CDA for Dance: Foundations

tl;dr Critical discourse analysis can be applied to dance as much as it is applied to text. The relationship between reader, text and writer is similar to Preston-Dunlap’s triadic perspective. Framing of a piece may come in the form of text. And music, even the obvious-seeming choices, present a specific worldview. 

So, I started writing a while back on Critical Discourse Analysis and I wanted to start broadening it to look at how we can analyze dance and movement in similar ways. This is going to be a series because I don’t know how to be chill about things like this.

This starts with a disclaimer: I will be pulling a lot from choreology, the analytical study of movement, deriving originally from Rudolf Laban’s work (but expanded upon and developed by fantastic people, such as Valerie Preston-Dunlop). I am not a choreologist and, in fact, have a lot to learn in the field of choreology that I hope I will someday get to. I’ll be recommending further reading throughout the series and compile it all at the end of the series. Really, this is an experiment to see how my knowledge of CDA can be applied to movement and the models that choreology provides makes this possible (similar to how CDA relies on a lot of linguistics, and I am in no way a linguist), this is not a proper education in choreology.

Our Example

I’m an Irish dancer, so it wasn’t too difficult to decide what to use as an example. Michael Flatley is an ever present thorn in my side. We’re going to look at this particular version of “Breakout” from Lord of the Dance. Keep in mind that there a lot of different versions of this particular choreography, even dating back to Riverdance era and there is SO MUCH to analyze here. We’re just going to look at this one. Although, once I’ve created an entire series about this one video, I may add some links to some other versions of the piece to provide some new perspectives.

Models and Methodology

Unlike my CDA post, we’re going to start big picture and then get small, because I find that easier with dance, since movement vocabulary can be more difficult to describe than lexical vocabulary (ie. words). We’re going to keep on using CDA tools, particularly in terms of narrative, structure, and vocabulary. Since we’re using Irish dance, this will link deeply into existing knowledge around tradition and nationalism. Because we’re using movement, we will use two choreological models as a framework: strands of the dance medium and the structural model. You can read more about them here.

Triadic Perspective

When discussing CDA, I created this cute diagram:

Writer <–> text <–> Reader

In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers (see my post on CDA for more details on this).

Let’s translate this into dance terms. A writer becomes a choreographer, text becomes a single performance of a work, and a reader becomes the audience. In dance, we have a tradition of believing these to be three separate disconnected roles, but performers, choreographers, and audience members overlap incredibly (Howard Becker makes an interesting point in his book Art Worlds that the main audience for dance is actually other dancers and former dancers, it feels pretty accurate when I look around at who attends the dance performances I go to.)

In the world of dance scholarship (as opposed to CDA), this is called the triadic perspective. Choreographers are audience members and dancers, for their own work and other work. Dancers choreograph in collaboration with choreographers, are choreographers in their own right, and are audience members. Audience members can be choreographers and dancers influenced by performance they see (Athreya, 2002). It’s the same as if it were a text, except, in this case, “text” refers to a performance.

Framing/Presentation

The first thing that strikes me in this video isn’t actually the movement, so let’s leave movement analysis to the side for the moment and do some text-based CDA, like I’ve already discussed.

We know from the video description that this is a corporate event in Hawaii. Interesting, considering the title of the video and common nickname of the choreography (“Strip Jig”). More interesting is Flatley’s introduction:

He says he brought dancers from “all over the world”, including “some of the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong handsome guys” and he promises his audience that they will “understand more about what our culture is all about here in Ireland” (my emphasis).

He sets up a juxtaposition between the global (“all over the world”, “most beautiful girls in the world”) and the Irish (“our culture”, “here in Ireland”). I would particularly like to highlight the use of the word “here”. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, but through it, he brings Ireland into the space. They might be in Hawaii, but that space has become a part of Ireland while he is there.

