A stampede of children gallop through the dance studio, arms zipping back and forth like lizard tongues, squealing and skidding to a halt in front of the wall before they veer back around to regain lost speed. The game is freeze dance and I think my movement instruction was, “Run around like electric monkeys!”
Abstract? Definitely. Hard to execute? Not in the least. Teaching groups of six through ten year-olds at summer dance camps, I’m reminded of children’s deep capacity for movement interpretation and it reenergizes my reverence for kinesthetic synthesis.
One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for kinesthesia is, “A sense mediated by receptors located in the muscles, tendons and joints and stimulated by bodily movements and tensions.” And for synthesis, “The combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole.”
We synthesize our kinesthetic perceptions of the world when we combine diverse elements or ideas using the tool of our ‘felt sense’. In other words – our bodies. I could yell out simpler freeze dance commands, such as, “Skip!” or “Bounce!” or “Only shoulder movement!” and I often include these options in the game. But what I’m reminded of this week as I work, is how willing kids are to personify seemingly dissonant ideas with complete commitment. Electric monkeys? We know electric and we know monkey, but what does it mean to be both at once? Children often relish the opportunity to blend dissonance into coherence – it is one of the many reasons why their light is so precious amidst the more heady and conforming aspects of society. Not only do they take on these challenges with abandon, they are willing to access their kinesthetic awareness to do so, which in my opinion, is one of our most profound human capabilities. Physical improvisation is a particularly scary prospect for many adults who learn to avoid their bodies and in doing so deny the information stored within this wonderful resource. But before we decide what is ‘foolish’ and what is ‘mature’, before we learn that there are behavioral norms for grown ups and before we heed these behavioral norms steadfastly to gain acceptance, we know the true essence of play. We know it when we’re young. And then we forget.
The electric monkeys, the lazy bumblebees and the saltwater taffy parrots continue overtaking the dance studio and eventually the game becomes even more abstract than it was to begin with.
“Dance the color blue!”
The kids don’t even hesitate. They are knee deep in the moment and the moment is governed by the color blue. They don’t let their minds cut off the instincts of their muscles. They navigate with the compass of their body. Modern dance stereotypes often play on this super abstraction – making fun of what some may see as vague and overly dramatic movement. What happens during this particular game of freeze dance is just the opposite. It’s what creates the ‘it’ factor in performers – when the beauty of kinesthetic synthesis meets the prowess of technique. These kids are learning all about technique at dance camp and it’s easier for some more than others. What they all bring to the table though, is a willingness to let the body speak and to let dissonant ideas meet each other in a place beyond limitation. It reminds me to go for it when I’m making art. To never get stuck behind the phrase,
“I can’t think of anything new to do.”
Perhaps you have to play freeze dance every day for two weeks straight to remember it, but the world is not missing new ideas. We adults, afraid to use our entire vessel in the exploration of an incongruent yet divine world, are only missing the willingness to try them out.
The night that I went to a club and watched them form a circle, I thought I might pass out. I thought I might lose it, for a moment, amidst rising tremors of joy. The first person to dance in the center articulated a pressing truth with his body and it struck me like a gong. It marked me.
In his uncensored movement I understood that we humans are also animals. Vibrating energy. Wordless light and shadow. Instinct below reasoning. I understood that we need to express ourselves against the backdrop of rhythm. We need to use our bones and muscles to process and purge. We need to dance and be witnessed. We need to be willing to be both the thing that contains the circle and the circle’s center. We need to practice movement outside of classrooms as much as we do inside of them. Dance, before it is anything else, is communal, spontaneous, unscripted and free.
The circle, or cipher, that took hold of me that night eight years ago, was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil inside a low-lit hip-hop club. The club was dominated by a group of street dancers who were passionately integrating hip-hop into their own cultural dance vocabulary. They were amplifying hip-hop’s growing presence on the global stage.
Whether we’re talking about a dance technique with roots in the spontaneous freestyle of a cipher or a genre predominately based in the classroom, I believe in the power of igniting our improvisational fire. I believe in the power of witnessing each other create movement, on the spot, from a deep non-analytical, internal sense. And I believe that if we are to come alive as dancers, this needs to be foundationally linked with our technique.
