Monday, February 20, 2006

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.]


At 1:41 PM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You describe ballet class so compellingly that you make me miss it, too -- even though I have never taken a ballet class.

I have had the experience of "flow" that you describe, though. It happens to me when I am drawing and when I am gardening. Oddly enough, although I love to write, it rarely happens to me while writing. I wish it would.

At 3:04 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Sounds wonderful, like a good karate class with music. The photo is beautiful, too.

I concentrate very well when I write, but I rarely if ever experience the telescoping of time that you describe. I'm too literal-minded not to be aware of the actual pace of time. Losing it sounds like a fun experience.

At 3:11 PM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo, your work habits and your powers of concentration are evident in your blogging as you routinely take often extremely difficult topics and make them absorbing and comprehensible to your readers. Anyone, who has tried to write near-daily blogs or serious poetry, to dance ballet beyond the level of a beginner, to master a musical instrument, etc., knows the intense behind the scenes work and practice that goes into making something very difficult look, read, or sound, effortless and easy. But if the interest and desire is there, time flies and people prevail. Too bad our schools, in general, can't be more creative and do a better job of teaching lessons in such a way that excites, grabs, and holds the attention of more of our students. For the most part, students aren't stupid or lazy, just bored and inattentive, especially if they are drowning in droning audio presentations. I think there’s room for improvement. (And yes, I do appreciate the fact that there are many wonderful school programs and individual teachers who are more creative and do stimulating mixed media, hands-on, and other kinds of non-traditional teaching with their students.)

At 3:12 PM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely piece, neo! I too am not an auditory learner. In school and college I could never understand why if the lecture was important the lecturer could not just Write It Down. I have to take it on faith that some people can learn that way.

Otherwise I can only understand it as a semi-benign circle of abuse, that that those who were young lecturees grow up to be lecturers inflicting lectures on the next generation.

At 3:27 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

I second what your other commenters have to say. As with you, "A speaker has to be riveting--and, preferably, very, very funny -- to catch my attention." That's why podcasts -- even ones whose interviewers and subjects are of great interest -- don't much appeal unless there are transcripts.

The "flow" nickolaides finds during drawing and gardeniing is familiar to me when I discover and/or create the perfect graphic image to accompany and expand upon a blogpost I am working on. Often in the middle of organizing my thoughts, the image comes to me, I find or create it and and then put it into the draft, where it seems to help me hone in on the point I am trying to make.

A truly beautiful and evocative post. Your word pictures are most compelling.

At 4:06 PM, February 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

never thought Class...could be put into words. reverence, neo neo.

At 4:36 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Your post has concentrated my thoughts into producing a post of my own on the subject:

"Swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking"

At 4:48 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:55 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Sounds like the mind-body connection so many people strive to get, and then live long healthy lives afterwards.

Time dilation only happens to me when I'm having crazy fun.

The things those team ice skaters can do are phenomenal.

Things like the man throwing his partner into the air, and the woman doing a triple [insert skating term] before the landing.

Then there is the incredible balancing act that occurs with the man at a 45 degree angle, holding his partner up as they glide in a fixed posture. Any engineering worth his crack, would be very excited by the ability it takes to pull off that physics problem.

There are ice skaters and then there are figure skaters.

I can surely believe the amount of training, time, effort, determination, and strength that goes into such activities.

Creating a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At 9:02 PM, February 20, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

There's some very excellent videos that portray coordination, grace, and mind-body harmony.


After reading Motor's comments, I do recall a sense of timelessness when under great pain or in times of great desperation.

Nothing existed for me except to paralyze my body to wait out the pain, nothing was more important than stopping the pain, basically nothing existed. There was an awareness, but the perception did not alter the plan.

Then there was that other time I had to climb a staircase outside after running in the cold on a track, with classmates. It seemed most of the blood was draining from my head, but I had to get back to class since the bell had already rung.

I wasn't even half-conscious, and when my chin hit the railing I was grabbing for support, I actually knew I had hit it(cause my chin stopped in mid air), but I only felt the cold like 10 seconds later. Far as I could tell.

That was pretty weird, but that definitely wasn't fun.

There were like 4 sets of 10 to 20 steps. A moderate climb at normal speed.

There was nobody around, they had all returned to class. No one was there to help me, if I had fallen, I would have stayed there.

So there was a purity of concentration, to get to class, to not miss the bell, and to not fall down.

Instead of time being compressed, for me it was the reverse. A few short minutes was compressed into literally eternity.

There was no consciousness of time, the only thing in mind was the will and the goal.

I also heard that snipers go into the "Zone" and their hesitation evaporates, and they just take down the targets through the scope.

I also suggest "Master of escapes" in the videos. Those videos are amazing. I don't think those skills are normal in the human race, personally.

At 6:56 AM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite poetic, Neo. The Zone is a good place to be, but if it is an escape or retreat, one has to be careful not to go too often...
Motor quoted:"In the same way, a great swordsman says, "My sword has its own mind." He knows that he, in his ego-identity, does not direct its movements.
I understand the lesson, but being hyper rational, I always felt it was about understanding ones tools and working with their natures, rather than struggling to conquer their natures. go with the flow, if you will. It doesn't require the 'spirituality', but that too is a useful tool.
I had an odd thought while reading this post, and Motor sort of confirmed it... I bet suicide bombers often get in the zone too...

At 7:00 AM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also rarely enjoyed guest lecturers when I was in Architecture school, most were pretty bad. I decided that if I ever got famous enough to lecture, I would set mine to music. Hopefully then, half the already sleep deprived students wouldn't doze off...

At 9:23 AM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo-neo, that picture is so lovely. Does it by any chance show your class -- or you?

At 11:31 AM, February 21, 2006, Blogger Fausta said...

Lovely post!

I took ballet for 8 years and, while I don't regret giving it up (because I got to be too tall, and because my feet were really killing me), you have described the best of the dance experience beautifully -- and also the learning experience, too.

At 2:10 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi/love your blog/ i get dish tv and down the end there are what i call alternative channells[ free speech tv/ the pentagon channel] a station called classic arts tv is there and it is a real pleasure- commercial free-different arts-classical music,opera,film aaaad the best-ballett! I really love watching the graceful dancers and appreciate the discipline involved. give me the dying swan anyday-hey neo/ keep rockin'

At 9:17 AM, February 22, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

I can see you as lithe and limber

At 7:08 PM, February 23, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Martha Graham method was nothing like this.

Of course, I wasn't particularly soft of foot, either.

At 2:24 PM, February 20, 2007, Blogger KG2V said...

Ah - the Zone

GOOD programmers do it while coding - or try to get there. I've had it happen reading a good book. I've had it happen a few times during physical activity - On a bike (when I used to ride) or behind a rifle at the range. I can imagine it happening with dancing


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