Besides serving in the kitchens at the Haven, I am also leading a series of improvisational, community dance workshops in The Haven’s Sanctuary space in order to investigate how dance and ritual theory can be used as a tool in the process of maintaining and constructing communities. When I speak of dance, I am speaking of community dance. Unlike ballet, community dance is supposed to be highly accessible, fun, and easy. Finding a definition for community dance, however, is not so easy. Whatever the reason for this difficulty, I’ve spent some time seeking out a good one.
This past week, I reached out to Emily Wright, a local dance-scholar studying the links between dance, community, and religion (how lucky am I that this person lives in Charlottesville!). Emily encouraged me to start by defining dance itself, before I try to define its deeper linkages with religion and community. She asked me, “What do you think dance is?” I nervously mumble-jumbled something incoherent, and then evaded the subject entirely by turning the question back on her.
Emily mentioned that her definition of dance is primarily situated upon conscious, aware movement. I understand her definition to mean that anytime we slow down enough to be aware of our movements as they relate to ourselves (dance is fascinatingly reflexive), to others, or to our spaces, we are dancing. Initially, I had thought that awareness is the very element dance would lack in its purest form; I thought that the process of maintaining awareness would cause the dancer to become estranged from the dance. I associated awareness with the brain, and therefore I was afraid that such a definition would place a disproportionate emphasis on cerebral knowledge, forcing the dancer to become disembodied.
But then I realized, as Sondra Horton Fraliegh notes in Dance and the Lived Body, that while dancing, the body can be at different times either the subject or the object of our awareness, and that both of these experiences qualify as ‘dance’. Fraleigh defines these two modes of awareness in terms of the body-subject and the body-object, and she adds that these modes of dance describes the way in which the dancer physically engages with their surroundings.
Emily says that dance can be as simple as reaching up for a glass from your cupboard, so long as you are consciously focusing on and being aware of this action and how they you are performing it in space. This example, of course, made me think of my work in the kitchen: reaching up (and down and sideways) for pots, glasses, mugs, knives, cutting boards, spatulas, trays, food, brooms, cloths— you name it! So, can dance be as simple as reaching up for a pot, cutting with a knife, or cracking an egg? I think so. But whether this dancing falls under body-object or body-subject depends, of course, on how you reach, cut, or crack,
Say we’re cracking eggs over the grill for hungry guests. The ease and efficiency with which a volunteer cracks eggs into the grill can be seen in their movement. If someone has never cracked eggs before, it will take them more time to fry a dozen eggs than it would an experienced volunteer, because the amateur volunteer is assessing for the first time how their body turns to retrieve the eggs, how their hands pick up and crack the eggs, how far to throw the egg shells. The amateur volunteer is slow because they are in the process of listening to their body, taking mental notes, and storing these notes away into their muscle memory. In this case, the amateur volunteer is in a sort of liminal state in which they are aware of developing a relationship to space. In this state they develop a “reflective position” and “become aware of [their] body as something to be reckoned with”.1 The new volunteer is in the process of deconstructing typical movements and becoming aware of new movements. Thus, he or she is in the body-object mode.
The experienced volunteer, on the other hand, operates smoothly and efficiently in the body-subject mode, because their knowledge of the space has already become ingrained in their muscle memory. They have developed that relationship to space, and are therefore aware and knowledgeable about its various, moving components. Their bodies understand the demands and the limitations placed on them in that space, and have already adjusted to move with considerable ease and efficiency within, and perhaps despite, these constraints. This level of understanding allows the volunteer to work much like Fraliegh’s dancer: “spontaneously and in the present moment… not anticipating or imagining it.”2 .The experienced has become aware of the movements necessary to the present situation, and therefore can move forward through the day in a relatively care-free way.
Okay, so dance is about deconstructing day-to-day movements to build up new movements, and the dancer is either becoming aware or has become aware of these new movements. These two insights, I think, serve as the scaffolding for my definition of community dance. My hope is that through community dance, community members can deconstruct negative modes of interaction in order to construct more positive modes of interaction amongst each other. I hope that when we are dancing in community, we are becoming aware of better, alternative ways of relating, so that eventually, we will have become aware of these behaviors well enough to utilize them in our day-to-day lives.
1. Sondra Horton Fraleigh. “Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics”, p. 13.
2. Ibid. p. 14.