What does it mean to be a dancer?
By Alden LaPaglia
What is dance?
What is life?
What is it to be vibrantly aware of each passing second, to be alive and wholly in the moment? What is it to speak without the hindrance of words and be free of the confusion they present? What is it to breach the depths of every emotion, never sure whether you’ll sink or swim in the critical eyes of the audience?
Dance is the art that defies words. Its capacity for expression and communication supercedes all others. Thus, it cannot be defined but must be experienced. Even then, each person will come to a different understanding because dance is unique for every individual.
Dance is the experience of life. It is as simple as the movements that make up each day and the unconscious stories they tell about the mover. It is the presence, absence or indifference of love. It can be the joy of a baby who has found its feet or the angst of a mother who has lost her son.
All dance, however is not art. Dance, as an art form, is the cultivation and performance of highly developed technique through the instrument of the human body in order to communicate. It portrays life once removed. It may be a reflection on a brief moment in our lives or an exploration of any given idea or emotion. It utilizes techniques that have been founded based on everything from the movements of daily life to cultural traditions to explorations of how the body moves through space. These techniques are practiced by a select elite who constantly strives to break boundaries and reach new heights of perfection. They are known as “Dancers.”
Just as all dance is not art, all people who dance are not “Dancers.” In fact, most have little or no formal dance training. For example, a football player may do a victory dance after winning a game. Teens dance at school dances, and actors dance in plays. While dancing finds its way into all of our lives, an artist carries it to a higher level.
Dance students are those whose technique is still in its developmental stages. Their dancing may be unsure and timid. They dance under themselves, struggling with positions, rather than allowing themselves to be swept away by the movement. They lack hunger, that force that constantly craves more, that will catapult them past their present ability. Even a proficient student pales in the brilliance of the professional.
“Dancers” radiate a sense of presence just in the way they stand. They are full of confidence and attack. They take risks. They dance outside of themselves in a manner so large that their bodies no longer perform the movement, but become it. As Judith Jamison explained, “Dance is bigger than the physical body...when you extend your arm it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingertips, because you’re dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing spirit.”
I remember watching a girl in my ballet class one summer and realizing for the first time why she drew my attention when others did not. She went for things, not necessarily because she thought she could do them but because she thought she should be able to do them. This is the mark of a dancer.
Every little girl dreams of being a ballerina when she grows up. However, while most little girls are growing out of this dream, some of us only fall deeper into it. Why are we still in love with a dream that others are leaving behind? When quizzed we respond, “I love dancing more than anything else in the world...Nothing makes me happier...There is no other time when I am more myself than when I am dancing.” Essentially, we respond without answering at all. What do we really mean?
A dancer is born of two worlds–that of Aphrodite and that of Artemis. Aphrodite is the extroverted, expressive goddess of the arts, and Artemis is the introverted, athletic goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite is also the goddess of love and beauty. She acts out of passion and steeps herself in beauty. Dancing is an outlet through which she can channel her emotions and fulfill her need for artistry. Aphrodite is also known for her sensuality. She communicates best through her body. Martha Graham felt this way as well, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.” Aphrodite’s charisma grows out of her passion, sensitivity and uninhibited love of life. In dancers, this passion and sensitivity is contagious. Their audience is seduced by their own desire to know love without fear or restraint. Thus, performing provides Aphrodite with the attention and adoration she craves in the spotlight. Dancers share her need to be loved. Like flowers, they bloom with attention and wilt with neglect.
Artemis, like Aphrodite, finds herself through her dancing. Dance enables her to develop her natural affinity for physicality. Dancers keep their bodies finely tuned, constantly striving to further their ability in their Artemsian pursuit of perfection. In the fury of their movement, dancers create their own wind. Dancing also compliments Artemis’ inward, more spiritual focus during the many hours of studio practice. Graham told of how she liked to sit alone in the studio because, “it is really just a comforting place for me to be–secure, clear and with a purpose.” The studio is to dancers as the wild is to Artemis. It is a sanctuary where the trials and tribulations of the outside can be forgotten. It is a place where they can return to themselves, regaining the strength and confidence needed to re-enter the world.
No dancer has personified Aphrodite and Artemis quite as loudly as Isadora Duncan, which makes her intoxication with ancient Greece even more fascinating. From Aphrodite, she inherited her all-consuming passion, the performance power that made even the most natural movements magical. Her choreography reflected the highs and lows of her stormy life. Her personal life, known for its many lovers, was scandalous. Artemis inspired Duncan to move, to express her passion through her physicality. Duncan’s choreography was inspired by nature, and it became her choice studio for grooming her young Isadorbles.
Aphrodite expresses emotions through her dancing while it allows Artemis to experience them. Though Aphrodite and Artemis reside in opposite worlds, dance has the unique ability to reconcile their conflicting desires. This is the gift of dance to the dancer. This is why we love to dance. We are both Aphrodite and Artemis at once and only though our dancing are we fulfilled.
