Learning to Read Dance

March 26, 2014
"Angels in the Attic" at the ADLI Mini-Fest 2014.

"Angels in the Attic" at the ADLI Mini-Fest 2014. Photograph by Lucia Lopez. Dancers (left to right): Nic Baird, Donna McGuire, Nadia Hannan.

Credit: Lucia Lopez

"If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.” - Isadora Duncan...  I like to think of myself as culturally literate. I work in the arts, I can drop the odd Shakespeare quote in conversation, and I can tell abstract expressionism from Dadaism. But when I began working with American Dance Legacy Initiative (ADLI) I realized how illiterate I was when it came to dance. After 18 months working with this unique dance heritage and access organization, I understand that a lack of dance literacy is not uncommon. Indeed, it is the reason for ADLI's existence.

I arrived on ADLI's doorstep in October 2012, fresh from organizing an arts festival in London. There had been a lot of dance in the festival, which I had enjoyed immensely but not really understood. I learned to nod, look confident, and avoid really engaging with what I was seeing. During my time with ADLI, I slowly learned to ask questions and to understand that it's OK not to know. I began to realize that I have always seen the beauty of dance. I just haven't had the vocabulary to talk about it.

Though I felt a little foolish asking such obvious questions to leading dance professionals, the receptive and collaborative nature of the ADLI network made me feel less ashamed about asking:

ME: Why do you need so many sidelights?
ADLI: Because, unlike theatre, we need to make sure the whole body is lit at all times even when it's moving.

ME: What do you call that move they just did?
ADLI: We call it 'The Bird.'
ME: Oh. Is that, like, an official term?
ADLI: Oh no! It's just a name we gave it yesterday so we all know which bit of the dance we're talking about.

No condescension, no impatience, just thoughtful explanations and an obvious joy in explaining their passion to an interested listener.

Every year, ADLI produces a 3-day festival of dance. After last year's event, I felt I had started to understand a little. Dance is about a kinesthetic exploration of an idea or a theme. It is about space, body, and movement. It neither can, nor should, be reduced to a verbal explanation of what it "means". Isadora Duncan was right: "if I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”   

For the festival this year, I worked with pupils at Central Falls High School as they studied the history of jazz and learned one of ADLI's Repertory Etudes. These guys know how to dance socially, but they weren't used to learning choreography in class. Surrounded by professional dancers and experienced teachers, I shared their initial hesitancy; and then learned alongside them as they embraced the project, and finally brought their interpretation of jazz to Brown’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

Laura Bennett, the ADLI Core Network manager, has been my mentor throughout my introduction to modern dance. She compares the role of dance in society to that of theater. We take it for granted that we can still enjoy performances of Hamlet and that contemporary directors can interpret the text freely to realize their vision. We understand that young people can happily butcher a reading of Macbeth in an English class as part of their education. We understand that a bad amateur production of Arthur Miller detracts nothing from the dazzling beauty and power of his work. She points out, though, that this is not true of dance. Only a very few fortunate professional dancers ever have the chance to perform the works of leading American choreographers. Why should this be the case? Why is there such public access to theater, but not to dance?

The answer to this question is, in part, practical. Dance is inherently an oral tradition, passed on verbally from choreographer to dancer in the rehearsal room. Although there are some written dance notation forms, they cannot easily carry the true depth behind a piece, and none are universally accepted. There is no "text" for choreographers to leave behind.

But it’s also about the relationship of professional dance to the rest of the dance world. Professional choreographers live by their work, and they can be nervous about letting it out into the world. ADLI exists to make the case that, just as a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet doesn't destroy the reputation of Shakespeare, so opening access to important works of American dance will not destroy our dance legacy. Indeed, it will have the opposite effect. Increasing access to these works serves to increase understanding and appreciation for dance and secure its role in our culture.

ADLI sees a world where everyone can perform, understand and take ownership of America’s dance legacy, where dance is understood as a critical component of American cultural history. It will be a long and difficult road, but it is important work: dance belongs to the people. ADLI has figured out how to give it back to them.

As I move towards the end of my time with ADLI, I am extremely grateful for the dance literacy that the organization has taught me. I am now an advocate and a campaigner in ADLI's ongoing mission to democratize dance.

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Learn more about Guest Blogger Paul Margrave, AM Public Humanities, Class of 2014 here: www.paulmargrave.com

Header Image credited to Lucia Lopez, "Angels in the Attic" at the ADLI Mini-Fest 2014. Photograph by Lucia Lopez. Dancers (left to right): Nic Baird, Donna McGuire, Nadia Hannan.

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