In Rio de Janeiro, I returned often to that club, with the same group of dancers who first inspired me. Whenever we made plans to meet, they always referred to it as training.
“Let’s meet on Friday night at the club to train,” they’d say. It took a few times before I felt the impact of that statement. Before I really saw how many different forms training can take and how important it is to broaden the contexts within which we associate learning.
In the studio classes I teach, I talk about hip-hop history. I encourage my students to find opportunities with groups of friends or in clubs (if they’re old enough to get in) where they can train in the art of freestyle. Where they can lose themselves in the movement and music and energy of the group. Where they can wrestle with the fear of being seen and experience the power of their own instincts. I know this fear and this power well. They are things I continue to encounter in myself every day, even as I teach.
In my teen class, we take about ten minutes each time to do an exercise I’ve come to refer to as Dancing in the Dark. I dim the lights, the mirrors go out of focus and the dancers move away from their usual positions on the floor. I turn a song on loud and let them go for it. Sometimes I call out instructions to focus the freestyle - qualities or styles or parts of the body to zero in on. Sometimes I say nothing at all. What I see in their silhouettes is uncensored vibrating energy. It’s their essence - climbing, crawling, screaming out through the movement. It’s their willingness to be present - to be guided by music and to be sensitive to impulse.
When I turn the lights on, the difference is noticeable. My student’s expressions are relieved. Their shoulders are lower. Their hips are relaxed. Their minds are loosened and remain loosened for the rest of class and choreography and repetitive technical drills.
At the end of class we take Dancing in the Dark into the next phase of training. We move into a group cipher, where we can experience being called in and out of the circle, looking right at each other as we dance, bravely sharing our instinctual relationship to music with our fellow dancers. I believe this second part is integrally linked with the first. We free the internal fire. Then we burn in front of others. The animal within can be contacted through the freedom of improv. The essence behind the human can be seen. The heart behind the mind. I’m certain we need both to create.
Every time I dance I remember those circles in Rio, during sticky tropical twilights, where I first tried to surrender and felt the thick texture of fear grip my muscles. I remember the moments when I let go and the incandescent lightness that consumed all my thoughts, that turned my body into a series of perfectly timed heartbeats. Every time I dance I think of those nights and I can’t wait to see what my fear and my animal have to say to each other. I can’t wait to see where the animal will lead me next.
Dance Will Save The Planet: Field notes from an elementary school
by Jocelyn Edelstein
I've recently discovered a profound new level of hope. It lives in a wordless place - in a small elementary school cafeteria - in a circle that is formed on the painted line of a blue basketball key. It is here, along with twenty to thirty kids, that I decipher the ecstatic code of music with limbs and bones and muscle. It is here, I become certain, that the antidote for a world hardened by fear, is a new generation opened by movement. It is here, looking into the shining eyes of youth enraptured with dance, that I believe the best preparation for a warm, uncertain future, is for all our children to be educated in the coexistence of flexibility and strength.
Two months ago I started a new job. Thanks to the Oregon Arts Tax, I'm a part time dance teacher at a public elementary school in Portland. This means that for multiple thirty minute sessions, three days a week, I get to turn up the volume on the stereo and encourage every child, between 5 and 10-years-old, to anchor their minds in rhythm and their bodies in movement, right smack in the middle of the school day.
I've taught this age group before and this in itself is no novelty. What is notably different, however, is the context.
The opportunity for children to utilize their physical energy in diverse ways and assimilate knowledge through kinesthetic channels, has been neither amply nor consistently available in the public school system for quite some time. Since measure five wreaked havoc in the 90s, the way kids related to the arts in school and the way artists envisioned school-based teaching careers, was indefinitely altered. I can say, that not once, in the last nine years of teaching dance, did I imagine this position as an option. Salaried art teachers have simply been a public school rarity for a long, long while.
But here I am. With large groups of open-minded, intuitive, physically intelligent kids, who are absolutely aching for more chances to revel in the unspoken secret of music, to experience the satisfaction of syncopating movement with other people and to empower themselves through one of the most human tools we have - our body.