In addition, through bringing up the idea of understanding culture, Flatley positions himself as a cultural ambassador. He is there to share Irish culture and, in effect, build the world’s perception of Ireland. (It’s a self-appointed position but, looking at the history of Flatley’s shows, he’s not wrong. I still get people asking me if I can “do the Riverdance” when I tell them I’m an Irish dancer). This tells us that the speaker (Flatley) believes the following performance to be representative of Irish culture and significant to Irish culture, which links into a long history of Irish nationalism and Irish dance. It’s also a form of marketing. By branding his work as “true” Irish culture, he can exploit others’ interest in easy cultural exchange.

Irish dance has been created and reworked many times to represent the values of Irish nationalists and people who hold power in Ireland. Flatley and Lord of the Dance is simply one step in this process, and that is central to this video.

Also, do I really need to comment on “the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong, handsome guys”? I feel like I comment on this everyday (and have trouble keeping a pretend objective tone with this kind of nonsense). Look at the word choice, look at the adjectives, look at the difference between “girl” and “guy”. It’s demeaning, it’s reductive, and it’s gross.

Strands of the Dance Medium

From framing, let’s zoom in a little closer and look at the structure of the dance performance. The strands of the dance medium looks at a “nexus” of various elements that connect (or don’t) to form a performance. This is the book that looks a lot closer at the strands, I highly recommend it. In this particular model, movement is a single element, alongside the performer, the space, and the sound. Performer encompasses everything visible about the person dancing, including their costume. Space encompasses set and the environment of the performance, as well as props. Sound includes music, but also other forms of sound, including silence. The relationships between these four strands are considered “nexial connections” (nexus just means connection, so, just, a lot of interrelation and connection going on).

Sound

For this post, we’re just going to look at sound. The easiest description of the sound for this piece is “music” and we could go more detailed to say “Irish music”.

But wait. Irish music. Doesn’t that link into how Flatley was positioning himself as an ambassador of Irish culture? It might seem obvious to use Irish music to accompany Irish dance, but the fact is that it is a specific choice that gives us a sense of the performance. This dance is supposed to be representative of Irish culture, this music is thus the music that is supposedly representative of Irish culture. It’s saying “these two things belong together and this is how we do it.”

(I’m currently dancing to Against Me! sooooo, apparently I didn’t get the memo, sorry Flatley).

There are two parts of the music. The first part is slower and features a flute, light, airy, and sweet. This highlights the “innocence” of the section and is in direct contrast to the second part, which starts with an electric guitar while the tune is played on a fiddle. The use of electric instruments for a “traditional” form makes everything a big edgy. While this is technically representative of Irish culture, the choice pushes the boundaries of what is considered “traditional”. It suggests that Flatley views Irish culture to be something beyond tradition (this also includes anyone involved in music development for the show, but I’m assuming he has a vague amount of choice in the music and in attaching it to this specific dance).

It is also worth noting that traditionally, Irish dance is accompanied by live music (and Flatley’s work in general too). This is recorded. This alters the relationship between dance and music because the music is unresponsive to the dance’s needs and the dance needs to conform to a rigid, pre-established sound.

There is one final note to make on sound that we’ll return to in more detail later: shoes. That sound is heard throughout the piece, but not at all moments. It goes with the music (another choice that feels obvious, but isn’t), suggesting that the music holds power and form in the piece. There is no moment when the sound of the shoes challenges or stands against the music. This can be (and will be) used alongside other elements of the piece to show how the music illustrates the narrative of the dance.

Conclusion

Through looking at the framing and sound choice of this piece, we can start to piece together an understanding of Flatley’s self-positioning in terms of Irish and global culture and how that plays out in his shows. It also starts to offer us a window into the appeal of Irish dance and how both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance spread very specific versions of Irish dance.

Hmmm.

Up next, we’ll look at the three other strands of the dance medium: Movement, Space, and the Performer!

