Finding the Essence

Photo by Annette Griffin

On the first day of the institute we were introduced to the concept of “essencing.” Institute participants were asked to observe a partner dancing for a short period of time and then approximate to the best of their ability the “essence” or spirit of what they had just done. It wasn’t important that our version be exact, simply that we attempted to capture what was at the heart of the movement.

This idea of “finding the essence” has come up several times during the institute. Utilizing essencing as a tool is particularly important when working with community members of different ages, movement backgrounds, and physical ability. Essencing has been especially key during our community engagement workshops where we have turned personal stories into movement.

On Tuesday we led our first workshop at the Takoma Park Recreation center using the “Build A Phrase” tool. Dance Exchange staff posed the question, “What have you carried  (or what would you carry) to a new home?” From the diverse stories that were shared we used essencing to create a movement phrase that held different meanings for the collective and changed meaning as we performed it in the space. Essencing is a valuable tool in collaboration because while not everything gets carried forward, the creation represents everyone who participated.

A side note: One of my favorite moments from Tuesday was getting the opportunity to watch one of our young workshop participants and two friends perform their step team choreography for us in the Takoma Recreation Center as we were closing out the day. These moments of authentic exchange are at the core of the New Hampshire Ave. project.

By using tools and activities that call for essencing, we can take the focus off of doing the “right” movement and shift it towards giving individuals the space to work with new information, while still honoring the movement already in their bodies.I found this to be especially true when we taught the choreography from Still Crossing (1986) to several elders from a nearby assisted living facility.Because Still Crossing was choreographed to be performed by a large number of individuals from diverse backgrounds, the idea of essencing has been a key to encouraging  participation. Many of them chose to adapt the choreography to chairs, which changed the energy of the dance in beautiful ways.

A wonderful aspect of essencing is what it reveals about the value of variation and coming together across difference. At the end of our time we formed a circle and everyone was asked to share their favorite movement from the choreography. It was actually quite powerful to see each person perform a movement that resonated deeply with him or her in a way that was particular to their body and past experiences.

As the institute comes to an end I am thinking more about the larger implication of Dance Exchange tools like essencing, specifically as they pertain to the fields of urban planning. Some questions that come to mind include: What is the importance of preserving the essence or spirit of a community? How do we translate the essence of a community? How can essencing encouraging us to consider the entire ecology of a community?

About Bimbola Akinbola

Bimbola Akinbola, is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Maryland, and currently engages with Dance Exchange on a number of projects and events, giving voice to the process through documentation.