This essay was originally published in The Arts Fuse, May 11, 2014.
When I auditioned to be a member of the Le Grand Continental-Boston (LGC), Celebrity Series choreographed street dance of local citizens, I expected to meet people beyond my usual sphere, learn cool dance steps, and have fun. In the three months between auditions and our upcoming Copley Square performances May 16, 17, and 18, LGC has exceeded all of those expectations. But my first foray into choreography has also brought an unexpected benefit: a deeper appreciation for dance.
From the first rehearsal I realized that the dancing I enjoy at clubs and weddings is different from dance as an art form. I can apply pressure to my partner’s shoulder to guide him through a jitterbug swing or waltz turn, but coordinating multiple bodies through space to music is logarithmically more complex. Simple gestures aggregate into complex moves, which become challenging sequences. I began by memorizing step A + step B + step C, a sound, though tedious, method of learning. Practice videos with music proved difficult to follow, but I valued the ones with counts. I understood dance as a math problem. Over time, patterns emerged, repetition, then order, and finally, the accents that interrupt order.
I discovered elements of yoga and running embedded in our choreography. Then I found dance in everyday movement; mundane chores like hanging laundry and raking leaves induced motion that evoked dance. As I mastered sequences, I craved further complexity.
I’ve seen Boston Ballet once or twice, but knew little about our city’s other dance offerings. My curiosity led me to Alvin Ailey at the Wang Center as well as spring performances by the Boston Conservatory and local dance troupe Urbanity. After witnessing three performances within a month, I was struck by the physical and emotional wallop dance can offer.
The Boston Conservatory’s Limitless demonstrated the range that aspiring professional dancers must achieve and illustrated aspects of dance I’d never considered. That Mark Morris’ Canonic ¾ Studies could be so funny or Dwight Rhoden’s Fits of Hissy so precisely exhausting. Tommy Nesbitt’s The Past is a Foreign Country explored the trauma of the Kosovo War with an emotional depth that transcended words. Following that with Karole Armitage’s decadent Rave seemed inappropriate on the program page, yet felt exactly right in time and space.
Alvin Ailey presented a pinnacle experience. The visual and emotional impact of the company pulsing in the syncopated gallop of Aszure Barton’s LIFT resonated for days afterward.
Yet Urbanity’s performance spoke most directly to me. Perhaps the cognitive leap between my own abilities and those on stage didn’t seem insurmountable, merely huge. Urbanity offers so many ways to dance: children; adults; seniors; amateurs; professionals, there’s a place for all. The quality of dance was high, but the purpose and dedication that each dancer brought to the stage was even higher.
My exposure to professional dance evoked two questions. First, is there a common thread that ties Urbanity’s high school student Peter Mazurowski and Alvin Ailey veteran Antonio Douthit-Boyd? Second, why has my street dancing in Copley Square triggered this broader exploration?
The commonality I discerned between Limitless, Alvin Ailey, and Urbanity is dance’s ability to tackle thorny issues while maintaining human connection. The dozen dances I witnessed addressed confrontation, love, war, and death. Yet the very nature of dance demands we maintain relationships to one another. Every move by every dancer is tied to every other human on stage. As long as we cling to the tension that binds us, humanity’s potential to triumph remains strong.
Why this seems relevant to me now is a matter any educator or social scientist can explain. When we immerse ourselves in something, anything, we appreciate and respect it more. The Celebrity Series is investing significant time, money, and personal energy to present Le Grand Continental. In exchange 112 people are enjoying an experience that enhances our relationship to an art form. Hopefully, the thousands more who attend will gain fresh perspective on art in general and dance in particular.
Art requires people to perform as well as people to witness. The Wallace Foundation has documented that becoming an art producer, even in my own rudimentary way, increases a person’s appetite to consume it. In the art world, supply and demand grow together. The more art we create, the more we crave art.
In a nation where public funding of the arts continues to decline and there is a measurable disconnect between arts education priorities and funding, we must constantly stir the creative pot of artistic endeavor. Otherwise, artistic initiatives will stagnate.
I hope thousands of people show up to see Le Grand Continental this weekend. Not to see me, but to see how dance can change the way we appreciate our world.