Something new, some words for you
It’s been a little while in the making but I’ve decided to open up this space for my writing. Writing has evolved from being a love I never made time for, to a form of therapy, and now to a consistent part of my artistic practice. I have so many thoughts that I find it quite a relief to write them down. Sometimes something small will happen that triggers a bigger realisation of ideas that have been bubbling inside of me for weeks or months, sitting under the surface level of my consciousness. When these floating concepts seem to align for a moment in my mind I worry if I don’t write them down they will break apart and I’ll lose all that groundwork.
Much like a creative process for a dance project, within the writing process I learn new things. I make discoveries about myself and the world. So, I figured if I’m writing these I might as well share them. I’d like to open up discourse around the ideas I find interesting and important. I’d like to share my perspective because I value considered opinions both alike and dissimilar to mine.
After reading Michele Obama’s book recently this quote stuck with me, “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace to be willing to know and hear others.”
I hope by sharing, I shed light on new concepts or spark in you (my reader) little realisations of your own. Usually I would approach this through dance - my creations and physical practice were my primary outlets for uncovering and voicing my opinions. When I injured myself recently for the first time in my life I had to ask, who am I creatively without my body?
This large part of my identity is in reform. Dance is such a beautiful and powerful language but I’ve often felt like it isn’t as accessible to people as much as it should be. So I hope that by sharing words, this language we all seem to know best (although I hope I can convince you otherwise), I can open the door a little more. I now realise I have years of unspoken words to share.
Rediscovering my Identity
It started in the emergency room as I sat on the bed waiting for my assessment from the hospital physiotherapist. I’m a contemporary dancer, I explained, and received “the usual look”. For those non-dancers out there who don’t know, “the look”, it is usually a mix of curiosity and sheer bewilderment. Their faces empty, there’s this kind of blankness behind their eyes as though they can’t conjure a single idea of what you would do on a day-to-day basis. Some people try to hide their confusion or relate by talking about the ballet classes they took as a child or their cousin’s dance concert they attended in 2009. The physio wasn’t one of these people. She was open about her bewilderment and seemed genuinely interested in learning more. Within the timeframe of my short assessment we spoke more about my career than my injured foot. She started with a simple but somewhat left of field question, “How do you get work?”. I struggled to find an easy answer, “Good question, I ask myself that all the time”.
If I’m honest, most of the work that I do by definition isn’t the role of a performing contemporary dancer, but rather a nondescript performer, creator or maker of work, a teacher, a facilitator - I live and breathe this gig economy and I have to say I have mixed views on it but I’ll save my rant for another article. What I will say is that this question made me somewhat uncomfortable. I staved off impostor syndrome while I revealed that most of the time I wasn’t actually a “dancer” - in the sense that when I dance, people sit and watch and pay me money.
My injury has given me time to reflect on how much value I’d built around this form of dance. I noticed I would feel that if I wasn’t doing a performative dance project then I wasn’t a dancer. But come Covid, then months of injury and low and behold I’m still a dancer - or rather I still feel like a dancer. In fact, in the absence of dance I've never felt like more of a dancer. So what does that mean?
Here came a moment of discovery.
Being a dancer, for me, is much deeper than the report I give to the tax office each financial year. Being a dancer is about how I approach life. I see things through the lens of my unique knowledge of sensory experience, movement and the body. I question, problem solve and communicate with the creativity and compassion I’ve absorbed from training and working in this field. I’m a dancer when I take out the washing as much as when I perform on stage. I’m a dancer when I write or create films. I’m definitely a dancer when I give hugs. I’m a dancer when I’m injured and I’ll be a dancer, until death. When I stopped seeking the external validation of this title, ‘dancer’ and rejected the image built around it, then I found so much more pleasure and joy within it. In this ideology I’ve found freedom.
I wish I’d had that freedom when I spoke to the curious physiotherapist. Instead, I tried to explain to this woman my work as a shapeshifter, moving between performing the already mystifying genre of contemporary dance to choreographing, to facilitating movement practice and working with people with a disability, to making dance films and exploring the possibilities of movement within different disciplines like new technology, to teaching dance or yoga (this one I like to leave last because I always see a moment of relief on their face when, finally, I've provided a common concept most understand... 'teacher' fits into a clearly labelled box. I get it.). She expressed with a mix of admiration and disbelief how it seemed like I did a lot. I silently nodded and thought, “Lady we are just scratching the surface”. I don’t know if we really reached a clear level of understanding. I wasn’t exactly in the best mood for explaining though I doubt that would have made much difference. This is an example of a common occurrence for me and I’m sure it’s one that resonates with many other artists as well.
The irony is that while I’m making beautiful discoveries about the nuances of my career identity, most people are still struggling to comprehend the very concept of contemporary dance. This mystification is increasing the divide between our artists and the general populace and I’d really like this to change. After all, dance is inspired by, and created for people. Surely this physiotherapist who works with the body speaks the language of a dancer? It’s age-old and inherent in our bones. We all live and communicate through our bodies - 55 percent of communication is through body language in fact. It’s a smile, a laugh, a hug, a leap for joy, a gentle touch or an outstretched hand. It’s asking questions of yourself or thinking emotively. Do people no longer feel equipped to read bodies or consider what they’re feeling rather than just what they’re thinking? Dance is simply embodied empathy. Yet somehow it seems to have become high brow or foreign, reserved for the elite or select few ‘artsy’ people. Somehow we’ve forgotten that, in a way, we are all dancers - myself included.
I feel now it’s my mission as a professional dancer to remind people of this fact. Perhaps by sharing my experiences - using the words of a dancer - I can shed some light on some of the important work we do. That is, to encourage shared empathy and humanity. Perhaps if you understood how much you are a part of , then it wouldn’t seem so foreign or strange. Perhaps you will go to see a dance performance not to necessarily be entertained but to learn something about yourself and the world or take a dance class not to be an amazing technical dancer but to honour the uniquely wonderful body you inhabit and experience each day, each moment of your life. Perhaps then, in embracing this new found identity, you’ll find freedom as well.
If I haven’t convinced you yet then perhaps you’d like to read more. I’ll be posting more articles. This space is for open dialogue. It is as much about listening to you as it is about me being heard, if not more. Feel free to get in touch.