Earlier this year, as I've mentioned, I choreographed a trio that two of my sisters and I performed several times over the summer. One of those performances was at our church, a Baptist church. For those who aren't aware of denominational stereotypes, one of the Baptist stereotypes is the eleventh commandment against dancing (and drinking and smoking). Our particular church gathering is pretty relaxed as far as Baptists go (we have drums in the song service, and that's a big deal for Baptists), but even so, we had to run the mere idea of a dance the by worship committee, pastor, and the deacon board before being given the go-ahead.
I've been dancing since age six. While public speaking and solo singing still causes serious nerves, I almost never get nervous before dancing. Dancing is just a thing that I do; it's part of my regular life. But that Sunday, as we took our places to perform what we had been working on for a month and a half, what had been in my head for nearly a year, I was nervous. I expected at least a few people in that congregation to fully hate this, on principle. I was also having trouble sticking one of the relevés in rehearsal and under the self-inflicted pressure to be perfect I could not allow that.
My entrance was a brush-step-step into a pas de valse, then a hold while my sister entered from the opposite side. As we launched into our choreography for the chorus, something I've pondered offstage rather often popped into my head and I pictured myself -- only for a moment -- in the throne room of God. I consciously told myself, "I am dancing for God," and there was a moment where I finally let the performance go. I surrendered myself to the choreography my body knew.
I have never done that before in a performance. I'm always considering what comes next, thinking about fixing the things I tend to mess up on -- plié deeper, hold the core on any kind of demi-pointe, turn out for Pete's sake... Dancers talk all the time about 'getting lost in the dance' and despite having been performing since age six, I've never actually experienced this. I'm almost scared to. As soon as I let myself get lost in the dance -- so the reasoning goes -- the technique will fall to pieces and by the time I notice it will be unsalvageable. And if there is one thing about the stage that terrifies me, it is improvising anything, but especially a dance. In dance you have to improvise with perfect technique and end up rejoining the set choreography on the proper foot... oh, and dynamics and timing and stuff.
Back to the point: the moment where I think I really finally put my dancing -- at least for one performance -- in God's hands. I don't actually remember anything specific about the rest of the performance, but I do remember thinking it went quite well. The video bears that out. After the service, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had just trampled the number one rule of being a Baptist at the front of the very sanctuary. I knew there were some people in that congregation who are just as fed up with Baptist fundamentalism as I am, but I also knew there were some diehard Baptist traditionalists. I was bracing myself for some strong negativity mixed with the compliments. To my great surprise, the angry comments never came, but one consistent thread seemed to join the positive responses. The fullest verbalisation of it came from the pastor: "It moved me to tears, especially the part near the end where [youngest sister] knelt down. It just reminded me of the importance of kneeling in worship before the Lord."
That comment surprised me. And consistently the comments were about the ending, that kneel, how it made folks misty-eyed. I was not expecting a response like that.
Personally, I find it hard to know what effect a dance has on people. I've been performing them so long and from such a young age that even I rarely actually get to watch a dance outside of rehearsals, and when I do, I'm usually watching the technique and the musicality and the use of pliés or the line of the arm or something -- I'm so engrossed in the details that make up the whole that I have a hard time seeing the whole. As a result, I often suspect the average dance audience only shows up because either a) their kid is in it, or b) it's perceived as really high-society and upper-crusty and therefore it's something you should do if you want to look high-society and upper-crusty. I always sort of assumed someone without a dance background could not be really inspired or moved by watching somebody else perform a dance, even if it was good choreography and well executed. After all, the dancers are up on the stage doing wonderful things with decades of training and the audience is sitting in upholstered theatre seats, likely digesting a rich meal and trying to look impressive to the folks around them. Can dance even awake any feeling at all in a non-dancer? I didn't know, but I assumed it didn't. People talk all the time about how music moves them and makes them happy or cheers them up and how stage plays make them cry or make them think. But no-one talks about their response to watching dance. Is it too sublime for words to convey or simply too boring? I had no way of knowing. I asked my non-dancing family, but they didn't seem to understand the question.
The other thing that took me aback about the general theme of comments following that church performance was that it was the ending, the kneel, that moved them. The ending was actually the choreographically weakest part of the dance. It was literally just two consecutive repeats of the port de bras from the second verse at a painstakingly slow rate as the youngest one knelt on centre stage. I just tacked something on to run out the music (I was NOT going to cut it -- I loathe it when people chop off the song they're dancing to mid-note. Ever heard about the satisfying quality of the final perfect cadence?). But it seemed to be the most powerful part of the performance for people.
Now, I've kind of got myself into doing a solo for this same church for Christmas. I'm fine with dancing at church again, but as I've (probably) mentioned on this blog before, I really don't like solos. I don't like watching them, I don't like dancing them, and I don't like choreographing them. The one I originally proposed to the church has already been choreographed, technically, but the thing is, I do this thing where I choreograph things WAY above my actual skill level (hoping that some angel dancer with loads of experience will join up with me and perform my work while I choreograph it). I could alter it, at the risk of forgetting my own choreography because of confusion between the original version and my modified version. I will have to modify it, however, I just flat-out don't know how to make a solo 'powerful.' Give me a (theoretical) stage laden with twelve dancers and I can make magic happen. But give me one person and I draw a total blank. How do you add dynamics and pacing with only one person? Even with two people you can utilise some give-and-take, push-and-pull, opposition or symmetry or unison as needed. You don't have that kind of variety with a soloist and that makes it so much harder to give both the dancer and the audience anything to connect to. In a duo, there's another dancer to keep the audience's eyes and the other dancer's use of space grounded. In a solo, there is no point of reference. The soloist is self-contained. (Incidentally, that is what I hate most about modern/contemporary dancing -- how the movement all comes from 'within' the dancer rather than from interacting -- meaningfully -- with people or even the music.)
I feel this need to 'top' what I did this summer -- though the response to that was far kinder than anything I expected. I want to be able to move the congregation/audience like that again. But how did the dance this summer bring such a positive response? How did it move the congregation so deeply? Was it really my choreography or was it my surrender? In my intellect I think I know the answer, but it hasn't pervaded my reason. My pride wants a formula, a step-by-step guide, but I don't think there is one. Art is rarely (if ever) formulaic -- if it was, it wouldn't be art. This has been my cry for years as someone just learning to appreciate art, but as an aspiring artist, the idea of making this easier has such an allure...