my journey towards rolling around on the floor
I had my first voice lesson on the last day of the year. It’s something I’d been thinking about for awhile and finally reached out to a friend who’s a trained vocalist and a joy to work with.
I’m a dancer. And for many years, I’ve been ~the silent dancer~ moving my body, but rarely my voice. This never bothered me, growing up as a ballet bunhead, but in more recent years of artistic curiosity, I’ve needed to break the quietude. I want to make noises and sing and speak words into spaces, maybe sound a little better but mostly I want to be less shy.
Our voices emanate from our body. Duhh! But sometimes I forget?? Of course, this is an embodied endeavor! But at times it can feel that my words just come right from a thought in my mind: a direct brain to mouth pipeline. I have little understanding of the mechanics of voice ~ how belly, breath, vocal cords, mouth all make the sound that is my voice.
Hence why I’m embarking on voice lessons. And right away, it’s clear that this is a full body effort.
Soften your knees
Loosen your jaw, neck, and shoulders
Breath from your low back
Beautiful, yes, nice.
The deep shift that I’m paying attention to and ushering in is towards the ground. I hold a bit of tension up high - shoulders, mouth, upper chest - many of us do. Year of ballet training certainly reinforced this.
What I’m just beginning to learn about voice has me reflecting on my movement journey and how I got here. This is what I’d like to share with you today ~ a light nerd out on dance, and a little more about my path which is shared by many others. It’s a path towards the ground, towards earth - and I feel this trajectory shared by other parts of my life.
Growing up, my dance training started with ballet. As I made my way to high school, I was in the studio about five days a week for ballet barre, pointe class, and a mix of other dance forms: Ukrainian folk dance, flamenco, jazz, and modern. It was a rich creative experience, and while we got a nice mix of movement forms, ballet was the priority and what we spent the most time with.
If you’ve ever taken a ballet class or watched Black Swan, you have an idea of the movement – dancing in front of mirrors, graceful arms, repetitive leg movement, leaping, turning, and lifting. So much of classical ballet is about defying gravity. It’s stunning to watch bodies effortlessly move across the stage, legs long, spinning on pointe shoes. Ballerinas are masters of illusion: they embody ease and weightlessness while doing very difficult things, often with smiles on their faces.
Of course, there is still a connection to the ground in ballet: plié (aka bending your knees) is crucial. Though most often bending your knees is simply to launch you back into the air! Possibly into a man’s arms or onto your toes.
The past decade or so of my dance journey has been an unraveling from the rigidity and structure of ballet. This form is hard on the body, the culture often encourages perfectionism, and the movement can feel really unnatural if you’re not thin and have perfect turnout and high arches. Physically and artistically, there was/is a lot for me to heal from.
It’s also been an era of (re)claiming myself as an artist. Though dancing my whole life, it hasn't been until recently that I’ve considered myself an artist. A little mix of imposter syndrome and limited perceptions of what art and artists are. I absorbed some of the hierarchy and eurocentricity present in the dance world: ballet as the gold star standard, the most rigorous and challenging technique, and any other dance form as being less than.
During my undergraduate experience, I sought out a dance minor, shifting my practice from ballet towards the expansive movement world of modern dance, improvisation, social dance, and performance art. At some point, I had my first experience with contact improvisation. These experiences lit a fire in my belly and kept me looking for opportunities to dance throughout my twenties.
I remember how awkward I felt in many contemporary dance classes. The relationship to gravity is so different: feeling the weight of my pelvis, falling towards the ground, allowing momentum to shape my movement. The freedom of improvisation intimidated me. I was used to being shown exactly what and how to move, so moving spontaneously in the moment was very uncomfortable. Trying salsa for the first time, it was hard for me to relax, listen, and let someone guide my movement.
Shifting from ballet towards contemporary dance towards contact improvisation has brought me closer and closer to the ground. It has brought me away from mirrors and conformity and into felt sensation and personal expression.
embodiment of a different dance –
Suck in yer belly, lift your chest, leg, arms, muscles engaged, turn out, on your toes, precision, make it look like this, eyes look up and out, look at yourself the mirror
Feel the weight of yer body, spill, let go, rest, connect with the ground, toss your weight, push, show the effort, make noise, sigh, grunt, initiate from the pelvis, spiral, don’t worry about what it looks like
While lately, my dancing is much looser, I flail and fall to the ground, I laugh and look goofy - I no longer believe this is easier than any other type of dance. For me, it feels delightful and aligned with how I want to move. And it is the accumulation of a lot of practice. I am still learning that:
Letting go is a skill
Falling is a skill
Non-doing is a skill
Making shit up as you go (improvisation) is a skill
>> in continual effort to be a queen of compassionate critique: I have gratitude for my training and my path - the control and awareness of my body, the routine and commitment, the opportunities to perform and teach. Gratitude, too, for the shifts.
Here’s to many, many dances this year, of all sorts and all styles.
Here’s to being grounded in our bodies, in all that we do.
Emily, you crafted such a delightful letter, thank you. I'm with you in vocalizing this year, all the grunting and sighing. & grounding, too- I love your descriptions under "embodiment of a different dance" and I look towards fully feeling the weight of my body~ grateful for you!
Let your body sing! I love the photo essay aspect of this lettter