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.

Critiquing the un-critiqueable

Twenty years ago, Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, declared that she felt that Bill T. Jones’ work exploring his own AIDS diagnosis and the terminal illnesses of his performers made his work “undiscussable” – beyond the reach of criticism. She coined the term “victim art” and vented her frustration at the way she felt manipulated by art that seemed more about issues than it was about aesthetics.  Now, I don’t agree with Croce, but I’m finding myself this morning sympathizing with her frustration.

I’m frustrated because I’m struggling with another type of performance that we do treat as undiscussable, performances we don’t dare to critique, not because the performers are victims but because they’re just so darn cute.  I’m talking about performances that are so far away from Bill T. Jones as to hardly be in the same universe.  I’m talking about the school concert.

I have been part of school concerts as a music teacher, classroom teacher, director, and parent.  I’ve spent long hours rehearsing kids for all sorts of shows, some good, some bad, some cringe-worthy.  I’ve toiled in the trenches of recorders, boomwhackers, and box steps.  I know how much work it is to put on one of these shows, even the worst of them.

So, I’m reluctant to criticize, really I am.  But, I just can’t hold it in any more.  We need to take a hard look at this ritual and ask ourselves some big questions.  Like, why in the world are we doing this? What’s the value? What’s the point?

I attended the annual concert at my children’s school recently and found myself so uncomfortable watching it that I couldn’t stand to stay past when my children performed.  Part of that discomfort was the hard metal chairs and part of it was a sinking feeling of frustration at the image of the child that we seem determined to cultivate in our culture.  Their concert was full of what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of events: lip-synching, children trying to sing over-top of a recorded vocal track, and vague, gestural dancing whose lazy choreography hides some children in the back rows while others are featured.

When did we decide that children’s voices needed to be covered up by adult vocals?  When did it become okay for children to pretend to sing instead of actually singing? What’s the value in spending hours and hours of class time preparing a performance whose relationship to the Arts curriculum is tangential at best, if it exists at all?

Here’s what happens when children are forced to sing over recorded music: they don’t sing, they yell.  They force their little voices to shout so that they can hear themselves.  They can’t hear their peers so they can’t match their pitches to each other and they aren’t singing melodically at all both because the recordings often offer a very poor vocal model for children (a low chest voice instead of the head voice that children use) and because the recording is overpowering so they loose the melodic line almost as soon as they start to sing.

So, here’s an alternative: sing acapella.  If there isn’t someone in your school who can accompany the children on a guitar, a piano, or a ukulele (anything, really, most of this music isn’t complicated), let them sing without accompaniment.  I’ve accompanied kids on a tambourine and a hand drum just as a way of keeping the beat for them.  They sounded beautiful.  Another idea: sing with them.  No one expects you to be Celine Dion but I’d much rather hear children singing along with their teacher, regardless of her singing skills, than have to sit through another concert of yelling.

And then we come to the dance, oh, the dance.  For me, this is the hardest part.  It is like nails on a chalkboard having to sit through a dance performance that clearly has no relationship with the children who are performing it.  Our Arts curriculum in Ontario is very centred on children’s creativity and on facilitating children’s creative ideas as they develop in sophistication through the grades.  It is not about step-touching your way to a more developed understanding of compliance as an educational value.  Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 7.48.35 PM

I had to watch my beautiful boy struggle through a dance that used none of his skills as a creative mover, none of his choreographic ideas, and none of his physical skills but instead featured him repeatedly being bumped from both sides as his classmates struggled to maintain the two horizontal lines they had been placed in and two of his classmates lip synched and danced at the front of the stage.  He came home crying several times prior to the concert because he was so frustrated.  Where is the pedagogy, the inclusiveness, the art, frankly, in that?

That these performances are accepted unquestioningly by so many parents and teachers speaks powerfully to our image of the child.  We blithely accept that children don’t have a voice, they don’t have agency, and they don’t have anything to contribute.  We have to do it for them.  We have to sing for them (or some adult does), we have to micro-manage their movements, and we have to limit their expressive choices so severely that they’re left with only two options: comply or act out.

I spent part of last week at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) conference in Toronto.  Besides taking so many notes that I felt like my hand might fall off, I was struck by the enormous contrast in the image of the child between the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and the average North American public school.  As part of the conference, I got to visit the Wonder of Learning exhibit that will be housed in the basement of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel until November 23rd of this year (you should go!).  Included in that exhibit is the documentation  that is featured in the Reggio Children book Dialogues with Places. This documentation tells the story of a group of children who wanted to prepare a gift for a new school building.

“The children explored the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre while construction on the site was still underway. They chose a space that was interesting to them and designed a work of art, a gift conceived in harmony and in dialogue with the chosen place, respecting its identity while at the same time modifying it.”

While the photographs of their work are stunning, seeing a video of the dance they created was a revelation.  This was a dance of running, of leaping, of hiding behind pillars, of chasing, of spinning, and of falling down – not a step-touch or a gesture to be seen.  It was a dance that, while guided by an atelierista (artist-in-residence), was of the children and their creative voices were both strong and visible in the work.  It was a piece of art that was both discussable and critiqueable because it was thoughtfully created with children not pinned on them like ill-fitting clothing.  It was not about them being cute and it did not treat them like objects who exist to be passively viewed by adults.  It was a performance that celebrated their agency, their energy, and their individuality.  It was beautiful.

What is stopping us from giving children these same opportunities to express themselves?  The world is changing so that our creative skills are becoming more and more valuable but we are, largely, still stuck in a model of education that values compliance far ahead of creativity.  We do children an immense disservice by valuing their cuteness ahead of all else.  They are people with ideas and opinions and agency; they deserve to be treated that way… yes, even at the school concert.  Discuss.