I hold hands with strangers. I do it quite often, and for long minutes at a time. I wrap my arms around them to bring them close in an embrace. I search their faces. I fit my body to their dips and hollows. Recently a man said to me, “I can feel your hot belly.” He happened to be French, and something about the deliberate way he said it, carefully pronouncing the English words, meant that I could suddenly feel my hot belly too. It was as though I were inside him, and the heat pushing out through my skin was really pushing in. The membrane between us was suddenly so thin we could have peeled it off, or pressed right through it. Where did I end and where did he begin?
This man was a stranger, or, rather, he was a person I had just met. I did not know his name. We were standing close, listening for the moment in the music when we would begin to dance. We were listening for each other. It is often in the moments before the dance proper begins, before conscious moment and figure intrudes, that listening is at its most creative and we are most aware of the body—our own and others’.
What do we write about when we write about dance? Arguably there are as many ways of talking about dance as there are types of dancing. But the experience of dancing—what it feels like, as opposed to what it looks like—has been poorly served by language. When we try to describe how it feels to dance—in the kitchen, on the dance floor, or on the street—we are stuck with externals. Adjectives like energetic, romantic, joyful, liberating are as much about what we hear as about what we feel, and sometimes they are about what we see—although we can’t see ourselves dance. Even if we look in a mirror, we are watching ourselves watching ourselves dance.
It is the problem of the predicate, memorably summed up by Roland Barthes in his impatient dismissal of the way we talk about the singing voice. “Are we doomed to the adjective?” he asked. “Are we faced with this dilemma: the predicable or the ineffable?” Barthes’s discomfort with description extended as far as objecting to human relationships being figured in language: “A relationship which adjectivizes is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death.” The aim should be to abolish within oneself, and between oneself and others, adjectives. He felt the same way about metaphor, the drawing of analogies. And it is true, the point about dancing is not to be like anything, or compared with anything, not to be this or that, but to be.
When I dance I dance with another—mostly touching them, and always, even when we break away for a solo, aware of them. I dance in partnership. About five years ago I started to dance jazz dances from the swing era—the lindy hop, balboa, and shag. Sometimes I dance other partner dances, such as the tango, the waltz, and the foxtrot. I am aware there is something embarrassing about this array of retro styles. And yet, when I dance, I dance in the present.
In partner dancing there is a leader and a follower, and early on I realized that the obvious choice for me was to learn to follow. It was not simply my gender (many women choose to lead) and my size (not very tall), but that I had for years been learning to follow without knowing it. Following is reading. Reading is the ultimate transferable skill, which is lucky as it is my principal skill, a kind of overdeveloped interpretative tendency I find hard to turn off. I apply it everywhere and was most reassured to realize I could apply it to dancing too. In fact, it was required.
Each dance is a small—four- or five-minute—collaboration. There are actually two leaders. One is the person you are dancing with, who leads you through a series of figures in time with the music. And the other is the music itself. The task of the follower is to listen to both of them, to hear them, and to respond creatively in turn. It is like reading a poem, or a very short story, and making something new of them inside your head, except in the case of dancing that something new has to be expressed as movement. Here reading becomes writing, tracing lines and figures in space. The best dances happen when the leader in turn responds to the follower’s movement, and the distinction between call and response becomes muddied. Some of the most exhilarating partner dances I have watched have been between two men who continually swap roles, teasing each other with their ability to both read and be read.
Are there any more glorious images of partners dancing than the photographs of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward having fun in their living room in 1963? The images are still, yet we can feel the movement in the flick of the wrists, that exuberant lift of the hip. They are matching and meeting each other by dancing in parallel. They are dancing as girls: Newman follows Woodward’s lead—you can see him checking—but in camping up her moves he passes them back to her in a kind of tribute. And the fact that they are dancing ironically, with a camera in the room, only adds to the twinning—the camera actually enables the partnership. They perform their equality and their sameness for another, as well as for each other. The couple is a triangle.
The wittiest moments in the queer tango scene between Valentino (danced by Nureyev) and Nijinsky (by Anthony Dowell) in Ken Russell’s film Valentino (1977) occur when the two dancers mirror each other’s movements, cross-stepping across the floor in unison. And again this is a scene of intimacy because it is watched, a point that Russell makes sure we notice by placing a voyeur in the room (Leslie Caron, in a hat to die for, loitering behind a screen) to remind us of our own voyeurism.
In April 1970 Trisha Brown staged a series of “Leaning Duets” on Wooster Street in New York City, in which dancers attempted to defy gravity by walking, leaning as far apart as possible, and balancing against each other’s weight. Two of the dancers are rather good at it. They hold hands, they lean out, and they move forward in time with each other, step measured against step, foot pushing against foot. They are equals in weight, movement, and pace. Some partner dances play with similar mirroring movements—the side-by-side Charleston, for example, in which partners match each other’s kicks, or a whole series of promenade steps that move down a line. But the equality is faked. These movements are led, and the follower’s task is to make it appear as though they are not. When dancers dance socially, a follower’s every move is of necessity a split-second late.
