When people think of telling stories, typically they think of books. But, as I sat last weekend watching my daughter dance at a recital, I realized storytelling can actually take on forms beyond the written word and, in some cases, even beyond the spoken word, such as through dance.
There were two performances that made me realize the real storytelling power of dance.
The dance company my daughter attends is no regular company. It doesn’t just perform perfunctory ballets and cutesy dances. Therefore, I always expect something interesting, intelligent and I got what I expected, plus much more.
For the very first dance, the lights went down and the music rose, and a blue hazy light fell across the stage. Dancers in street clothes skipped onto the stage like children on a breezy summer day. The mood soon turned somber with dancers freezing in time while others moved around them.
This dance, called Photographs, embodied the idea of holding onto memories and people through the imagery of pictures. Dancers flowed together and then fell away from each other, connecting and losing each other in time. It was so moving (no pun intended), it made me cry. (Yes, I’m sappy!)
In the second dance, one dancer in a flowing purple dress floated around the stage while other dancers in black leotards pulled and almost taunted her with their movements. The dancer in purple represented a person with chronic disease and the others represented the disease. At the end, the song stopped but the dancers did not. As the dancer in purple crawled off the stage while the other dancers clung onto her legs, I wriggled in my chair and felt the anguish in my bones.
I also understood something new through watching these dances. They had characters, conflict, pain, rising and falling action and morals. Just like a book. And, just like a book, they made me feel and experience the sadness and triumphs of others. A good story always will.
Writers create books to make us feel, experience, empathize, learn. Dance is just a book in motion.
Neither dance was meant to make me sit there and smile or call the dance “cute.” Both dances sought to show me an emotional story. As I experienced those stories, I empathized, I related, I learned.
This concept was swimming through my mind when I read an article about a dance performance at the high school of my former hometown of South Orange, NJ. South Orange was a town I loved for its diversity and inclusiveness. Our neighbors came in all shapes, sizes, sexual orientations, colors and cultures. For me, that town represents how the world should be, but so rarely is. It’s a town that even changed the street signs to show support for women.
But even that wonderful town isn’t utopia and there’s still prejudice. However, what struck me most about this article of a school dance performance wasn’t that the teachers’ complaints exemplify how little people understand the issues of race. Sadly, based on recent experience, I expect this. It has become clear many people have deluded themselves into thinking their prejudice isn’t actual prejudice or that because they have a right to be prejudice, the rest of us also don’t somehow have a right to tell them they’re jerks. (We do. They are.) But, again, an article highlighting this fact is sadly no surprise anymore.
What struck me more regarding this story was the response of the dancers to faculty members who claimed the dance made them fearful and afraid. The dancers, teenagers, understood better than the adult teachers the value of dance and artistic expression to uncover truths.
For example, one of the dancers provided this comment:
“To be frank, the topics covered within the dance were not meant to be comfortable or pleasing to the audience.”
What type of high school dance performance could cause such controversy even in a town that celebrates its multicultural, diverse population?
The dance was called “Four Score and Seven Years Ago.” But it wasn’t some historical dance about Lincoln or emaciation or freedom. Simply the fact that the dance was set to the music of “Strange Fruit,” a 1939 song about lynching, makes the intent here clear. The dance explored slavery, lynching, police brutality and what one dancer explained to be the “discomfort that black people feel every single day.”
What were the complaints of the teachers? It made them feel uncomfortable. Clearly, these teachers missed or just didn’t want to face the point. This dance was a story meant to make people think and experience the pain of others, which is exactly what the best stories accomplish whether they are written, acted or danced.
It’s a beautiful dance, I encourage all to watch it. It also is a great example of how dance is more than ballerinas in tutus. Dance can tell a powerful, impactful and, thought-provoking story that may move people to grow and change. And isn’t that really the point of all types of storytelling?