Perspective, Access, and Experience

In light of Dance Exchange’s 40th anniversary, the first two days of the summer institute have been filled with discussion around both the organization’s history and the embodied history that lies in our own physicality. I think that reflecting on our own history asks us to acknowledge the variance and validity of our experiences. When you ask someone what they noticed or felt during a particular moment, there are a million ways that they could respond. But any honest response is a valid one. What Dance Exchange Founder, Liz Lerman, and all of our other faculty members continue to remind us is to trust and honor both our own experiences, and those of everyone around us. When we collaborate and ask people about their experience, they get to verbalize and acknowledge it, and we get to learn, expand, and diversify our perception of what it means to live in the world today.

In terms of our own bodies, we carry emotional narratives and memories of physical sensation that mold our interactions in the present. In our Saturday morning movement class, our teachers, Associate Artistic Director Matthew Cumbie and Associate Artist Shula Strassfeld, made time to acknowledge the teachers and mentors that helped shape and influence the dancing that they do today. This practice of verbalizing one’s history seems to be an integral part of the work that the artists at Dance Exchange do. This year, the artists and collaborators of the organization are looking back at the origins of Dance Exchange and investigating the past 40 years of dance making and movement research in order to sustain their continual growth.

In a wonderful conversation with Liz Lerman and Meghan Abadoo this morning, Liz shared with us a tool that she employs when working with new communities and populations of varying physical capacities. We sat in chairs arranged in one large circle in the studio, all facing inward with our eyes fixed on Liz. She began to slowly lift her arms and make small gestures with her appendages. Then she asked us to mimic her dance with our own bodies, and we did so until she invited someone else to sit in her chair and lead all of us in a new seated dance. We went on like this for a little while, and I noticed that I was craning my neck ever so slightly in order to fully see whoever was leading the movement. I glanced around at everyone else in the circle and saw bodies adjusting and compensating for their position in the circle and for their spatial relationship to Liz’s chair. To me, this moment acted as a physical manifestation of one of the biggest through lines of the day; everyone at this institute, and in the world outside, carries their own unique history and perspective of what they see. Even if there have been intersections along the way, every participant, faculty member, and facilitator comes from a different background and a disparate set of experiences. And we are all here to share this wonderfully rich, communal experience of creative inquiry and dialogue.

In that same Saturday morning session, there was talk about how Dance Exchange is a shape-shifting organization that is receptive to the inevitable change in our often unpredictable contemporary landscape. The question that Liz reminds us to ask is how we can stay creative in these uncomfortable and unpredictable moments of change.

During our orientation session, Matthew and Associate Artist Elizabeth Johnson asked us what we were nervous about. I remember speaking to some of the other participants about trying to silence our inner critics and worrying that they might stifle our creativity and influence the way we participate in class sessions. In retrospect, silencing that critical commentary is a lot easier when we accept and honor the diversity in our past and present experiences. It’s moments like this, when we start to doubt ourselves or compare our work to others, that we have to honor the individual experience and perspective that we carry with us. And in moments of doubt, we turn our discomfort into inquiry, and let creativity solve the problem.

This week serves as my first introduction to Dance Exchange, and there is so much fruitful information to absorb that it feels difficult to conclude my thoughts anywhere. I do know that our initial discussions and shared dances these past two days have established a safe space and launching point for us all to play and discover, and to look both backwards and ahead!

About Charlotte Stickles

Charlotte is a fourth-year undergraduate student pursuing her BFA in dance at The Ohio State University. She grew up in Irvington, New York, a small town outside of New York City. In the department at OSU, Charlotte is focusing on performance and choreography, and her research inquiries lie in the intersection of movement and interactive environments. She is also interested in the use of writing and visual art as a way of processing the world around her.