Reception-Perception-Action: how dance training taught me to live

Ever since Judson Dance Theater, Western concert dance has accepted the idea that everything can be dance. Walking, running, sitting, eating, sweeping a floor—all movement is acceptable material for choreography and can be presented as dance in a performance. Can we also accept the reverse, that dance is everything? What happens when we invert the lesson that attention makes composition, and strive to live lives that aim for and accept a choreographed way of being in the world; not falsely, but in an intentional manner, according to the kind of application of values that we employ in the studio? To borrow Joan Retallack’s word, the “poethics” at work in art making may be seen as a life practice; and dance has particular potential to lay a template for a poethical existence because it is embodied, because it involves complete, regular practice of intentional integration of mind and body.


Peggy Gould said: "what we do in our training is what we are training ourselves to do."


I think often of an exercise we did in one of my first college dance classes (with Ed Groff, in 1991) that I have done probably hundreds of times since--a standard post-modern dance warm up. In this exercise, dancers begin by walking around the studio, winding through the space, maintaining an awareness of the others in the space with them, mindful not to crash into others as they walk, and making eye contact as they pass. Eventually the walking incorporates changes of direction and picks-up speed, as dancers continue to be aware of the whole group moving. A dancer in this exercise becomes adept at finding a balance between moving in a way that is controlled and allowing for sudden shifts brought about by proximity to others and the need to react quickly to the choices made by other dancers. It's an exercise that requires dancers to think of themselves as individuals actively and intimately connected to a group. Every choice made by an individual has an effect. The whole group can shift based on a small shift by one person. A two-person "crash" can halt everyone in the studio for a brief moment, before the exercise continues. The setup for the exercise includes the opportunity to direct what happens in this moment of interruption—we can keep moving, or stop to see that everyone’s OK before moving again, or we can even pause here to connect with someone nearby before continuing. We can react to an unexpected or difficult interaction with anxiety, anger, curiosity, tenderness.


What great practice for how to move in the world. Cultivating awareness of others, awareness of how our interactions have greater consequence; looking around with eyes wide open, using peripheral vision to be widely aware. An easy improvisational structure: choose your path as you go based on what you see and sense before you, be ready for others to interrupt your path, be ready to be influenced and influence others, be ready to see not what you expect, but what is actually there. Grow to welcome this process, rather than dread it. Understand that the interruptions are where the learning happens, rather than distractions from what you thought you were doing. Learn that being open enables you to do more, broadens your options rather than limits them, strengthens relationships to others.

Karinne Keithley Syers said: practice acting as a stranger. Use a situation as an "occasion of unsettling habit: the loss of one orientation and the finding of another.”


In a technique class I took in my late twenties, I suddenly realized that I could balance on one leg with ease, any time I wanted. I couldn’t remember when this shift had occurred, I just suddenly was aware that something that used to be difficult felt simple. My world opened. It happened not through determination (though to be sure, I was a determined student of dance), not through gripping my muscles (though of course, muscles were engaged), and not through the application of a singular approach to “balance.” What I realized was that by broadening what I perceived, via feedback both from my body and from the space and bodies around me, I had much more support for the balance I was seeking. The approach was inside-to-outside-to-inside and sensation was paramount: sensing space, sensing self, sensing others, sensing connection.


Yvonne Rainer said: "the mind is a muscle."


It’s a metaphor, of course. If we think of the mind as a muscle, something that can be exercised and strengthened, and we accept that we can make choices about how to use our muscles—notice unhealthy patterns, interrupt them, make new choices—then we can make choices about our thinking, choose to be as intentional about the use of this "muscle" as the use of any other. And this means not only inside the studio, but outside as well. Rainer’s "no manifesto" reimagined. Every "no" equals a "yes" to a new orientation. "No" equals questioning widely accepted norms about performance and use of the body. Questioning leads to open possibilities for new pathways. No to passive acceptance. Yes to intentional making and living. Yes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of Creative Maladjustment.


Perception is action. What we see, hear, taste, feel, and understand involves processes of muscle, nerves, and brain, and is a directed activity of the body in relationship to social-cultural conditions. If this is so, then we can ask the same questions about how to be intentional, not automatic, in our perceptions as well as in our actions. We can try to notice our habits and biases and work in relation to them. We practice this in dance class in relationship to physical movement, large and small. Perception is just action at a small physical scale, with the potential for large consequences, for shifting the group. We can practice it.

Some basic premises in contemporary dance training: Continually "notice" how we are standing, lying, sitting, moving [Stage one: not taking our patterns for granted—analysis without judgment]. "Let" muscles that are holding tension release [Stage two: allow for different sensations and possibilities of new orientations toward our bodies, toward the space we are in]. Choose to "Initiate" movement from a specific site in the body or from a particular sensation [Stage three: actively reshape how we are in the world]. 


The final lesson is to learn and feel that every movement can be intentional, that we are not passive in the world or immobilized by the realization that our patterns may be harmful, but empowered to make choices about how we use our bodies, that we can help ourselves move better and care for our bodies in a way that assumes long-term use, that assumes that we are attached to and affect others.


Learning how to do this in the studio should facilitate this way of approaching how we are in the world. We learn that we can redirect harmful patterns by first noticing, then making choices that are careful; not careful as in holding back, but as in full-of-care. We can feel capable of sustainable, active care of ourselves, of others, and of the world. Dancing can be a metaphor for all of our deliberate behaviors, actions in which we are open to receiving new information, making relational perceptual judgments, and choosing to act in accordance with our values.