Where is the dance happening?

On Tuesday evening, I went to A Choreographic Conversation with Liz Lerman, which was held at the Dance Exchange studios in Takoma Park. The discussion was moderated by Sarah Kaufman, who is a dance critic for the Washington Post. When Kaufman asked Liz where the dance is happening, a question that lies at the core of Dance Exchange’s mission, Liz replied that “in order to practice the fullness of the form, you can’t stay in the studio.” All of the tools and movement commissions we’re exploring at the institute reinforce the idea that dance is a way of embodying new information. And I think that physicalizing these new ideas is a mechanism of understanding them.

Monday afternoon, John Borstel, Elizabeth Johnson, and Cassie Meador led a session around the discussion of where the dance is happening. They guided us through documentation and personal anecdotes of Dance Exchange’s history and the works that sprouted from collaborations at universities, naval shipyards, historical societies, on mountains, and more. Before we dove into that history, we all sat down to brainstorm a list of the places, big and small, where dance is happening. We started with the micro dances our blood cells are always doing, then jotted down locations like proscenium stages, in gardens, in rites of passage, rituals, healthcare settings, on chairs, in dialogue, and even in the way we speak and understand one another. All of these different ideas culminated in a fairly expansive and inclusive definition of dance. The next question that came up was “is the absence of dance also dance?” I don’t know if I can confidently give a concise definition of what dance is and where it happens, nor do I think those questions are meant to be answered with a singular response. We all view movement in the world through the lens of our own histories and experiences, and for that reason, I believe that dance’s definition is in the eye of the perceiver.

Another one of the questions that has frequently surfaced in our discussions at the institute is that of belonging. For me this question has been what communities do I belong to and in what ways am I responsible to them? This felt particularly relevant on Tuesday when Cassie and Elizabeth led a session at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. They partnered with two ecologists who led the participants and I around the garden and gave us detailed descriptions, histories, and personal narratives about some of the plants we encountered. We used different tools to embody the information we received as we explored different sections of the garden. At one point, Sam Horning, an Adjunct Artist at Dance Exchange, asked us how we might physicalize the idea of a human body supporting a complex, sustainable ecosystem. I tried to generate some movement in conjunction with the structure of the garden around me, and I struggled a little bit.

A lot of my own artistic inquiry lives around the question of how I was raised to define the natural world. I’m very fascinated by the images that come to mind when someone says the word “nature”. As a human being, I am also inherently part of nature. Sam’s question made me think a lot about belonging; to what extent do I belong to the community that my culture defines as “nature”? On one hand, I contend with how I might fit into a system that I’m told is already sustainable. Wouldn’t my presence disrupt the natural balance of that environment? On the other hand, I think it’s pretty unrealistic to pose the suggestion that we should eliminate human beings from the planet altogether. So, if I recognize that I belong to that community, the next question is how I can coexist with all of the other members of said community in a sustainable way? If I think of this issue in the same way that the artists at Dance Exchange approach new communities, then my task is to identify the need, pay attention to what’s already around me, and try to decipher how I can both provide for and illuminate the preexisting beauty.

As an artist with an environmentalist agenda, this new outlook is exhilarating because it sheds new light on a topic that I battle with. To me, these questions of where the dance is happening and who gets to do it don’t have definitive answers. The questions operate as tools to challenge the artist and provoke deeper, more creative and curious ways of thinking.

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.