Bibliography

Athreya, Preethi, “MAKING DANCE; A CHOREOLOGICAL APPROACH”, Narthaki, 2002 <http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article66.html&gt; [Accessed 7 April 2018]

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Looking At Dances (Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Noverre Pr., 2014)

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The Biggest Problem in Dance: Men

tl;dr While exploring masculinity in dance is not necessarily a problem, the fact that this is happening while femininity is continuously placed in relationship to masculinity or silenced in conversations around masculinity is a problem. And honestly, it’s tiring.

matthew bourne swan lake
[image is from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake: an all-male corps de ballet of swans in feathery pants and no shirts take on a strong stance with one leg lifted, one arm over their heads with the other pointing to the side]

 
I was recently in a choreographer Q&A session when someone asked me what the one thing in dance that I hated was. Not wanting to be too divisive in the moment, I chose to let other choreographers answer for me, but here is my answer now:

 

Men.

 

I’ve already talked about this before, specifically in terms of our current obsessive attempts to recruit boy dancers, that covers a lot of the concrete reasons why this is an issue, so I’m going to try not to repeat it too much. Instead, I want to look at a more abstract way this has developed in the new artistic fascination with masculinity.

 

“Exploring masculinity” seems to have become the new pseudo-feminist nonsense designed to keep dance’s focus on male dominance while attempting to appear progressive.

 

I’m not saying there aren’t things to explore in masculinity. I don’t even believe the choreographers, dancers, and leaders who choose to focus on masculinity for subject are doing it solely to maintain male dominance in dance. I’m actually pretty certain they have personal stakes in the question of masculinity, and masculinity in dance.

 

But every time someone makes a piece about masculinity, it reinforces the idea that masculinity is worth discussing and that femininity is…secondary.

 

I’m not opposed to people making personal, vulnerable pieces about masculinity, I’m opposed to the fact that we are not making space for femininity in the same way. Instead, we are continue to treat femininity in dance as “shallow” while masculinity is “deep” and “covers important issues”.

 

Where are the deep evening-length works about how social norms of femininity has deeply harmed little girls? Oh right. Conversations about womanhood, femininity, and women on stage exist in dialogue with masculinity.  And anything that starts that dialogues makes us go “Ugh, another social justice, feminist piece”.

 

We don’t get pieces about femininity, we get feminist pieces. There is actually a difference.

 

And of course, women in frilly dresses are clueless, women in pants are dangerously challenging society.

 

All of that is in terms of masculinity – who props up the masculine ego, who threatens it, and how we respond to each category in order to maintain the status quo. And, strangely enough, only the people that edge towards masculinity are powerful enough to be deemed dangerous, while the feminine is still seen as brainless, airy, insignificant.

 

I’m tired of seeing masculinity played out on stage. It happens enough. I’m tired of male choreographers continuing to gain visibility while female choreographers are paid less, and have smaller audiences. I’m tired of the feminine aesthetic being seen as frivolous while we continue to look at explorations of masculinity as intense works of art. I’m tired of discussions of femininity only being discussed in terms of masculinity.

 

I want my evening-length exploration of femininity. I want to see it cause intense academic discourse. I want to see that choreographer be lauded for “bravery” and “vulnerability” and have their career launched sky high because of that piece.

 

I want to see the feminine, the underlying powerhouse of the dance world, be treated as the amazing concept it is, instead of shoved away in a corner with shame.

 

So, it’s not just time to lose having men in positions of power while women still make up the majority of the dance world, it’s time to reverse a paradigm that dares to suggest that masculinity is more important than femininity. Let’s stop reinforcing and justifying the power structure in which men continue to sit on top.

Notes:

In researching this post, I happened upon this article on Dance Magazinewhich I think says more than I ever could on the subject – the first person quoted about women in dance is a man and the one person who mentions trans women is a cis man that uses drag and emphasises “the idea of gender as illusion and social construct”. Now, I don’t know enough about his work to decide (yet) where his drag stands in terms of being transmisogynistic, but I think the choice to include these two men speaking as they do and positioned in the article as they are say a lot about men in the dance world right now.

In a similar vein, I would also like to put on display this quote from Matthew Bourne that I found when looking for a picture: “The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu.”

 

My mixed relationship with social dance

tl;dr Social dance has a consent problem but its community-building power is amazing. Some day, I hope we can find a way to make this power truly effective and positive.