As Ayn Rand describes her philosophy on life in her novel, Atlas Shrugged, she inadvertently describes the treatise for every dancer. The novel is about the lovers of life, the dreamers, fighters and achievers who make our world possible. Her protagonists are confident and self-assured. They have no shame in being proud because they do what they love, and they do it better than anyone else. They approach life and their respective “art” with the same energy and attack with which dancers must dance. For her characters, this work is life just as dancing is for the dancer.
A dancer is born from one virtue that encompasses all of those which Rand upholds–fire. Fire is about passion, love that takes on a life of its own. It is the drive, dedication and determination required for success. It is the charisma of energy and attack, which inspires all in its wake to greater heights of achievement. It is the pursuit of perfection through precision, purity and truth. To have fire is to continually challenge boundaries with insatiable hunger and persevere no matter the odds. This requires confidence, a strict focus, direction, intelligence and imagination. The quality itself is barely tangible, but this is the flame in the eye that burns through the body, creating a dancer.
Fire also makes the dancer a natural performer. There is something exhilarating about being on stage under the bright lights of a dark theater. Performing gives you a high greater than any other. Duke Ellington describes its effect, “Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come OUT at night–they come ON, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be the star.” This is dancers’ charisma, the way they command the stage, the way they charm their audience. On stage dancers no longer dance for themselves, but to share their love. “People come to see beauty, and I dance to give it to them,” stated Judith Jamison. In performance dancers’ pleasure is derived from that which they give the audience.
A dancer must be an absorbent canvas capable of soaking up every drop of paint from the choreographer’s brush. He/she must offer a pure technique ready to be colored by whatever embellishments the choreographer demands. Being a dancer is more than being a ballerina or a modern diva–it is about doing it all. Dancers today must be multi-lingual in the different dialects of the body. There is no telling what may be asked of them. The art of dance has never been influenced by so many different voices, and choreographers are no longer limiting themselves to just one. Contemporary dance is the best of all worlds, and contemporary dancers are expected to be as well. The Alvin Ailey company is a prime example because its dancers cannot be categorized into a single genre of technique. They are modern dancers, ballet dancers and jazz dancers. They are whatever the choreography calls for, and this is the way a dancer must be.
A dancer is vulnerable. Our self-esteem is constantly eroded by an unforgiving art. Striving for an unattainable ideal often makes us frustrated and discouraged. Perfectionism breeds insecurities. We are plagued by the constant fear that our talent does not match our heart. Thus, as dancers, we must also be mentors. We should be someone whom our peers and our youth can look to for inspiration and renewed confidence. We have to be approachable. We must demonstrate how our hearts can burn hotter than the oven.
A dancer is an artist. An artist is an educator. Artists teach lessons about life in the height of its glory and the depths of its despair. They provoke thought and inspire action. According to Graham. “We look at the dance to impart the sensation of living in an affirmation of life. To energize the spectator into keener awareness of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety and the wonder of life.” An artist demonstrates to the public how to live life to its fullest. He/she must also lay the foundation and be the inspiration for future artists to ensure the growth of the art.
As dancers, we have always been responsible for communicating cultural metaphors, but today we must do even more than this. Dance is an endangered art. Although it remains a cultural metaphor, the public is no longer aware of its importance. Romantic ballerinas such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Essler, boasted their own following of ardent admirers, but dancers today are little known outside of the shrunken dance world. Could this be because we have retreated further and further into our unknown world, leaving our audiences in the dark? Whatever the case, it is time for us to venture out from our cocoon and invite others to share it with us. We once educated the public on life. Now, in order to do so, we must first educate them on dance so that they will once again understand and appreciate our art and the lessons it has to share.
A dancer’s work is not limited to the studio or the stage. In order to have an audience to educate and delight, we must play an active role in its cultivation. Dancing has given us so much. It is now our turn to give back. We must keep it alive. We must demystify our art and remind the public that we each have a very special connection to it–our bodies. In lecture demonstrations and arts in education programs we can re-teach the language of our art while also confirming that it is fine to value it simply for its visual aesthetic or athleticism. We must ensure that children will not forget how to dance or how it feels to dance as they grow up.
Dancing is not just a way of expressing ourselves, it is the way that we are ourselves. We dance to feel what it is to be alive, to be present, to be completely uninhibited. We live to perform and share our passion for life with others. Dancing is our constant, the one thing we have when we feel that we have lost all else. There is no better feeling than being in the studio, exhausted, hurting, dreading all the work that awaits you, and realizing that, despite it all, there is no place you would rather be.
Teach people the meaning of fire. Set out to inspire the way you have been inspired. Dancing has provided us with our fondest, most exhilarating memories while at the same time teaching us some of life’s most difficult lessons. Our love of dance is not a gift to be held, but a gift to be passed on.
To these values and beliefs, I dedicate my company, ALDEN MOVES Dance Theater.