It is amazing to me how readily the children I encounter in class, hook onto the universal principles of dance - ones that can easily translate into essential components for being alive - our relationship to space, time, shape and other movers, the implementation of quality and the force of impact.
The understanding that there are various types of learners and the need for versatile teaching methods that apply to diverse learning styles is not new. I feel confident, especially after witnessing the wonderful work of my colleagues at school, that this is being enacted in their classrooms in many different ways.
The new territory I believe we enter in dance class, is the opportunity to learn how to cooperate in non-verbal, kinesthetic, spatial and musical formats. Learning how to tune into someone else's movement is a humanity enhancing skill. Being able to find tempo with a group of people is not only empowering, it allows for new solutions to emerge - solutions that aren't stymied by verbal misunderstanding, by tones of voice, by lack of desired vocabulary.
This past week I experimented with a new exercise in the classroom. I gave each of my 3rd, 4th and 5th graders a group challenge. The rules of the challenge were simple - they had to form the shape I drew on the dry erase board, as a group, without using words.
Not one child was daunted. Rather, they relished the challenge as I watched - stunned and moved - while all cliques, opinions and backstories disappeared. While every person in the group became a part of the moving orb of wide-eyed humans, gleefully signaling each other, with hands and gazes, as the shape took form. Every single group accomplished this, in silence.
Wow, I thought, as I watched them find new pathways.
Wow, I thought again, as I witnessed that everyone had a role to play in the formation of a new pattern.
This is the thing we most need to learn to do as a planet.
To put idle chatter and accusing diatribes aside. To listen in on the deeper pulsing directive. To look everyone in the eye and move as a group into a shape that will better nurture the world.
The younger generations deserve the chance to cultivate this practice on a daily basis through every channel we have available. They deserve the opportunity to familiarize themselves with an abundance of cooperative platforms. They deserve the time to develop this skill set and grow a sweet, firm confidence in their ability to relate to the world with positive impact.
For they are the ones, that while using the globally reaching, revolutionary power of social media, will undoubtedly need to dip into a complimentary well of knowledge.
Their knowledge of the felt sense, the lived experience and the understanding of how to move successfully through actual space with other human bodies - so that when the compass of our future is placed in their hands, they have the unspoken instinct to navigate as a collective.
On a sticky evening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I sat behind a tripod, peering at the screen of a small HD camcorder as my friend and his mom let me interview them about life, dance and surviving in Brazil on a very limited income.
My friend, who I’d known since he was a skinny 18-year-old boy wearing oversized newsy caps, had transformed into a muscled 25-year-old-man with short dreads and silver spectacles. He’d always had a way of bridging the space between high concept and simple truth, with a heart-centered perspective.
While speaking about the importance of unity, he paused mid-sentence to seek out a more tactile representation for his thoughts. He glanced at his mom and asked her to give him her hand. Lacing his fingers in hers he said,
“When a circle is formed it’s the symbol of union. This union allows us to circulate energy. This energy is what we call love.”
Expanding and shrinking the circle within their interlocked fingers, he demonstrated how to stay linked while responding to movement with pliable ease.
“When there’s flexibility in love, there is more power,” he smiled.
In essence, the circle has more strength when it can bend and undulate with the velocity of movement or change.
This isn’t just high concept - this is proven in physics and executed in architecture. It’s a truth that scientists use as well as dancers. It’s somewhere in our human psyche – the knowledge that the circle has to form and then the circle has to flex.
It’s been eight months since I was last in Brazil and when I’m not a filmmaker in Rio de Janeiro, I’m an elementary school dance teacher in Portland, Oregon. In both of these seemingly discordant worlds, I’m yearning to discover an equally discordant piece of information. I’m yearning to discover what aspects of our humanity we will most need to reconcile a rapidly warming world. I wonder, with shallow breath during sleepless dawns, how we will collectively handle the global climate crisis as it worsens. I wonder, beyond the tangible, necessary, overdue and self-sacrificing measures we must all be willing to take, what deep human well we will draw upon to get us the rest of the way there. How will we stand as a united front, so we can move the planet and ourselves from one side of this crisis to the other?
