Dance Revolution: June 7, 2013

Bjorn and I attempting to look like we're dancing the tango. Really, the class danced much better than this.

This post is about service; but it’s not about anything that I have done. Rather, it is about the amazing work my friend D is doing. What he is doing not only benefits others, but is mind-opening and beautiful as well. 

D is a music therapist, and also teaches a class called “Corporal Expressions” at IUNA’s (Instituto Universitario Nacional del Arte) dance campus in the Loria barrio. Full disclosure: I’m a dance newb. Or boob (as in, stunningly ignorant about it, not a female body part). Before, my tastes ran more toward America’s Best Dance Crew and Jon Chu’s web series, LXD (The League of Extraordinary Dancers) than ballet or modern dance.


I liked ABDC and LXD more because it easily made sense to me: People crafted their movements around the rhythm. (Plus, I may like acronyms a bit too much.) The beats functioned much in the same way a sonnet does for poetry: The beats set up rules and boundary lines, but within that confined space breathtaking invention and creation can happen. I marveled at the grace and physical dexterity of the dancers; the daring, acrobatic movements that could be done to pulsing rhythm.


But the body can respond to so much more.


However, D’s class did start with some rhythm drills. The students voiced increasingly complicated beats while using their hands as metronomes. (Much harder than it sounds.) Then, D’s other class joined them.


They were no ordinary students. D also does music therapy at a special education school. They were about high-school age, shy and sweetly awkward. But when they performed an Argentinian samba, they were all smiles and confidently waved their scarves while doing their steps. We liked it so much we had them do it twice.


Afterward, both classes danced together, first splitting up into pairs to mirror each other’s actions, and then dancing together in a big, joyous group. Afterward, everyone sat in a big circle. The special education teachers explained D’s project at the school, which is about learning music through movement and how to express oneself through physical movement.


Or something like that. My Spanish is not very good. But I clearly got the message this project was  important to D’s special-education students. One student said the only time she got to dance was during this project. Another didn’t have the words to say what it meant to her; she simply cried.


We understood.


The special-education students left and the IUNA students continued with their class. Then the magic happened: I saw sound become movement (or did the movement become sound?)


But first, I thought they were crazy. D had them modulate their voices to reflect certain characteristics: fast, slow, high-pitched, low-pitched, nasally, growly, loud, soft, and more. The students demonstrated each vocal facet using gibberish and nonsense syllables. But he wouldn’t let them sing. It had to be a pure sound of that vocal characteristic.


I sat mystified through the exercises. Then D separated them into two groups. One group made the vocalizations, and the other group moved to them.


And readers, I saw it. I saw what nasally tones looked like, soft and loud ones, even how sneezes, hiccups and laughter can look in dance. The dancers were intentional with their movements, yet graceful and pliant. They were fully aware of their bodies, yet moved easily within them. I don’t have the words to describe what it felt like witnessing people’s interior interpretations of the outside world in such a tangible, visible way.


But I do feel like I understand dance better.


I’ll be able to do what I do now at classical music concerts. No, not sleep. (Well, I’d probably sleep if I didn’t have a vested interest in it: I’m trying to relearn how to play the cello.) When I watch a classical music concert, I spend the bulk of my time looking at the cellists: how they hold their bow, how much they jiggle their hands when they do vibrato, how the cello rests against their bodies, etc. I isolate what they sound like and evaluate it, and then see how that sound adds to and round out the sound of the entire orchestra. (It’s fun doing this with the other instruments, too.)


By seeing movement deconstructed in this way, I know what I’ll be looking for at the next dance performance I see. I’ll be looking for the cellos, so to speak: the dancers’ reactions to musical phrasing, how bright notes are interpreted compared to more mellow ones, how loudness compares to softness, etc. I’ll be looking for explanations rendered in movement, rather than just physical responses to rhythm.


Even if there’s no sound.


D said he also teaches a class where dancers respond to paintings and other objects. And I get it (I think). There are some things that can be found in every genre, whether it be singing, playing  a musical instrument, painting, sculpture, writing. Things like smallness, bigness, degrees of fluidity, symmetry and yes, rhythm. Because they are common, they can translate. Because of the translation, they transcend. And when that happens, everyone’s knowledge is elevated.


I’m not the only one for whom D has helped dance come alive. After D’s class, I mentioned that it must have taken many years of training for those dancers to be so in tune with their bodies, to learn how to express themselves so freely and with such agility.


“No,” said D, “they’re not dancers.” Or rather, they are not dance students. They were just IUNA students taking that class.


I was moved (literally) that such metamorphosis can take place by discovering how to express yourself physically. I learned so much — and in such a beautiful way. Thanks for the experience, D.


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