The dance is in the delay. The rhythm is all in the retard, said the cellist Pablo Casals, and I like to think he understood this because of his youthful summers playing mazurkas, waltzes, and other tunes for dancers at local Catalan festivals. A follower is all antennae. She, or he, must cultivate a kind of active uncertainty, a positive doubt. She must be relaxed enough to feel the slightest of cues from her partner, and yet sufficiently poised, mentally and physically, to be able to play—to respond, to hold back, to make form out of commitment, interruption, and hesitation. Her weight must be finely balanced so that she can answer the call to step or turn this way or that, as though she had anticipated it, yet without having known what was coming. She must be light enough to offer no resistance, yet grounded enough to embody tension.
And five minutes later, what are we left with? Something has been fleetingly expressed, and has gone. The leader interprets the music and the desires and inclinations of her follower. She lays figure down on top of musical form, and the follower responds, reading and interpreting in turn. But this is a form of reading that is content with its own process. There is no product beyond the experience of interpretation and recognition. Although I am addicted to watching people dance on film and video, what I get from it is not a recall to the experience of dancing (even if I’m watching myself, and however hard I try to reconstruct the feeling) so much as a record of an event that might just as well have involved someone else. The work of the camera turns the dance into a scene. But whatever has been created in the movement of the dance has been created in the moment and it has no meaning beyond itself. The dance is empty of meaning, and this emptiness too is addictive. What might look like self-expression is actually a way of practicing absenting ourselves.
A couple of years ago I was living in Manhattan and dancing regularly at a wonderfully naff studio in Midtown, all 1980s spangly disco balls, red drapes, and photographs of scantily clad dance competitors that might have been taken by Baz Luhrmann, so Strictly Ballroom were the perspectives. My teacher was Milo, a dancer from the Czech Republic—a fact he used to explain his love of the polka, although no explanation is necessary. The polka, like the Charleston and collegiate shag, is a dance it is impossible to do without grinning, with its skips, jumps, and swirls to that sprightly pulse. “The problem with you,” Milo said to me one day, “is that you know the steps, but you don’t…”—and here he gestured with his arms, bringing them across himself in a gesture of defense, so that I knew exactly what he meant. “You don’t hold yourself open.” It was true, I was frightened; but of what?
Milo wanted me to look. The look, as any ballet dancer will tell you, is part of the figure the body makes. Mine was at the ground. It was not that I was checking what my feet were doing, it was that I was shy of acknowledging that I was dancing at all. If I didn’t look at my partner, perhaps he wouldn’t see me. I was like the child who shuts her eyes and believes she has disappeared. Milo set me a task. I was to stand two feet away from one of the studio mirrors and execute a series of simple steps, again and again, looking myself straight in the eye. Reluctantly, I began. An agony of shame. Nowhere to hide. I desperately wanted to look away—anything but this witnessing of myself. “This is torture!” I cried. “I know,” he said. After about twenty minutes of this torment he jumped, suddenly, into the small two-foot space between me and the mirror—he became the mirror—so that I was forced to look directly into his face, inches from mine. I was seeing and being seen. I just about managed to keep dancing.
What was it I didn’t want to see? Perhaps the answer is simple: I didn’t want to see the ridiculous hash I was making of the dance. I was embarrassed by my own lack of expertise. I wanted to be able to dance by accident rather than by design (talent rather than hard work), and I was ashamed of the effort I was having to make, self-conscious about trying. Between the person messing about and having fun on the dance floor and the fully fledged performer there lies the world of the amateur with its codes and rules and conventions, all of which can be inhabited with more or less skill.
The professional performer (whether dancer, musician, or actor) overcomes the limitations of his or her own body to express the essence of the artwork—or that is what is supposed to happen. By contrast, amateur dancers are still themselves when they dance, and arguably they are more themselves than when they are not dancing. Unclothed of the routines and rituals of everyday life—no speech, no distraction, no accidents of style—you become naked in your own body. You are reduced to body, and all the more so because you are body framed by the dance—body squared. In order to dance at all I had had to leave at the door my own idiosyncrasies of style, the ones in which I clothe myself to perform the me that functions in the everyday: the parent, the teacher, the lover, the friend. Masks, all of them, but useful ones. What I didn’t want to see, in the mirror, or in the faces of the dance partners who were my own personal audience, was myself made plain by being uttered in another voice. Stripped of personal psychology, we are exposed by the language of the dance.
