Thursday, April 06, 2006

private place (dance post number two)

I’ve been dilly dallying in responding to Jodi’s comment regarding this post from over a month ago:
When you say that you improvise movements in response to ideas, I can't really get my head around that at all.

It turns out that, boiled down to it's essence, there is a really simple way to explain this movement concept....but to understand the succinct explanation, I think one also needs the longer detailed version.

And because I am who I am, I of course have to offer both versions.

The day after I got Jodi's comment, it was time for our weekly bellydance class. That night, after class, a few of us embarked on the tradition of going to Lenny’s (which is really “Denny’s," but Lenny's refers to a joke from an old TV commercial and probably dates us big time). Anyhow, Lenny’s is the only place open that late in our area. We don’t do this every week, but when we do go there to catch up, there are usually four of us. There is myself, my co-teacher Karen (who recently de-lurked), Michelle (who used to co-teach with Karen and I, is on hiatus as a formal teacher, but still comes to class and contributes), and Sharon (who has been a special guest teacher, and is a highly accomplished dancer/performer/teacher, which is putting it lightly).

Sitting there at the diner looking around the table, I had this idea to ask each one of us to state the number of years that we’d been dancing. Between the four of us, we exceeded One Hundred Years of combined dance experience.

Given that total, you’d think we’d be able to put our heads together and come up with a pat response to Jodi’s comment. But no dice. We all had thoughts, but I dont recall we ever came up with a firm definition that would explain this segment of the work we do.

I thought for sure Karen would come up with something useful for Jodi because aside from being a talented dancer/performer, she is also a talented artist/painter.

I rolled out of Lenny’s (by rolled I mean: it's midnight and I have belly full of cheesyfries and rootbeer float, so maybe I didn’t retain details well), and I tool the mental notes from that night and came up with my "boiled down to the essence" description of this movement concept:
Private Place work is a tool for transitioning from ordinary life into a place ripe for creative-work, and is also a tool for grounding yourself.

Here's the long explanation.

This is my definition of the dance technique we use called "Private Place". I’m going to give some examples of how it has worked for ME, but it may work with my other troupe members and students differently.

Private Place is basically a guided imagery meditation. Like many tools I have in my dance toolbox, I learned this from my bellydance teacher, Jamie Miller. If a student of Jamie’s was preparing for a solo performance, it was basically a given that you would have at least one (if not more) private lesson with her as part of your rehearsal process. Usually one session included Private Place work. If we were working on a troupe piece, we would usually do Private Place together. I don’t know how Jamie managed to both lead the process and simultaneously participate in the process (guiding herself to find her own Private Place), but when we do it in our class today, the person doing the guiding usually gets at turn to be led through the process separately, at a later time.

Ok. So here's how we do it. The dancer lies down in an open space (with a little room to move), and is first guided through some sort of physical relaxation process (imagining each body part filling with sand and becoming heavy is a popular one). The leader then uses really open dialog to encourage the dancer to let their mind open/wander to a “place”. By open dialog, what I mean is that if I’m leading I’m going to try not to say any words that “suggest” where the dancer will go. I keep the language so that it's not specific and riddled with details. I dont want to constrict the possibilites by saying, "You are going to a private place on a beach near a mountain, it is cold...blah blah blah." I know we have at least one student that picks where they are going before they even close their eyes…but in my opinion, that’s really not the idea. The idea is just be open to the process and just end up wherever you end up.

To give you and idea of what a “place” can be, here’s a list of a few places some of us have ended up in:
Me personally: I’ve been on the rooftop of some kind of ancient temple in a jungle. I’ve been near a waterfall. I’ve been on the very edge of an oasis with one side of my body always being next to lushness and the other side being next to the dry desert. I’ve been inside of some big dark gooey viscous blob of I-don’t-know-what. I’ve been laying on a rock in the middle of river. I’ve been in the woods where my car crashed.
I have troupe members who have been: Swimming in a lake. Laying in a rowboat on a lake. Actually being a tornado. Being a tree. Standing on the very edge of a cliff. Being and organism living in a tide-pool. Moving amongst large blobs of colors floating around them . Under a bed of decomposing leaves in a forest.

Once you find your place, then you explore it. You are then guided to explore it as deeply as possible while still within the meditative state. Noticing what is around you (again, the leader uses open dialog). Are you alone? Is there a temperature? Can you tell if there is a time of day, a season, etc. Are there any smells? I think you get the idea. As the dancer, you are basically being aware and noticing.

And once the dancer has explored a bit while laying in stillness, they are then encourage to begin to move physically about the open space, but to remain mentally and spiritually “within” their private place. Just moving around…not actually dancing (although depending on the place, I suppose that could happen). And as you explore your private place through movement, you have your private place feed your movement, and you have your movement feed your private place. The play off each other.

