other people.

That was different.

In this light, it was absurdly clear. Of course my desire to dance was a talent. No question. How dare I bury it! Calling it a talent did not mean that I was good at it—I wasn’t. Nor was it a guarantee of what would come of it—I wasn’t about to make the New York City Ballet. All it meant was that that desire for dance was a balled-up knot of sensory awareness whose value it was my job to discover through a rhythm of giving and receiving in relation to others. I had to trade it.

In other words, I had to move. I had to move—in dance classes, in auditions, in rehearsals, in my own living room. I had to give what I had whatever it was and see what came back. Such movements would create the relationships with teachers and dancers and myself that over time, would help me discern what more I had to trade.

The story that had once punched me in the gut, now lifted me up with hope and joy. I could move differently. I had permission to move differently. I had permission to pay attention to what feels good to me, right to me. I had permission to dance—I didn’t need permission to dance. The gift had already been given. Permission was internal to the gift. And so was responsibility.

I began to follow my desire to dance, letting it lead me in giving and receiving, creating and becoming, myself in relation to others. Sure enough, my path unfolded.

As it did, I began to understand dance itself in new ways—as a capacity given to all humans, and not just me. Dancing is not just about learning steps and mastering tricks. Dancing, as I know and practice, is about learning to pay attention to the movements you are making, and to how these movements are making you.

Some movements hurt. If you keep making them, you will be injured. Some movements are difficult, but get easier over time. Some movements feel awkward and unbalanced, but soon develop greater strength in you. To dance is to cultivate a sensory awareness that can guide you not only in moving with clarity, grace, efficiency, and strength—but also in finding movements to make that express the care and attention required to find them; movements that connect with others in mutually beneficial ways; movements that make love real.

Whatever your faith, and whether you have one or not, every movement you make in your life is a prayer. Every movement you make in your life makes your God real.

Every movement is an invitation to the energy of life to flow into the pattern of precise neuro-muscular coordination required to make that movement. Every movement is an invitation to perceive and receive sensations along this stretch of effort—to open and grow in one direction and not another.

Thus every movement you make participates in the ongoing act of creation—it creates you and your relationship to your own bodily self. How are you moving in relationship to yourself? Gentle or harsh, tender or tough, enabling or repressive? Angry or judgmental or supportive or kind?

For me, one message of the Parable of the Talents is that the movements we make in relation to ourselves come back to us in time as characterizing the relationship we have created with the universe. The servant who buried his talents in fear of judgment, made God into a fearful judge. The servants who embraced and traded their talents made God into a beneficent source of enduring well being. The movement that we practice in relation to our own talents—the care and attention we devote to them, the sensory awareness we cultivate of them—are what make the holy real for us. They are what make our purpose real for us.

With every movement we create the world as we then know it.

The question to ask, then, is not “what is my purpose?” but “what do I have to trade?” You’ll find out.

From Psychology Today

 

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

 

How do we build the skills we need to live a good life?

My latest post is now up!

It was inspired by the wonderful experience I have had working with the high school students in Granville on their spring musical, Sound of Music!

Live Theater: Do We Need It?

Enjoy!!