Author: Péter Fejér, Budapest, 30 January 2014.
“Put your mind in your feet and your body in the beat!” Gabrielle Roth
It’s possible to regard dance improvisation as the simplified model of more complex systems. There are expressions, such as “where am I heading“, “which is my way”, which already contains links to the physical motion. These huge questions, which sometimes seem unanswerable are tamed in the movement improvisation to the simple question of which direction should I turn my physical body and what qualities do my movement have. Do I go forward or backward, do I go towards the open ground or to the wall, into the emptiness or into the crowd, Towards Somebody or Away from Somebody. And the quality of my movement can be soft or hard, agitated or calm, superficial or deep, determined or hesitant, and so much else.
But what shows me the direction when it is not predetermined? When it can change anywhere? This question arises constantly during any improvisation movement, such as a 5Rhyhtms wave or contact improvisation. Every and each step can have a different direction, and the direction or quality of the movement can change even between steps. The dancer faces the question of “where and how should I head” each second, and can find a new answer every time, practising in a highly intensive way how to take decisions. In our lives most of us have only limited chances to practise decision making. For example when I finished high school I had to decide whether I should work, or go to university and which university should I choose. I had been living for 17 years and hadn’t gotten even close to this degree of freedom, of possibilities. I didn’t have practice in making such decisions. Others might face this level of freedom even later. Some people have a straightforward life path with marriage and children, and when the children are grown and the marriage starts to become empty and maybe ends with a divorce, then this person, who is now 40-50 years old suddenly find themselves in a situation of almost infinite choices – and now where should I head? Most probably they can’t enjoy this sudden freedom, because it will feel frightening rather than liberating.
What are those things which can help me to find my direction? Basically the search of happiness. In which direction will I find more happiness? And there are several signposts directing towards that: I can follow others, I can follow my own desires or I can simply experiment. In the movement of our bodies these possibilities show up in the most simple ways: I go in a direction where somebody else goes, I move in a way as others move, or moved earlier and I just copy it, or imitate it. This is the most fundamental and most widespread human way to find our direction – even on the dance floor. When I practice this it makes me more confident that I’m able follow the biggest variety of people, I’m able to learn even from the strangest of them and I’m able to embody qualities which I haven’t tried before. The second signpost is me, myself. I can follow my desires: I feel cold, so I move closer to the heating, I crave for big movements so I go to the empty space, I like somebody, so I move towards him/her and make bold movements to get their attention. Practising this way of movement helps to listen to my real needs, and helps turning them into real physical actions.
And finally dance as a simplified model situation is the perfect place to practise following the third signpost: random experimenting. The third “signpost” is actually blank and directs to all directions equally. It means the random movement without any plans or paved roads. Random movement comes handy when there is conflict in or between the first two signposts. You can move for a long time by following others or yourself, but inevitably there will be a point when you meet an unresolvable conflict. For example you move with a group of others, because it feels so good simply to belong. And then half of the group turns left, when the other half turns right. Where should you go? Or your own desire pulls you toward the wall, because it means safety, but it pulls you to the middle at the same time, because there is the only other person you know. So where should you go then? In these situations one of the solutions is to cut through the gordian knot of hesitation with the sword of random experimenting, and simply go somewhere. Just “follow your feet”. Let the action take its direction without making a decision in its usual sense. If you like, you can regard this as putting the decision on fate or into the hand of God. One of the fathers of quantum physics, which is based on the randomness of events, was Niels Bohr, and he said once: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” The dancers have similar experiences – how wonderful that I encountered a conflict which I can’t solve, because this opens the gate to random, unplanned, incidental actions. The random experimenting which has no goals at all is maybe the biggest gift of dance improvisation, because this is the way in which really new things can happen, can come into life. It can give birth to actions, reactions, patterns, which never ever happened before and were forever waiting in the infinite emptiness to come into life, waiting for us to create them.
As a teacher of 5Rhythms on my classes I usually put more focus on the second and third signposts. We all get a lot of lessons from the first – on how to follow and imitate others – although maybe not the best lessons, I admit. The second signpost means a much more uncharted territory for most of us, and the third signpost is almost never heard of. In order to find these signposts, in order to let them emerge, most of us need a lot of encouragement. These can emerge only if the dancers slowly let go of their learnt patterns and rules. This is a slow and fragile process. Every situation which makes them follow rules might put them back into their earlier state of being, which is sometimes the “child mode”. As adults we have the freedom to decide when do we follow rules and when do we create rules. In childhood we don’t. We always have to follow certain rules. And unfortunately a lot of us never leaves the child mode, never become an adult in this sense. This happens more often in my region, in Central and Eastern Europe, compared to the places where 5Rhythms come from (US and Western Europe). So as a Hungarian teacher I need to put even more emphasis on how I can encourage spontaneity in the dancers by gently loosening the urge to follow rules. Permissive teaching is an essential tool for this. Teaching in a way which is allowing and not prohibiting, accepting and not rejecting, following and not pushing forward, based on praising good examples and not on criticizing bad ones.
I think it is never possible to give a perfect answer to the question: where should I go, neither on the dancefloor, neither in real life, but it is always possible to give some kind of answer. In other words in every moment there is an answer which emerges and which takes me forward. And during dance I can practice a lot to be able to hear this answer, listen to it and have the courage to actually take the STEP it shows me.