Trip the Light Fantastic

By Taisha Ostler


It begins as always, with the bowing of the head, the hands poised, the body capturing itself in archaic frame…Bodies bend their legs, twist their torsos, and lower their gazes…This is how to say grace.

                                                                         – Kara Roseborough

    

          I ease myself into the tub and lay my head against the porcelain rim. The faucet (which I have intended to fix for months) drips a steady beat into the water below, creating a lovely little tune. Soon, I find myself imagining what this music would look like embodied by dance. It happens often, this mental movement that will never occupy space outside of my own mind. I am usually dancing alone, but sometimes music washes over me in a way that calls for many bodies—a chorus of graceful and powerful amens expanding into one great whole—and I imagine the stage filled and humming.       

            In my youth, I adhered to regular dance discipline, like prayer, as a way to nourish my inner makings. I was a shy kid; dance was one of the ways I learned to break free from the constraints of timidity—it became the most important thing in my life. The movement gave me a way to speak when I couldn’t find my way to words. I felt a communion with other dancers and the audience. There was an understanding between us, a conversation. I’d breathe music in and dance would move through me, translating the music into a form of kinetic language. I loved finding ways to make the movement my own when a choreographer would include me in her piece.

            The word choreography comes from the Greek words χορεία (dancing) and γραϕια (writing). To write dance is tricky business. Choreographers put movement onto bodies to express meaning. Dance is beautiful in that it doesn’t always need to be structured, anyone can move to music, the language of art is one that allows us to interpret meaning in our own ways. Yet, choreographers do need to set specific movement on different dancers at different times. In addition, a choreographer may want to keep a record of the art she has created. So, how does a choreographer make her dance concrete and lasting?

            Dance notation systems have existed since the 17th century. To preserve work, choreographers created ways to write dance for publication and eventually for copyrighting. It is because of notation choreo-scripts that we have ballets such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker being reproduced with nearly the same movement that originally debuted over one hundred years ago.

            Different systems include Benesh movement notation, which notes the dancers’ body position from behind onto a five staff line, marked by something like music measures:


The Eschkol-Wachman movement notation divides the body into jointed points and then uses a type of spreadsheet to write the position of the body as it progresses through the steps:


Labanotation uses specific symbols to represent the parts of the body, movement, and sequence:


With training, these languages can be read by a universal audience (much like music). It fascinates me that symbols on a page can be transformed into living, breathing bodies.

            Though these movements have been preserved, what I love most about choreography is the way the work morphs depending on the dancers. Whenever a dance is performed it is something new. Each iteration holds its own place in time—maybe one dancer expands his movement for a fraction of a second longer than the last time he performed, or another dancer brings the emotion of having just witnessed his son’s birth into the performance—and when a certain set of circumstances converge—holiness is achieved.

            Is it strange to proclaim a stage, or a rehearsal area, to be holy? There are few places where I have felt such communion with something greater than myself: the operating room where my twins were born, my home, the Wasatch Mountains, sacred places of my faith, and yes, those spaces where art unfolds. In these holy realms, I have shared moments of fellowship and unity with others when words weren’t enough; another language was required. Moments when energy flowed in synchronistic waves. On stage, when I sensed others in harmony with my intake of breath, the reaching connection of hands, the lines of precision working toward one purpose.

            I don’t dance as often as I used to. It is a discipline best employed by the young. I stopped dancing all together in my twenties and didn’t return to it in earnest until my forties. I love who I am when I dance, but I lost sight of that for a long time. I let other people convince me that dance isn’t a worthy endeavor. I stopped believing in what it taught me to say, how it gave me the strength to become the person I am today. “Why?” you ask. Well, why does anyone give up on such things?  It isn’t just one thing that pulled me away. I don’t recall making the decision that I would give it up. Daily living often convinces significant rituals to slip away from us without acknowledgment. There was a day (though I cannot pinpoint which one) when my feet stopped dancing; they turned and walked away and the rest of me was swept-up right along with them.

            As I settled into the midlife questions that stereotypically proceed a crisis, I once again found myself longing to dance like I need to pray. Coming back to it has been difficult, physically, and mentally. It is hard to concede that I am no longer capable of what I once was. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, so I joined a newly organized contemporary company called Brine. It was, for me, a return much like the return of a prodigal child. It felt familiar and inviting. It reawakened a voice that had been quieted for so long that I thought maybe it didn’t exist anymore. My first performance was grace and light, and welcome home, but in the midst of nightly rehearsals and new injuries, I realized that dance is not my only way to speak anymore. I have found ways to use my voice in other areas of my life. I am a mother, a writer, and a businesswoman. My time is limited, my children’s hungry tummies need feeding, and the pressures of work often win the day, but I refuse to let the rituals of dance slip away again. I continue to make dance a part of my routine. When the music swells, whether I’m physically framing myself into first position as I load the dishwasher, or conjuring the movement in my head for a local choreo-competition; you’ll find me dancing.

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