In the gym, on an unusually sunny January afternoon in Portland, twenty-eight first graders look at me wide eyed as I hold a stuffed frog in my arms. I tell them the story of how this small frog traveled through the Land Of Froo Froo, across the snowy mountains and over the lava bridge, until she reached the castle of a very grumpy king. They lean forward in their cross-legged position and practically tip onto their tummies, as I explain how the frog gathered all of her courage to perform a dance for the king, hoping that in a fit of inspiration, he'd overturn the unjust law that prohibited Froo Froo-ians the right to dance. (If you didn't know this part of make-believe history, there was a terrible decree in 17fluffywiggle20 that no one in the land of Froo Froo could move in any way that resembled dancing and Froo Froo-ians have been living stiffly under the law ever since).
At the school where my part time dance teacher persona operates, children learn about different life guidelines
and these guidelines are incorporated, when possible, into daily curriculum.
Things like cooperation, resourcefulness, trustworthiness and courage.
After my story about the brave little frog and her journey to dance for the king (including her subsequent success overturning the anti-dance law - i.e. Frog V. King) the kids line up against the side wall and prepare to work on their core strength, their spatial acuity and their buoyancy. Or put more simply, they prepare to jump like small frogs along a green painted line that takes them from one side of the gym to the other.
I instruct them to move one at a time, to keep one frog paw on each side of the line as they jump and to wait on the other side until every frog makes it across. I know they're excited about jumping, I know they are ready to impersonate the brave little frog from the tale I spun and I know they'll giggle and squeal as they revel in the satisfaction of pushing against gravity. But I don't anticipate what they'll do when they reach the other side. I don't imagine suddenly bearing witness to a profound display of teamwork, as twenty-eight six-year-olds show me the counterpart to courage.
The first child to froggy jump across the green line, (which is clearly imagined to be the treacherous lava bridge our protagonist traveled on her way to see the king), is Jack. When Jack gets to the other side, he immediately begins calling out the name of the next little girl who’s waiting to jump.
"Annie!" he cries, "Annie, keep going, I'm here! Annie! You can do it!"
He yells out to her like this, the entire time she jumps the line, until she makes it to the other side. When Annie gets to Jack, she begins screaming the name of their next classmate alongside him, clapping her hands wildly. And so on and so forth - every child that makes it across joins the group and begins to call the next brave jumper to the other side of the gym.
The expression on their face when they begin the journey across looks like courage infused with ecstatic relief. The relief of being seen and valued. The relief of being driven by en-courage-ment from their community. And so the courage builds. The consuming cacophony that accompanies the final member of the class is outright jubilant. It is dramatically heightened because at this point the stakes are clear. NO ONE will be left behind. And finding themselves so close to getting the whole group across the divide, this class of twenty-eight first graders, will not settle for twenty-seven.
I find myself wondering why, as adults, we so often lose our deep inner knowing for how communities function
successfully and for what individuals need to not only survive, but to thrive. Why do we lose our basic ability to
encourage each other with wild, sincere abandon, in the simplest and greatest of tasks?These 6-year-olds tapped right into an important universal code. We feel braver when our community bears wide-eyed-witness to our challenges, loving us amidst our fear and our confidence. We feel braver when someone waits on the other side, reminding us over and over, “I’m here!” We feel braver when someone promises to call out our name until we make it all the way across.
As we move forward and the crisis of climate change begins to make a tangible and disturbing impact on the places still largely insulated from its effects, we will need to rapidly join forces and figure out how to save whatever we can or how to survive in the midst of what we cannot save. Blame and villainization will have no place because we will have no time. We will have no time for rigidity. We will need to look for answers everywhere.
We will need to form a circle and figure out where the flex of that circle originates. We will need to bend and undulate with the forces of change without breaking the circle we’ve formed. We will need to call each other’s names over and over and over.
In Brazil, on that warm, sticky night, my camera battery blinked an alarming five minutes left of charge, but I knew not to rush my friend and his mom. I knew not to break the flow of the interview.
Hands still intertwined, my friend looked at his mother and searched for words to wrap up his metaphor.
“If we leave the circle, if we abandon each other, we…”
She cut in without hesitation, looking directly at my camera and finished his sentence,
“We lose everything.”