The Dancer and the Dance: A Tale of Dis/Re/Connection

Let’s start with an anecdote.

The other day, a friend of mine and I were comparing notes about how when we engage in different movement disciplines, we feel as though we have a different body. She is currently in an intensive program for aerial dance, and yet her previous movement experience has been in interpretive and American forms of belly dance, and earlier in her lifetime, marching band, and ballet. Aerial dance requires different abilities, flexibility, and kinesthetic qualities than all of the forms she has engaged in previously.

I have had similar experiences. For me, I come from training in a technique-based method of belly dance, and before that, I figure skated for 14 years, and yet for the last six months, I have spent four mornings a week in modern dance classes. This change of kinesthetic awareness feels as though my physical self has been displaced. I build new neurological connections, new prioproception, new technique and still, and yet, I feel disoriented. When I return to my more familiar form of movement, I feel comfortable again. When I am taking a belly dance class, I feel, yes, more embodied, more connected to my physical self. When I am in modern class, I feel disconnected, like I am watching myself from afar, that somehow an essential part of my being doesn’t quite fit into my limbs, much like I imaging an ill-fitting wetsuit to feel like.

Of course, there are overlapping skills, but I’m more interested in the sensation of disconnect from the body rather than the places where the sensation overlaps.

How is that that someone can feel as thought they have multiple bodies? We are still the same flesh and blood, regardless of the movement discipline.

If we think of dance as language (and in that, we are assuming it is a form of communication, it has grammatical rules, syntax, and implicit order, which is debatable), then when we transition from one technique of movement to another, we must engage in a kind of translation. Our bodies relate to the new movement in relation to a similar movement already in the “muscle memory.” Perhaps that movement is a kind of knee bend. A ballet knee bend in turn-out (lateral rotation) is quite different from a knee bend in some modern forms in which the feet are parallel and a little wider than hip distance apart. The sensation is familiar and yet foreign.

How long does it take to become fluent in a new movement form? Is such an achievement possible?

I also think about what it means when we move from one form to another. Do we always dance with the accent of the first movement form we learned?

In all of this, I think of Sondra Fraleigh’s romantic and sentimental notion that the “dancer is the dance,” somehow devoid of self-expression and only dancing for some aesthetic value. I have to say I disagree. Because what is the “dance,” but the individual physical body of the person doing the movements. That dancer is the dance if we look at the dance as the physical forms of the bodies in motion. A dance changes when performed by different bodies. I think of my mentor Suhaila Salimpour and how she teaches a choreography very specifically, and yet, so few of us are about to actualize and realize her vision of what the choreography should look like. We are, if we are doing well, close approximations. There are certain technical abilities, courses of training and experience, musical and intellectual knowledge, and emotional relation to the music that Suhaila has that no one else will ever have. Because of not only our physical experiences, but intellectual and emotional ones, we each physicalize movement in our own individual ways. In that, we are expressing our self, if the Self is the culmination of our essential physical, mental, and emotional knowledge and experiences.

If the dancer were “the dance” then we we would be exact replicas of the choreography in question, but we aren’t. Each of our bodies have limitations (in this I agree with Fraleigh in that she says that a dancer will never do anything she cannot do), different anatomical dimensions and anomalies, varying degrees of flexibility and injury. Every dancer will perform the same choreography quite differently, and in that, she makes the choreography her own (sometimes much to the choreographer’s dismay).

If I return to my first idea of feeling disembodied when experiencing a newer form of movement, then how do we feel totally embodied in our work, especially when doing the choreographies of others? Is it a matter of time in the studio, of hours of practice and rehearsal? What about limitations in flexibility and strength? (I’ve never been able to to the splits, and I probably won’t ever be able to do so.) I would like to believe that all things are possible in time and dedication, but I suspect that they aren’t. I will never be six feet tall. I will never be pigeon-toed. My arm span will never be taller than my height. I cannot erase the fact that I have torn my left biceps femoris hamstring twice. All of these things, and many more, impact how I move, and how I look when I move.

And yet, we can reshape our bodies to some degree by doing new things. A body-builder knows this fact well. Every moment is an opportunity for choice, an ethics of physical body. How I sit at my computer (confession: my shoulders are rounded way forward and I don’t have proper support under my feet) affects how my body will be shaped tonight and probably tomorrow in my Pilates teacher training program. My intensive study of modern dance has, according to my body worker, changed the shape of my quadricep muscles. My experience in figure skating has damaged my left hip socket more than my right after years of landing on that side, left femur parallel, right femur externally rotated. William James was right in saying that we make choices every moment of every day, and in that we shape our personal ethics. This idea certainly applies to our physical selves.

Here’s another idea…. Our physical selves? Does this imply a separation from mental and emotional selves, or any other number of infinite divisions that we can superimpose on our Selves? Why must they be differentiated? As indicated above, we make decisions (mental, sometimes emotional) about how to use our bodies. These decisions change the shape of the body, and then, as recent studies in posture and body language have shown, loop back to the brain and release certain hormones that affect our emotions. Not one part of us exists in a vacuum, whether or not we choose to divide ourselves into mind/body or physical/mental/emotional.

Perhaps the answer is to be present. When in class working on technique, or running a combination, all of us know intellectually that we must not overthink it. We should just do. In doing, we build new connections, pathways between body parts and brain. We reshape our bodies as we reshape our brains and our neural pathways. In this, I feel, we are truly embodied…. and perhaps that sensation of dissociation will dissipate enough that we no longer feel as though we have multiple bodies with specialized skill sets.


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


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