Distancing tips from a dancer

A former student of mine posted a very funny meme today. I don’t know who created it but hats off to them for hitting the nail on the head (if it was you, please let me know so that I can give credit where it’s due).

Here it is:

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The image that accompanies it is particularly hilarious for those of us who’ve spent lots of time in contemporary dance classes and movement workshops. We see a group of people, all standing, facing in different directions, all between 6-10 feet apart. This is a typical way that modern, experimental or contemporary dance classes start, everyone in their own personal space (your space bubble), moving through the general space (the space in the room) without getting too close to each other. Often, dancers will start off moving slowly and accelerate as the exercise continues; what is easy at a slow tempo becomes very challenging the faster you go. As you move quickly through the space (yes, that’s really how we talk) you have to change directions or reverse if you get too close to someone else. You become hyper-aware of where everyone is. We do this kind of activity all the time. In our world it’s normal… although I’m sure to an outside viewer it looks a little odd, perhaps even slightly unhinged.

I was out in public briefly this afternoon, grabbing milkshakes with my kids at a local ice cream place. It was a very hot day and we had to wait on the sidewalk for our milkshakes to be ready. As people moved in and out of the line, and up and down the sidewalk, we had to make room for each other, adjusting our positions relative to the ice cream, the curb and the road. While I adjusted automatically, I watched other people really struggle to adapt to the changing environment while maintaining personal space. And then this genius meme landed in my social media feed and I wondered what exactly I learned during those many barefoot years that might help everyone adapt during these distant COVID times. So… here’s my best attempt at distilling more than a dozen years of contemporary dance training into 6 easy-ish tips.

  1. Be aware: You’re going to have to put down the phone for this to work, folks. Distraction is the enemy of spatial awareness. The first step to knowing who’s around you and where they are is knowing where you are in space and you can’t do that if you’re staring down at your phone.
  2. Slow down: There’s a reason we start our spatial awareness exercises slowly in a dance class. Moving at a slower tempo is far less challenging than moving quickly. While you can’t always control where other people are going to move, you can control your own movements and maintaining that control is much more straightforward when you take things slowly.
  3. Walking goes all ways: One of the dance classes I took as an undergraduate could easily have been re-named “The Walking Backwards Class”. Our teacher was very intent on getting us to be competent retrograders (retrograde means performing movement in reverse, like turning on the rewind button on a VCR). So, to build that skill we walked forward, then backward. We ran forward, then backward. We skipped and leaped forward, then backward (this is much harder than it sounds). What we quickly learned is that human beings are very bad at moving, as dancers say, in the backspace. Our eyes are in front and that’s how we travel through the world: facing forward, moving forward. Reversing and moving sideways take practice but they are essential skills if you’re going to maintain your personal space in public. You have to be able to move out of someone’s space if they’re moving towards yours.
  4. Kidwatching: Have you ever watched young children play tag? Have you seen how they change direction? Let me tell you what they don’t do: they don’t lock their knees and try to look cool. They bend their knees, they lower their centre of gravity, and they turn on a dime. If you want to move through a crowd with agility, you’re going to have to give up on looking cool. The fastest way to change direction is to lower your body weight by bending your knees and sticking out your tuchus. It also helps to counterbalance with your arms. You may not be the most chill-looking person in the grocery store but you might avoid getting too close to COVID Mary who’s coughing her way through the cereal aisle.
  5. Eyes up, ears open: Most people, unless they have extensive movement training, indicate pretty clearly where they’re about to move. If you really watch them, you can tell, through their eye focus, their arm movement, or the way they shift their body weight, which direction they’re about to go before they go there. You can also use your peripheral vision, every dancer’s best friend, to help you anticipate the movement of people who are beside or behind you. You’ve got to be looking up at people for that to work. Eye contact (particularly my eyebrow-raised-vice-principal-stare) is also really good at communicating your desire for personal space. Listening for people, particularly indoors, also helps. If you’re paying attention, you can hear people moving around you and you can move out of their path before they get to yours.
  6. Practice: All of these techniques work for dancers because we practice them… a lot. You’ll get better at observing and responding to movement the more you do it, I promise. And to everyone who told me I was wasting my time doing a dance degree, I now curtsey ironically in your general direction. Throw roses if you wish, just don’t get too close.

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