Dancer from the dance
A while back, as I listened (or tried to listen) to the President's State of the Union address, it struck me once again that I'm just not very good at listening to speeches. Unless it's Winston Churchill, I much prefer to read them.
Even though I was always a good student, I rarely enjoyed classes. In retrospect, I think one big reason was the "sit in your seat and listen while we talk--and talk--and talk" format. In college, I was one of those people who sat at the very back of the room during lectures, swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking.
Ah yes, kids: smoking. We used to be allowed to do that in classrooms. I was never much of a smoker--I really didn't inhale--but I liked to light up, and to amuse myself by making perfect, long-lasting smoke rings, like the old Camel's ad in Times Square (mine were much better than his).
The point of all this is that I'm most definitely not what is known as an auditory learner. A speaker has to be riveting--and, preferably, very, very funny--to catch my attention. I've been to several authors' book and/or poetry readings, and despite my best intentions and resolve (and love of books and poetry), I find that I ordinarily drift off within five minutes or less of the moment the author opens his/her mouth, "coming to"--unaware of any lapse in time--only when the applause starts that signifies the reading has ended.
On the other hand, when I'm reading or writing, I concentrate hard. Time tends to pass very quickly, but my mind does not wander. I've been known to try to fix a problem with a single line of poetry for what I would estimate to be ten minutes--but then, when I look at my watch, two hours have somehow passed.
In the olden, pre-computer days, when I used to work at a word processor (and before that, an electric typewriter) in a room without a clock, I've been known to think it was about midnight and then to hear the birds chirping as a soft light slowly filled the room and I realized it was actually dawn. Now, with computers that have built-in clocks, that's not going to happen. But I still experience the phenomenon of time passing extraordinarily quickly without my realizing it.
I used to experience the same sort of concentration back in my ballet dancing days. Classes usually involved an hour and a half of intense physical activity. But what isn't commonly known is that dancing is a mental activity as well, although of an utterly different sort from that involved in writing or in listening to a lecture.
A ballet class consists of a series of graduated exercises that follow a certain strictly determined order, aimed at warming up all the major (and minor) body parts in a way that's thought to be least likely to lead to injury. The first portion is boring but utterly necessary, the barre. It's the equivalent of scales for the musician or singer, and it often used to go rather slowly, especially those long intervals of holding the leg up very high and still.
The only thing that got me through the barre was the music. Most of the time we had a live pianist playing classical music (most often Chopin), with the odd Scott Joplin rag thrown in to keep us on our toes (sorry, couldn't resist). The music transformed the whole exercise into something other than an exercise; it became an art.
Next we took our positions away from the barre for what was known as "center work." First, a port de bras; mostly arm movements and slowly changing body positions, nothing too difficult. Then, an adagio, or series of slow unfolding movements, ordinarily very very difficult, but lyrical. Then, turns in place. Then some faster movements in place, then small jumps in place. Then bigger jumps in place. And then what was the payoff, the raison d'etre for the whole thing: moving combinations, usually across a diagonal from corner to corner.
Big sweeping jumps that crossed an imaginary stage coupled with linking steps, a series of small ballets that the teacher would choreograph on the spot. Turns that covered space were incorporated into these combinations. Sometimes we'd revolve in a great big circle, faster and faster, until some of us had to stagger out of the group and rest on the sidelines.
The combinations were difficult, and they had to be memorized on the spot, one after the other. The teacher would tell us the steps, then we would "mark" them (do them in a sort of shorthand movement, not full blast). Then the music would start, and off we'd go. And it wasn't just steps that we had to memorize; it was steps coordinated with arm movements, head movements, body positions, all set down for us in a few moments and then integrated into the body memory and performed full out.
Then, the same thing to the other side. Where the right leg had led before, now it was the left. Where the left arm had been raised during a certain leap, now it was the right. These changes had to be accomplished instantaneously and automatically, almost without thinking.
One of my favorite parts of all was when the teacher would say "reverse the combination." This was not everyone's favorite part, to be sure. It was like a tongue twister; the best way to describe it would be that we were required to turn the steps inside out. It was fiendishly difficult; if a jump had featured the back foot leading and ending in front, now the front foot led and ended up in back. If a one-legged turn had been an "inside" turn (that is, turning in the direction of the supporting leg), now it had to be an "outside" turn (turning away from the supporting leg).
We would usually end the big combinations with the largest of leaps on the diagonal, across the room. It was a totally ordered and controlled set of movements; every angle of each part of the body was dictated by tradition. But, within that structure, the utter sense of freedom and expansion--of soaring and flying and oneness with the music--was phenomenal. And, at the end, it was amazing that an hour and a half had passed with my hardly being aware of time at all.
There is nothing like it on earth. I miss it still.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
[ADDENDUM: To end this piece, I want to describe how a ballet class always ends, with something called a reverence (it's French, which is the language of ballet). A reverence is a stylized bow, very courtly in nature--which is only fitting, since the origin of ballet lies in court spectacles.
But the reverence that ends a class is very simple. After all the frenetic activity of the minutes before, the students assume their places in the center again. They may be huffing and puffing, they are almost certainly soaked in sweat and exhausted, but all calms down as the music changes to slow and lyrical. To its strains, the students bow in a prescribed manner: first to one corner, then swivel and bow to the other (the corner where the pianist is sitting, ordinarily). Then bow to the center, where the teacher stands, who bows back in return. Each bow is a thank you, and also a grounding.
Sometimes I would experience a feeling of relief as the strains of the reverence music began, relief that a very difficult class was over. Sometimes I'd feel regret, because the class had been so much fun it seemed to end all too soon.
But always, a feeling of gratitude would come to me in synchrony with the body language of the bow. And once in a while, tears would even spring to my eyes at the beautiful coming together of all these things: the movement, the feeling, the music, and the people gathered around me and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and transcendence in this particular form.]