Saturday, July 15, 2006

learning as remembering

Let's assume that the Grand Master of Ceremonies announced to me one day that he'd decided to make me a better dancer, but that for each ability in this area he granted he'd subtract one from my writing abilities.

I'd sign the agreement in a heartbeat. In blood, if necessary.

I started Scottish Country Dancing eight years ago, responding to a flyer from the local community center announcing that classes in this idiosyncratic version of eighteenth century ballroom dancing, with lots more hopping up and down, would be offered each Tues for the next ten weeks.

As a beginner, I was awful. I gave new meaning to the expression "dancing with two left feet." The fact that I was taking these classes with a friend who'd danced as a Martha Graham dancer since about the age of three months made my clumsiness all the more painful and obvious.

Why did I stick with it? Sheer doggedness for one, but also something less easy to describe.

The music reminded me of something. Something I'd once known but since almost forgotten. Each time the music for these Scottish Country dances played I was transported. There were certain tunes, like the one that Robert Burns set for his poem The Lea-Rig, that had so powerful an effect on me I simply could not move my feet. The disparity between what I heard and what my dancing body was then able to do was just too immense.

My sense of dogged persistence all changed, however, when I went to my first "monthly party," held quite conveniently for me in a Masonic hall just a few blocks from where I was then living. The moment I entered the hall, the excitement and energy were palpable. The music was live, and there seemed to be an almost magical connection between the musicians, the music they played, and the dancers who were dancing to this music. It just did not matter that I was still mostly dancing with two left feet. I could not stay on the sidelines while such music was being played, such dancing going on.

I kept at it pretty steadily over the next several years, dancing twice, thrice, and sometimes five times a week with different classes in different locations, and attending those magical and transporting dancing parties each month. I became good enough to join one the performance groups in the area, and as long as I didn't look at myself too hard in those long mirrors that line the sides of all dancing studios, I could convince myself that I was not entirely out of place. At this point, eight years later, I'm reasonably satisfied with where I am as a dancer, and, assuming the Grand M of C does not make me the offer I described above, I will most likely remain at this level to the end of my dancing days. The important thing is that I still hear that distant music. I still remember. And I'm still half transported each and every time I dance. And besides, everyone who's dancing is having SUCH a good time, it's hard not to smile oneself, hard not to simply take pleasure in being in the company of such joyful fellow dancers.

I think something very similar happens with the writing of the participants who enter the summer institute. Many enter the institute just as I entered Scottish Country Dancing, with two left feet, metaphorically speaking. They are frightened and timid and just hope that their 'deficiencies' will not be too painfully exposed. They are convinced that their writing abilities are 'fixed,' not susceptible to change, and they simply hope that this rather glaring weakness in a "Writing Project Teacher Consultant" will somehow go unnoticed.

And then they hear Patrick and Craig read their scribe notes. "I don't care how lousy I think my own writing is," they say to themselves, "I simply want to be in the presence of people who write LIKE THAT." Or if you are Mara, you learn to say "That's SOOO Partick" when you are in the presence of such moments of startling connection between voice and self. And so it goes, and so most participants' writing improves, and so we gradually all jolly one another into taking greater risks, having more fun, feeding off each other's successes and embarrassments. Laughing. Laughing a lot.

Some of us, like Catherine, hear the music of our own voices early in the institute and emerge as much better writers at its close. Others simply hear whispers and echoes of the writer they aspire to become, catch glimpses of this writer before he or she flits round the corner and vanishes from sight.

But the point is that it does not matter. What matters is that we share a common conviction and a common aspiration: the conviction that with patient listening we can begin to hear, despite years of doubt and the harsh judgments of others, the rhythms and cadences of a voice that is uniquely our own; the aspiration to remember those moments when we hear that 'click' between ourselves and the sound of our own voices--those "That's SOOO Partick" moments--and to nurture them, cultivate them, listen for them with an heightened sense of expectation.

6 comments:

Laura said...

Music and joyful dancers, yes!
I remember well the first transporting effect of fiddle music, long before my strathespey step emerged. My progress from rank beginning Scottish Country Dancer to aspiring advanced beginner started the very night Jonathan took me to a monthly party. (Ellen was going to attend, but a computer crash destroyed a presentation she had due.)
In the live music, the beautiful plummage of the dancers and in my delight seeing the courteous, poised elegance of a dance performed by gentlefolk who walked out of a baroque ballroom, something was born. I was taken with the easy, unaffected manners, and the attentive kindness shown to beginners and was enthralled to find I could get through beginner dances with everybody's smiling support. I made a heart decision.
At the break, I met Paula and found out about a Friday night dance class in Soquel, because I knew I'd need at least two lessons per week to progress. Driving and late nights were no obstacle. No matter how fried I might feel after my school day, the music and delight of social dancing always transported me to an enlivened, joyful place. In fact, I would be so stimulated when I got home, I'd often blog until my brain settled down.

jonathan said...

Laura reminds me of something that's a bit of a puzzle to me, since I experienced the same thing and responded similarly. It's this: I danced for about a year and a half going to one class once a week. I'd get a little better, regress, get a little better again, regress again. Then I had that same monthly party experience that Laura talks about (it was even in the same Masonic Hall in San Mateo, as I recall) and everything changed. I also started dancing more than once a week, and I started improving much more rapidly and much more steadlily. But what's with the once a week vs more than once a week? Is it that dancing once a week, or doing anything new just once a week for that matter, is too timid? Like stickiing one's toes in the water, not daring to plunge in? Is having the courage to plunge in, making a 'heart decision' as Laura calls it, part of what we need to do if we want to get better at anything?

spam said...

I felt this way about swing music the first time I heard it...which was why Chang and I did a big number (after 2 months of private lessons) at our wedding. We've always said that that's something we would love to continue when we can find more time (hopefully before Emma leaves for college). I've felt this way about my own voice and writing through summer institute and co-directing experiences. I've found that it's often our responders that give us the confidence to believe in the worth of our own voices. That is the "sun" I might take back with me to the classroom and school to share with students and colleagues. Perhaps if I can reflect the best in those around me they will be inspired to find it in themselves.

grant said...

A corollary to finding one's own voice is the joy of losing one's voice utterly; to realize that the self, the bondage of ego, has relaxed its death grip on the being and that now the consciousness is free to blow from any direction of the quadrant with complete fluency. This is the "Shakespeare space." Few ever occupy this space for any length of time but those who do mark it well and pray for its return.
Some of your dancing experiences are the physical manifestation of Shakespeare space, it seems to me.

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