[image is groups of happy white people dancing while a band plays on on a stage behind them] By SayCheeeeeese – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3626828

One of my earliest memories is going to the family dance with my…family (surprise). We’d do some reels, some ceilidh dances, a ridiculous grand march, a snail walk, folk dances from Russia, Israel, South Africa…sometimes we’d sing, sometimes there was food. It was always a good time.

 

I grew up on social dance. First at family dances, and once I became a little bit older, I joined my family at contra dances. When I got fed up with contra, I fell into the international folk dance scene for a while, before going off to college in a different country and never looking back (my mom asked me to go to a contra dance during my first year to scope out the band and I refused, she never asked again).

 

I am mainly going to discuss contra dance because I did that at a particularly formative age that has had a huge impact on my life since and because some of the problems that exist in all social dance communities I have been part of are more visible and easier to talk about in contra dance.

 

I left social dance for a huge variety of reasons, some were small little annoyances, some were specific to certain communities, some were giant reflections of terrible things in our society.

 

In the end, it all boiled down to consent – I did not (and still do not) enjoy being touched without my consent. Even while you could technically claim that I consented to certain kinds of touch by participating in the dance, you could also equally claim that I was forced to give that consent. Remember, social dance is a community activity and, for me, it was a family activity. I could either consent to touch, despite being uncomfortable with it, or not participate in my community and family activities. Is that kind of pressure really consent?

 

That is also ignoring the way my lack of consent was ignored when it should not have been. When I was younger, older adults, even strangers, would pick me up during a dance because I was small and cute. They thought it was funny when I glared at them and demanded they put me down and so, over time, I was conditioned to smile at how proud they were of themselves for picking me up (they always seemed to think they were the first person to ever do that). During a dance, certain moves require slightly more closeness. I would put my hand at the distance I was comfortable with, and the person I was dancing with (usually an adult and a man) would then ignore it and put himself as close to me as possible. There were also the people that would pick up my hand and condescendingly move it to where they wanted it, claiming that they were teaching me to be a better dancer.

 

This started before I was ten.

 

Let me make this clearer: I was taught, before I was ten, that the boundaries I set were insignificant and that other people were allowed to redefine my boundaries based on their wishes. I was taught that this was normal and something I should smile at and something I should be thankful for.

 

When I was around fifteen, I would bring friends to dances and lecture them on how important it is that if someone asks them to dance and they don’t want to, they are allowed to say no. They would shake their heads at me and inform me that that wasn’t polite and saying no made them feel bad. We would hide in corners and talk about all the pushy, older men that made us uncomfortable. There was even one older man that would invite himself to the older teenagers’ after-dance skinny dipping. No one felt safe saying no.

 

The problem was that, even while I knew, to an extent, that this was wrong, I was not able to recognize exactly how fucked up it really was until I had not gone to a dance for years.

 

I am now incredibly skittish about attending any kind of social dance – even ones that are far away in distance and content from what I attended when I was younger.

 

About a year ago, a friend of mine organized an LGBT tea dance at her church. I was wary of going because of aforementioned terrible experiences with social dance, but I wanted to support her, she was someone I trusted to care about my wellbeing and I heard there would be good cake (I’m pretty easily swayed into things by cake).

 

It was a WONDERFUL time – I didn’t dance loads (finding a partner is a huge social stress for me that I am terrible at) but I felt safe, I enjoyed the people I got to dance with, and I was reminded of why I had started my entire dance life in social dance spaces.

 

There’s a particular magic about a group of people coming together to dance. It becomes particularly magical, when it is more about the community and social connections being built, as opposed to the kind of skill-building you get in a dance studio.

 

See, in dance class, in a studio, we still have this cult of the teacher. Even if we’re learning social dance moves or attending class for the social aspect, the teacher and the skills they are teaching us are the focal point.

 

Even when there is a “teacher” in social dance spaces, they are the facilitator of the dancers’ good time, not the teacher. The entire point of social dance is coming together and building connections. The dance, the teacher…that’s secondary.

 

I fucking love that.

 

I’m still not running back to social dance spaces. Honestly, I’m still terrified, but it was good to remember that there is a reason why social dance is amazing and important. And it makes me wonder – how can we build spaces for social dance that are truly positive, safe spaces?