Once the person leading feels like there is some sort of “resolution” or full exploration of the place (which can be interesting when we are working in a group), the leader eases the dancer back into the room.

Sometimes we give the dancer something to write with to jot notes or draw images, and often we share about our experience (not required, but we usually do), both as the dancer and as the leader/witness. Sometimes the one watching sees things that the dancer may not have been aware of because they are a bit “tranced out”, so to speak. Things like a repetitive movement or gesture. Or a quality of movement.

The neatest thing about Private Place sometimes, is that of all the places you can end up in, your psyche usually does a pretty damn good job of creating a place for you that lines up exactly with current issues you are working through on a personal level. Through the weeks of rehearsing, as you use your private place to enrich your dance experience, you have an opportunity (at least this is how it works for me) to also work through your personal issues via movement. And as you work through some of your personal issues from your life outside of the dance studio, it in turn has an effect on your dance rehearsal. Your private place feeds your movement, your movement feeds your private place.

In terms of the actual rehearsal times, private place is this tool you can use, this place you can go, pretty quickly, that will ground you so you are ready to dance. Kind of the way some people meditate with a candle, and when they focus on a flame, it reminds them quickly of the calm state they’ve visited before.
Private place, in my experience, also makes the dance movements themselves really rich, for lack of a better term, and often there have been movements specifically representative of and relevant to the private place itself that actually make it into the choreography. It’s usually these choreographed movements that leave an audience member commenting that they felt there was a “story” they were discovering as part of watching the performance. For me, it’s this kind of choreography that turns bellydance from just entertainment to an art form. A vehicle for creative expression. The audience usually knows I’m trying to say “something”, and as with other arts, it is up to the viewer to find the meaning within themselves.

What private place does for a dancer on the actual performance day is also a big gift. You hit the stage, close your eyes and center yourself for even just a few seconds, and if you imagine yourself in your private place, it almost matters not at all that you are now in front of a bunch of people watching you, or that the stage isn’t the same size as your rehearsal space, or that the surface you are dancing on is different than your studio floor. I mean, those things do matter, and you do notice them, but your private place basically keeps you from tripping over details. It keeps you in the core of yourself, and with your movement. It keeps you grounded.

I tell you who I’d REALLY like to talk to about this a student we had for a long time named Bruce. He never really wanted to bellydance. He was a piano player, and he was mostly coming to our class for the first half of our class, which is the body alignment segment. He always stayed for the second half of class though and danced, and I what I remember was him talking about how Private Place work was feeding his playing piano playing.

Karen also offered up some additional information. She feels like Private Place is similar to when she walks into her studio to paint, she starts by drawing in a sketchbook as a way to make a transition and get grounded.

Maybe it’s like the way a knitter settles into a nice long chunk of knitting time, when we have those. Maybe it’s like deciding to create a knitted garment. You get a deep detailed image of what you want to create, and then every time you work on the your project, you have the image of the finished item in your mind, and it is with you as you work.

Hope that helps.
I'm actually off to dance class, it's Thursday Night!


jodi said...

Yes, this does help. I think the reason I had so much trouble visualizing what you meant is because I'm not a dancer myself and don't really feel like I have a lot of control over my body, although, of course, I must have in order to make art, and there is a grace of movement involved in standing before a wall-sized paper and making sweeping marks upon it, but for some reason doubtless having to do with my abyssmal failure in bellydance class, it seems different to me somehow. I do know what you mean though, and do experience something similar in my approach to my studio work.

Anonymous said...

Neat-o. Thank you for this.

You know that feeling you get in your scalp when someone is playing with your hair? Kind of a flood of soothing tingles? That's what reading all that made me feel. Really cool. I can extrapolate dozens of applications.

Really, thank you.

Anonymous said...


That was a great post.

The only thing I’d like to add is about the difference I experience between being a painter and a dancer. First is the way the body is used in each activity. In painting, the focus is pretty much in the hands (and arms depending on how big the piece is). I've always loved to dance, but never had any formal training until I started taking belly dance class at the age of 24. One of the first things I realized was that my body awareness was localized in my eyes, head, and hands. Class was (and still is) all about the process of connecting with the different parts of my physical self.

And I’ve always expressed myself visually via two-dimensional means: either through drawing or painting. Sculpture? Forget about it. So getting into dancing and choreography, which are definitely three-dimensional, has been quite a transition for me. Plus it’s an adjustment having the focus of your artistic expression shift from an object outside of you (third-person) to yourself (first-person).

Dance has also been valuable for helping me get out of my head. I’m guilty of sitting around forever contemplating what I’ll do next on my painting. In dance, there’s no time for futzing around like that. You have to do it…now.

One last thing: private place is like method acting -- using a personal experience to feed/ground your characterization.