Legendary modern dancer José Limón asserted, "We are never more truly and profoundly human than when we dance." The equally legendary Betty Jones, a founding member of the José Limón Dance Company and an American Dance Festival faculty member for 40 years, uses more prosaic language. But if you listen closely as Jones counsels a student in her ADF class, you recognize that her approach encompasses both the humanity of the dancer and the imperatives of technique. "All your landings are good," she says to the student, then gestures toward the sky with her shoulders and arms, "but there's no 'up' before those landings."
Jones, best known for her role as Desdemona in Limón's classic version of Othello, The Moor's Pavane, is all you could hope for in a dance teacher. Elegant, wiry and magnetic, she corrected and cajoled her 12 or so students--including one well-meaning imposter--through a sequence of modern dance steps, gestures and phrases. After a little more than a week of Modern Dance II, Jones knew her students by their movement habits as well as their names. She reminded the dancers to pay attention to their piano accompaniment--provided by ADF veteran Natalie Gilbert--and she associated geographical places with the direction of turns: "First, face New York, then Honolulu." These references not only situated the dancers within Jones' world--she lives in Hawaii and teaches at the Limón Institute in New York--but they also provided meaningful cues to expand the possibilities for movement. Her students danced toward places both literal and imagined, and they thought their bodies into spaces beyond the confines of the sweltering white building known as the Ark, on Duke University's East Campus.
Jones began her class with a brief lecture on body mechanics, alignment, and the mind-body connection--topics that span the fields of dance, bodywork and therapy. In a 1996 article on the Alexander Technique and dance training, Martin Leach and Jayne Stevens write that, "If there is to be any meaningful discourse about the body in dance, it is necessary to examine what it means to be 'embodied.'" Betty Jones emphasized that to be embodied and human is to be engaged in thought. She encouraged the class to reconsider the pelvis: "Think of a shower curtain, with all the rings bunched at the back. Now move them around to the front." The point was not to relax muscles or to adjust posture but, instead, to use thought to reshape the body's relation to its world. This kinesthetic re-education reverses the famous Samuel Beckett dictum: "Dance first, think later."
As I observed and participated in Jones' class for the day, accompanied by the ADF's irrepressible Press Director, Anne Shoemake, I realized how difficult it is to think our bodies beyond the literal and mechanistic. During the exercises in Jones' class, I found myself concentrating on following orders and avoiding mistakes (somewhat unsuccessfully, I might add) rather than freeing my mind to think my body. That's not surprising, when I recollect my own relationship to dance, one that goes back a long way. My earliest memories are of tumbling over an enormous stuffed carrot at Miss Kay's School of Dance in Kettering, Ohio. The carrot was beautiful and grotesque, and I worried about what would happen if I didn't execute my cartwheel properly. Based on what I knew about real carrots, I figured I would get hurt. That literal mindedness (unusual in one so young) is anathema to the art of dance. Miss Kay's exotic stuffed fruits and vegetables--like Betty Jones' imagined planes of movement and geographical cues--were meant to galvanize the imagination. They ought to have provoked a serious reconsideration of the relation between dancer and world, between the body and space. If carrots could grow that large, anything was possible. Every dance teacher's challenge, in addition to helping students master technique, is to reawaken the flexibility of mind and body, and exuberance of spirit, that most children possess. Most of us take our bodies so much for granted that we rarely manage to surprise or delight ourselves except in the most conventional of ways.
Betty Jones' class stressed the importance of thinking of the body's relation to space, a lesson elaborated upon by David Dorfman's Modern Dance IV class. Dorfman--an irrepressible trickster whose musical talent is as formidable as his dancing expertise--emphasized the meaningful connections dancers forge as they interact with one another. The class session began with a massage--an aspect of preparation that is extremely important to Dorfman, who suffered a serious neck injury several years ago--then proceeded to an exercise he called a "postmodern hoedown."
As Dorfman's accordian enhanced the intense, rhythmic music of Chris Lancaster (bass, cello, Irish Bazouki and drums) and Chris Peck (live electronic music), 40 or more dancers careened through the space, swinging and exchanging partners. The group became a playful band of revelers, and the interactions generated and compelled a surprising amount of intimacy. Paying attention to moving your own weight in tandem with your partner's highlighted the quality of contact each partner brought to the connection. How each dancer moved in relation to everyone else communicated her or his sense of embodiment and shared connection. The emphasis on weight, connection and circular movement was integrated into the centerpiece of the day's work: a choreographed phrase in which dancers moved across the floor, then turned to greet their partners, leaping and swinging each other around. Dorfman's interest in the dynamic interactions between and among dancers is evident from the partnered massage to the final choreographed segment, where he asked dancers to glance backward at their future partners as they began their individual movement across the floor.
By the end of the day, I began to think that the most exciting dancers to watch weren't necessarily the students with the most technically perfect form, though they were always a joy to observe. One of the most fascinating aspects of dance is the way that each trained and thinking body interpreted the choreography in its own way, how each dancer thought and embodied the relation to space and other dancers differently. After having the opportunity to rethink dancing as a participant, not just a spectator, I started to wonder how audiences ever manage to stay seated at dance performances. The art of dance--in all its profound humanity--is best appreciated when you participate.