The Emotional Core of Dance

The Emotional Core of Dance March 6, 2017

Sometimes dance moves you in unexpected ways, and all you can do is stay in the moment and feel everything that comes through you.

Picture of me performing, by FlowMotion Events, November 2016.
Picture of me performing, by FlowMotion Events, November 2016.

I’ve written about some connections between dance and emotion before – how dance might help with harm reduction strategies for mental/emotional health; how I’m so grateful for my dance community that I cried while leaving themhow belly dance saved my life – but I don’t tend to write a ton about what I feel when I’m dancing.

I get close to describing the emotional experience of dancing when I write about my search for flow in my prop usage. Even that steers clear of describing what I’m actually feeling while dancing, though.

Mostly, when I belly dance with people, I feel happy. When I perform a solo (as in the featured photo), I feel exuberant. When I’m practicing a dance form that I’m newer to, I feel some embarrassment when I’m being a slow learner, and pride when I start to pick things up. I might also feel nostalgia when dancing, or longing, but rarely sadness.

So I don’t normally cry when I dance…but butoh is changing that.

Butoh is a Japanese dance form that emerged after World War II. In my understanding, it arose partially in response to the horrors of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It utilizes contortions as well as natural body movements to let the body speak for itself. The few classes I’ve had tend to prioritize expressiveness and internal state over specific technique (as in, I’ve never been told to point my toes or lift my elbows, but I have been given instructions on things to visualize or touch, or emotions to try to access).

I’m still processing this, but I just took a butoh class that had me moving with tears streaming down my face for what felt like a long time. We were walking slowly across the floor, told to imagine the voices of our ancestors arising from the ground and moving up through the soles of our feet. We were told to listen to those voices, and channel them, as we slowly walked.

As though in a dream, I closed my eyes and moved across the floor at a halting pace. I lifted one heel, and kept a toe grounded as I dragged that foot forward, setting it down in front of the other. I repeated that on the other side, maintaining contact with the ground to keep my sense of space so that I could continue the exercise with my eyes closed. My arms gently outstretched, I walked with my eyes closed for the length of that room, not falling or bumping into anyone.

The voices of my ancestors urged me to survive. My ancestors are Danish and Finnish on my dad’s side; Latvian and Lithuanian Jewish on my mom’s side. One quarter of my ancestry is unknown due to adoption. I listened to the voices of dead relatives I remember, and their forebears, and I remembered burial sites I’ve seen and imagined both places I’ve traveled to (Latvia, Lithuania, Finland), and those I haven’t (Denmark).

Moving slowly through space, hearing through the soles of my feet, I recalled anecdotes about an ancestor who’d come across from Europe, and had been preyed on by a Mormon missionary. She’d danced him up and down the decks of the ship until he was so exhausted that he left her alone. Dance will help you survive. I remembered learning about a grandparent who’d been an actress, and I thought about the rune-poems of the Kalevala that were sung in Finland. Dance and song are in my blood. I listened to the whispers of those who’d raised my family, those perhaps not biologically related to us but family nonetheless.

I thought about the bitter-cold climates my ancestors had come from to reach America, and I thought about how I, too, had fled a frozen place for a warmer one, one where I’m slowly beginning to thrive again.

Half-recalled fragments of family folklore blended with my imagination of what my ancestors must have been like. Tears welled up in my eyes. I kept walking forward. Hearing these voices, I felt vulnerable yet supported in a way that I don’t usually access when around people, or when dancing.

The tears started to spill over. Before I knew it, my cheeks were wet, and my nose was running.

I don’t know how long I stayed in that trance state, swaying slowly through space as my feet channeled my ancestors. I don’t know if I was the only one among the dozen-ish dancers crying (though I was the only one that needed a break after the exercise to blow my nose).

Trying to find the words to describe this experience is challenging, and of course the famous quote by Isadora Duncan comes to mind: “If I could say it, I would not have to dance it.” But I’m attempting to describe this experience anyway, because I find value in words.

Knowing that there is such a deep emotional core that I can tap into while dancing is both immensely comforting – as it was comforting to hear and feel my ancestors, whatever that actually means – and provocative. I want more of my dance to take me to and through emotions, both for my own benefit, and because I believe it’ll make for more compelling performances, to help take my audiences there.

I intend to chase more of these emotional experiences while dancing, and I’m hoping butoh will help me learn more about inducing these states in myself. Simple verbal cues to access deep emotions almost seems too good to be true, but having experienced it, I can state that it works. Now to untangle the rest of what makes for an emotional dance experience…

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