Danceworks Performance Company’s 20th-anniversary season marks my sixth with the company, and like each DPC member, I’ve been privileged over the years to explore additional roles at Danceworks. For me, these have tended toward the verbal, whether written or spoken. I’ve been a development and marketing assistant, Art to Art manager, and the reciter of many lines whose skits aim to raise awareness of our biggest donor and supporter, the United Performing Arts Fund. For this reason, I’ve decided with this post to probe the ways dancing and writing have intersected in my life and work, and to share what I’ve learned so far.
Maya Angelou once said, “Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances.” I believe I hear writing differently because I dance. Each syllable comes alive in my mind/body as I read, write, and edit, just as each impulse to move, each intention of a legato or punctuated bit of choreography, embeds itself in my muscle memory.
Writing has also taught me about dance. Having observed how writing captures amorphous ideas—it uses words to create form—I have learned that dance is kinetic energy made visible. We can only see energy by what it moves through or moves past. Dancers present energy viscerally in the way it travels through bodies and in the way bodies sweep through space.
More importantly, if I know anything about how to try to be a good human being, much of it has come through relationships I’ve made while dancing and writing. Before DPC goes onstage, we gather in a circle for “toes,” lifting and lowering our feet in tendu piques and repeating two mantras: “Don’t screw up,” and “Don’t give yourself poop.” To me, these speak to the two essential ingredients of dancing and writing. They are also the two “wings” of Buddhist philosophy: wisdom and compassion, which I think about often as a yoga teacher.
When I edit (I’m currently working on a yoga book called Clearing the Path by Stephen Parker), I become a keeper of “the rules”—of grammar, style, punctuation, and rhetoric. These are the wisdom of writing. As a dancer, too, I train to embody a set of technical rules regarding qualitative effort, musicality, focus and direction in space, and kinesiological efficiency. I try to maintain a somatic sensibility that feels movement from the inside out and that is available to be seen from the outside in.
But the DPC dancers show me that the rules are less important than how we relate to them. In performance my goal is not just to follow the rules, but to transcend the need to adhere to them too closely (as this is really just a small-minded need to prove myself). Instead I hope to give the audience something bigger. Just what that is I don’t ever quite know. But that is the compassion of dancing.
Com-passion is “to feel with.” Extended to dance and to writing, it is “to create with.” For me, this is the ultimate goal of dance and of any form of communication: to co-create the meaning and the purpose of it with the audience, to remember what working at the UWM Writing Center taught me, that each of us—observer and observed—contributes to multiple “communities of discourse.” We all matter. And “mattering” is often a function of our ability to get out of our own way so that we can give something meaningful of ourselves to each other.
DPC Artistic Director Dani Kuepper articulated this approach with precision in an email she sent the company last season. Emphasizing gratitude for what each dancer brings to the group, she reminded us to take our work seriously (wisdom) without taking ourselves too seriously (compassion). She wrote, “My favorite atmosphere is WORKING HARD + HAVING FUN and we do that a lot. If we miss part of that equation, we miss the point.”
Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.