 

How can we reconcile the absolute fucked-upedness of a lot of social dance spaces with the community it offers?

 

How can we use social dance to build our communities in positive, healthy ways?

 

I’m not sure yet, but it’s definitely something on my mind.

 

[note: I’m well aware that this does not at all get into issues around racism and cultural appropriation in folk dance communities. That does not mean they are not important! I am still figuring out the right way to express my thoughts on these matters. But, in the meantime, please be aware that folk dance communities are also doing pretty poorly in these matters, alongside issues of consent.]

Maybe the boys-only dance class craze isn’t the solution

Tl;dr The craze to get boys and men involved in dance is a product of our society’s confused idea that male involvement increases a “feminine” domain’s value. Instead of obsessing over gender, I’d like to see us engaging with everyone that wants to dance and questioning why being “feminine” causes so much insecurity.

 

 

Everybody’s talking about men and boys in dance these days. If they aren’t, it’s probably because it’s a man creating dance about toxic masculinity and gender identity from a “masculine perspective”.

 

It’s almost as if, in its rush to make feminism more palatable by pointing out that it fought for gender equality, we decided that the best way to challenge misogyny and femmephobia was by only looking at men and masculinity.

 

Or maybe contemporary dance has gotten bored of its feminine roots. Names like Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan usually get an eye roll, a warning about long scarves and a couple of poorly-executed contractions these days. Maybe we’re sick of little girls in pink tutus reading Angelina Ballerina (although, as someone that grew up on Angelina Ballerina, I highly recommend those books to budding dancers). Maybe the devaluation of all domains that are female-dominated and deemed “feminine” by society is starting to grate on underpaid, overworked dancers whose work constantly go unrecognized.

 

That’s all probably true.

 

But what about the fact that the artistic directors of most major ballet companies are still men? What about the fact that the last time I went to see Alvin Ailey American Repertory Theater (a radical, amazing company in its own right), I had to search through both the program and website for a good long while to make sure I went to a show that included work by a female choreographer? What about the clear evidence that most of the decision makers in the field of dance are, despite everything, men?

 

Maybe dance’s new obsession with men and masculinity is less about valuing the amazing women that are the powerhouse of the domain and more about reframing male interests to appear feminist enough to allow the men in power to keep their power.

 

Maybe.

 

I really don’t know.

 

What I do know is that I am completely uninterested in this new surge of dance classes specifically targeted at boys. On one level, yes, I get the logic – our society deems dance “feminine” and so boys  who may very well want to dance may be scared off from it, or their parents/guardians may keep them from it. By creating a space that is specifically for boys, it removes the fear of seeming “girly”, so boys can dance.

 

Reread that logic. Reread it again. Reread it a third time, just in case you missed something.

 

This entire logic, the entire concept of creating boys-only dance classes is completely dependent on society seeing “feminine” as bad and “masculine” as good. It’s completely dependent on the assumption that a female-dominated domain would become better with an increase in men. And it propagates the terrifyingly toxic message that boys should  be afraid of seeming “girly”.

 

I am so not ok with that I don’t think ten blog posts could even begin to describe my distaste.

 

Legitimizing dance by increasing its perceived masculinity is not going to give little boys self-expression or do any good for the multitude of accomplished young female dancers ignored as dance decision makers continue to clamour for BOYS. And this goes right up to a professional career. Overall, professional male dancers start training later and are much less experienced and accomplished when they join a dance company, but the perceived “need” for male dancers means they get positions that they’re not trained enough for. In comparison, highly trained women are competing for positions whose numbers are limited in part because of the positions going to undertrained men. All-male productions of famous dance works lauded as radical while keeping the majority of professional dancers out of work is the horrific result of this system.

 

I teach afterschool programs for elementary school students. Do you know what’s effective for engaging children of all genders in “feminine” (ie. less important) activities? It’s definitely not redesigning an activity specifically for the boys in the class. That just reinforces entitlement in the boys and worthlessness in the girls.

