Category Archives: religion

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.

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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

 

Wisdom from the World of Dance

My latest post. With a new twist.

What if we considered the practice of contemporary dance as a wisdom tradition — a set of practices engaged in the ongoing search for better ways of living?

Read on…

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201711/wisdom-the-world-dance

Paying Attention: Consciousness of What?

 

My latest post for Psychology Today!

Here I explore some reflections that emerged in the wake of my third Story Circle with the dance artists of the Kun Yang Lin Dance Company in Philadelphia! These circles are part of The Faith Project, a creative exploration of the relationship between religion and dance.  The piece that KYLD is creating is coming together! Here I wonder: What is the relationship between our bodily movements and the possibilities of perception?

Paying Attention: Consciousness of What?

Enjoy!

Photo: Mike Hurwitz

 

 

Why Practice Repeating Ordinary Movements?

Here is my second blog post on my work with the Kun-Yang Lin Dance Company’s Faith Project! This month’s “Story Circle” generated so many ideas about why, in ritual and in dance, we endlessly and fruitfully repeat ordinary bodily movements over and again.

Story+Circle+#2+Photo.jpegHere are some of my thoughts!

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201709/why-practice-repeating-ordinary-bodily-movements/edit

For more information on the Faith Project, please visit: kyld.org.

Making Mozzarella: The Process of Not Being Perfect

My latest blog! Posted on Psychology Today.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201704/making-mozzarella-the-process-not-being-perfect

Enjoy this account of my cheese making exploits… and what they have to teach me about embracing the unknown and learning through movement.

Enjoy!

 

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Dancing in the Face of Death

I traveled to Philadelphia at the end of March and had the pleasure of attending a studio showing by the Kun-Yang Lin Dancers of an excerpt from their latest piece, “Santuario.”

I was deeply moved! The experience reminded me of how powerful dance can be in the face of senseless tragedy. The piece was inspired by the shootings at the Pulse nightclub and gay bar in Orlando, Florida.

You can find my post here:

Dancing in the Face of Death

The KYL/D company will be performing the full piece as part of their concert on April 27, 28, 29, 2017, at the Prince Theater.  For more information: http://www.kyld.org

I encourage you to attend!