 

Instead, I make it an option to do a “feminine” activity together. When we were learning clothing in French, I brought in a girl paper doll for us to color. There was worry, from the other teachers, that the boys in my class would not want to do the activity. But it was clear to the kids that this was the class for the day and they were doing it because of the new, exciting words they had just learned, so they settled happily into coloring their doll and her “girly” clothing, informing me which colors they were using for which clothing to practice their French.

 

If I had given the same activity to a group of only boys, would it have gone so well? Probably not. Toxic masculinity starts early and a group of boys competing in perceived manliness would never be able to contain themselves with something deemed so “worthless” by society. But because we were all together, there was a clear reason to the activity, and, most importantly, coloring paper dolls is fun, everyone got to take part.

 

Instead of the fear that boys will never want to do something “feminine” unless it’s tailored specifically for them, I would like dance to take on more of this attitude: not everyone is going to want to dance, just like not everyone enjoys paper dolls (definitely not my students, but I’m sure there are people out there), but, for those who do enjoy dance, we need to make it a valued option. In other words, dance doesn’t need fixing by increasing masculinity, dance’s inferiority complex and society’s devaluation of “feminine” activities needs a shift in perspective. And dance really only needs the boys that want to dance in the first place (that said, I am well aware that adults have a habit of keeping boys from dancing and that is a problem that needs fixing and a very strong argument for keeping boys-only dance classes around for a little bit, if just to get boys that want to dance dancing when their adults may not let them do it otherwise).

 

Maybe we’ll have less boys dancing for a while. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it will allow us to properly value the amazingly talented women that make up the domain and support the men that do dance already.

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to find body positivity in injury prevention and safe dance practice

Tl;dr The way anatomy and alignment is taught to dancers often puts too much pressure on us to “fix” ourselves. We need to find a balance where we can dance within a risk we find acceptable and still embrace the particular features of our individual bodies.

 

The other day at the gym, I had to take the treadmill that was in front of the gigantic mirror and, as a result, caught a glimpse of my bowlegs, which has since sent me down a spiral of despair at my terrible body alignment and how that means I’ll never be a good dancer.

 

The thing is, my bowlegs are not that bad. Or, at least, they weren’t when I first learned about what it meant in an anatomical sense. It’s quite common for dancers that do ballet and other forms of dance that require turnout. “Forcing” turnout (ie. what we’re not supposed to do) forces the shinbone out of its correct inward spiral, creates bowlegs, and, of course, causes improper alignment in the legs and rest of the body, because everything is connected.

 

My legs were a bit bowed, but I learned this and became very defensive of my small turnout when teachers tried to get me to force it. It knew it was good for alignment, the end. Except no one is immune to the overarching pressures around them and while I was learning about the proper alignment of the shinbone, I was also learning that I would never be a dancer without more turnout. I ended up forcing my turnout a lot more than I thought I was, even while I complacently thought that I knew about proper alignment and that meant I danced safely and properly.

 

Over the years, my bowlegs have become more pronounced until we come to this particular moment, where I look at my shinbones and want to cry because they’re not Properly Aligned.

 

Here’s the thing – the new movement to create “safe” dancers, including education in anatomy and kinesiology, is about as bad with body image as all other forms of dance education. And, it has the added benefit of informing dancers that, if their body isn’t within the alignment and anatomy taught to them, they are dancing dangerously. And it includes the nice long list of injuries that can be sustained from it. AND, it implicitly suggests that a dancer is at fault if they get injured.

 

No body is ever in perfect alignment. I want to argue that dancers’ bodies are particularly bad because we are training to do things that a non-dancing body may never want to do. And, especially now, every anatomy class a dance student takes is offset by aesthetics that are only possible for certain bodies and require all other bodies to go out of “safe” ranges of movement in order to do it.

 

The point of anatomy and dance science education for dancers isn’t to make us feel ashamed of our bodies or our unhealthy habits, it’s to tell us what we can do better to be better dancers. It’s telling us how to avoid injury.

 

But sometimes, when I look at my bowlegs and shallow turnout and embarrassingly weak core, I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I’ve known about these “defects” in my body and I haven’t been able to fix them, despite my strong education in how they’re dangerous.  It becomes my fault if I get injured. As a result, I am terrified of injury.

 

Still, I do not want to fix my body, because fixing it suggests that there’s something to be ashamed of in the first place.

 

I want to be able to celebrate my body. Despite the bowlegs and improper foot alignment, I have never had an injury that has taken me completely out of dance for an extended length of time. That’s fucking amazing for someone that’s danced for thirteenish years and has done particularly high-impact, damaging dance styles (Irish Step, morris dance, pointe work…). I have to admit it’s luck, I seem to have an injury-resistant body at the moment. Because, at the end of the day, injury is often unavoidable for dancers and, while certain habits may help prevent it, nothing can actually prevent it (and someday my look will run out, whether I like it or not).

 

I’m not saying to completely abandon safe dance practices, because that’s ridiculous. There’s a reason why we warm-up, cooldown, fight for proper alignment, and try to dance within acceptable risk parameters.

 

But we can’t fix or change the bodies we have. My body is a result of good habits, bad habits (terrible habits), and training, but it’s a good body. It’s gotten me this far and it will keep going. Maybe someday I’ll start sorting out my shinbones, but right now, I’m dancing with them. I know the risks, but I would rather keep finding my pathways in movement than stop everything to fix myself before moving onwards.

 

And I hope, in the future, to see anatomy and alignment taught to dancers more as “this is how you work with your specific form of misalignment” instead of “this is proper alignment and deviations are dangerous and must be fixed.”

 

All bodies are good bodies. All dancing bodies are good for dancing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to improper alignment.

 

Carrying on the tradition

Tl;dr As I grow older, I am starting to regret my uninvolvement with Irish dance traditions and intend to change because moving the tradition forward is important to me.

 

Céline Tubridy died in late September. I never met her, but she is important to me, as an Irish dancer, as someone who kept an old tradition alive. She learned and held onto steps from the dancing master Dan Fury. As she moved towards alzheimers, she taught the steps to her husband, Michael Tubridy, who still teaches them today. Michael has visited Boston a couple of times, and I have had the honor of learning steps directly from him a total of once. The rest I learned through my teacher, Kieran Jordan.

 

That’s a lot of names, but what it represents is a lineage and it’s one I’m proud of. It’s where I come from. I don’t have a long, nonbinary history to link myself to (I wish I did), I’m really fucking confused about whether I’m Jewish…or Quaker…or Huguenot…or whatever. Modern and contemporary dance traditions are new and short. Irish dance tradition is my anchor in history and I’m honored to dance these steps and to know where they come from.

 

But it’s confusing too. When Céline died, I waffled about whether or not to write anything about what that meant for me and, by the time I decided I wanted to, it was just a little too late to avoid awkwardness. I feel like the paths I have taken away from Irish dance – mixing sean-nos with other percussive dance forms, never quite making the time to attend the main Irish cultural and dance events, the fact that I’m only a quarter Irish, always trying to dance to “untraditional” music and, yes, even my queerness (I’m not saying this feeling is Right) gives me less of a right to claim my heritage as an Irish Dancer, even when I continue to be one in any other dance space I enter.

 

At the same time, I’m watching the people who are the keepers of my tradition die. Beyond the fact that death is always awful on the personal scale, it’s not a terrible death, they’re old, it’s time, and I’m a strong believer in tradition as change. But, I can’t stop the deep curl of regret that I will never get to study with them. And, not in the case of Céline, but certainly in the case of Michael Tubridy and a few others, it is partially my fault. My teacher brings these people in, they teach workshops, they have been available to me, and I have just been too busy or stressed from high school or simply not committed enough to make the long journey. It’s a choice, it’s a completely understandable choice, but I regret it now.

 

Tradition changes, but it changes from somewhere, and I feel like I’m not grounded enough in this tradition to be able to change it. The moment when you realize you speak a language fluently is not the moment when you have a conversation in the language, it’s when you are able to make up a word in that language without the help of your native language that is completely logical within all linguistic parameters and completely understandable to a native speaker of the language. With Irish dance, I can copy the vocabulary, I can steal bits and pieces and use it, but I don’t understand it enough to create it. I’m proficient, not fluent.

 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, proficiency is wonderful and I love Irish dance, it has influenced my artistic practice from the very beginning and, at the end of the day, is my one, true dance love. That is undeniable. But, now I’ve had my time away, and my time failing to be part of the tradition, I’m realizing how important it is to me that the tradition doesn’t stop at me. I want it to go through me to the next generation. I want to be fluent.

 

Of course my teacher has other students, the tradition wouldn’t be lost if I chose to look the other way and do my weird performance art nonsense. But that’s not what I want. This is my lineage and I want to see it continue. I may have never met Céline Tubridy, but her dancing has shaped the kind of dancer I am, and what she gave me was valuable. I’d be a fool to stop it there and not carry on this tradition so others can learn from her too.

 

In other words, it’s time to get my ass in gear and start committing to connecting with Irish dance traditions beyond just showing up to class when it suits me.

 

Also: you can watch Céline dancing here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lMBQPr8Y9w

 

In search of a new gym (ie. community centers are great!)

Tl;dr In my search for a gym after I moved, I ended up finding a community center and regaining some faith in humanity.

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A few months ago, I wrote about some of my complicated feelings about fitness and working out and how I had managed to find a system that worked for me . I wrote it with the knowledge that I was about to lose access to my school’s gym and that I was also about to change countries. I was scared and worried that I was about to lose everything I had built up so carefully to forces beyond my control.

 

It was one of my first tasks when I moved in with my dad. I arrived at a funny time – most dance classes in Boston were closed for a summer break, so I felt the lack of movement in my life even more keenly. I forced myself back into my home workout a little too quickly (and was rewarded for my poor decisions with a sore body) because I was bored and had to be doing Something.

 

I searched the internet for some place small, calm, and cheap (I did not have a job at the time either) and got more and more stressed out. Gyms are scary for me. Gyms are places where Big Strong Jocks do Big Strong Things and are secretly judging me. I had managed to avoid those fears at my school because there was, at most, seven other people in the room with me and they were dancers. So, even if they were more fit than me, there was at least a commonality among us, we had a similar goal.

 

The thought of going into a completely new strange place with completely new strange people that would know nothing about me, but still have the ability to judge, petrified me. I kept writing “try Gym X” or “go to Y pilates class” on my schedule and then…not going.

 

And then, I was flipping through the brochure my dad got from our town’s community center and read that they had a “cardio fitness room”. It turns out that these two rooms in the basement of my local community center, one full of cardio machines, the other mainly full of weights, were completely free to use for town residents, and was a ten minute walk away from my house.

 

It wasn’t all the equipment I was used to (I also struggled to convert my treadmill use from kilometers to miles), but the main people that shared the space with me were much older than me and usually there to get out of the house, do exercise because it made them feel good, and maybe even socialize a bit, no one in the extreme weight-lifting region. It was relaxed, non-judgemental, and I could go off and do my own thing with no worry.

 

 

I had to adapt, but in doing so, I learned that my priority was not as much what exercises I was doing exactly, it was that I felt safe doing them.

 

More importantly, I realized that, even as we’re bemoaning how capitalism destroys everything, we still have beautiful little pockets of community-centered activity. I mean, I came home to discover my local library now lent out sewing kits as well as books. And this community center, paid for by tax dollars, exists to serve my town – it gives us a gym, ping-pong tables, classes specifically for to get old folks out of their houses, classes specifically for children and families, a job center to help residents get the work they need…I’m slowly getting to know the people and communities built around this gym, from the parents who come to run on a cardio machine every morning after they’ve sent their kids to school to the folks who come to deplete the weight room for their morning class and like to stop and chat while I stretch. We get to enjoy this wonderful service together.

 

In a time when we talk about individualism, about “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” and the American Dream, and the terribleness of capitalism, I am so glad that community centers still exist. We haven’t lost everything.

 

Libraries always do this for me, but it was nice to find a gym too.

 

We are still a community. There is no reason to lose hope in our world yet.