Milo wanted me to look, but paradoxically all the danger in dancing lies in too much looking. It is the danger of self-consciousness. (That is why partnered dancers like Nureyev and Dowell’s tango need an unseen audience to do their looking for them. The glory of that scene in Valentino lies not simply in the fact that they dance their tango effortlessly, but that they appear to dance without thought for how they appear.) In his 1810 essay on the puppet theater, Heinrich von Kleist has a hard time accepting his dancer friend’s insistence that puppets are more perfect than people because their movements are governed only by the law of gravity. Lacking souls, they are free from the risks of affectation. But Kleist (or his quasi-fictional narrator) is happy to accept the idea that self-consciousness prompts an immediate fall from natural grace. He recalls a beautiful fifteen-year-old boy at the baths, who loses his charm the moment he becomes aware of himself:
It happened that we had recently seen in Paris the figure of the boy pulling a thorn out of his foot…. My young friend caught sight of himself in a mirror just as he was putting his foot up to dry it, and this reminded him of the statue. He smilingly drew my attention to the resemblance. As a matter of fact I had just made the same discovery myself; but either because I wanted to put his charm to the test, or perhaps to act as a slight curb on his vanity, I laughed and said it was only his fancy. He blushed and lifted his foot again, so as to convince me; but his attempt very naturally failed. After a third and fourth attempt he became quite embarrassed; ten times he tried, but it was no use. He was incapable of reproducing the original movement. Worse still, the movements he made had something so comic about them that I could hardly keep from laughing.
The fact that the boy looked like a Greek statue wasn’t the cause of his self-consciousness. The problem arose from his attempts to imitate one. It’s the difference between unconsciously following an example and trying to claim the status of the exemplary. The boy’s self gets in the way of his body, and it happens at the point when the couple (the boy and his double in the mirror, or even the boy and the Greek statue) becomes a triangle. The boy wants his twinning to be witnessed, but it’s the intrusion of the other man’s gaze that causes the discomfort, turning smiling to blushing and damaging the grace of the unconsidered movement.
This concentration on and of the body is of course one reason why dancing at parties is associated with sex whereas dancing on stage usually isn’t, no matter how sexy it may be. The answer to the question of where one person ends and another begins isn’t obvious, and sex is probably a more popular way of testing that boundary than dancing. But although one may sometimes lead to the other, dancing and sex are not analogous. There is a difference, even at parties, between the desire that expresses itself in wanting to touch to music, and the desire to “just dance,” even with another. Yet the intense consciousness of my physical being that I suffered in front of Milo’s mirror is in tension with the dissolution of boundaries between two people dancing together that I have also described. Another way of putting this is to ask: When I dance, am I attempting to become more me or less me?
The painter and designer Sonia Delaunay was in her mid-eighties when, in 1970, she produced one of her last significant artworks. Avec moi-même is a series of ten etchings and aquatints presented together in a plexiglass box with a lithographed title page announcing Plato’s maxim in French: “Penser c’est pour l’âme s’entretenir en silence avec elle-même” (Thinking is the soul’s silent conversation with itself). In the prints, Delaunay does enact a kind of silent speech with herself, a conscious self-reflection. By the time she made them she had been on her own for nearly thirty years (or perhaps not always on her own, but without Robert Delaunay, her lover, husband, and artistic collaborator since their meeting in 1909 to his death in 1941).
Avec moi-même revisits the semi-circular blocks of prismatic color, the abstract patterns of bisected circles, wheels, squares, and triangles that were the patterns of her years with Robert. In one of her best-known early paintings, Le Bal Bullier—a huge canvas stretching to nearly thirteen feet in length—the geometric blocks of paint represent a scene from the popular Parisian dance hall on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The painting teeters on the edge of abstraction. Its circles of color, radiating spheres, evoke the gaslights flickering above the dancers who hold each other in close embrace. Their bodies are distinguished by the repeated curves of thighs and buttocks and arms, and by their hats, delicate or jaunty.
They are dancing the tango perhaps, or trying to. The craze hit Paris in the early 1910s, and Delaunay’s painting was exhibited in Berlin in 1913, before the pre-war world of Le Bal Bullier was swept away. In 1914 Guillaume Apollinaire recalled the Delaunays standing at the foot of the orchestra on Thursday and Sunday nights, both decked out in clothes made by Sonia on the principle of contrasting or complementary colors. (“Here is, for example, an outfit of Mr. Robert Delaunay: purple jacket, beige vest, black trousers. Here is another: red coat with blue collar, red socks, yellow-and-black shoes, black pants, green jacket, sky-blue vest, tiny red tie.”) Apparently they didn’t dance. They watched, and the dance happened on the canvas.
In their repetitions of shape and color, the late prints of Avec moi-même allude to a lifetime of work. The etchings provide a way for Sonia to contain herself in her life story as much as expressing herself. Le Bal Bullier hovers like a ghost behind the images, but for the viewer the challenge of these late works is knowing how to interpret all the gray. Unlike her full-color oil paintings, watercolors, and silkscreen prints of earlier years, the gray scorings Delaunay made with the etching tool are dominant here. She has substituted a sort of graphite scribbling for paint; she shades in shapes roughly rather than blocking them out. What is she saying? “I am fading out”? Or, perhaps, “I am in a hurry now”? “There is no time left”? Actually, those engraved scorings would have taken a lot of time and effort, so maybe the prints do not say, “My colors are dying,” but rather, “Here I am, all gray, and still determined.”
Time and its passing are visible in the relationship between Delaunay’s early paintings and the late prints of Avec moi-même, but in the prints themselves time is absent. Narrative, story, and perhaps the idea of experience itself are all external to the works. And the fact that there are ten etchings, all different but gathered together under the same rubric, reinforces the sense that these are momentary iterations of thought, little stabs at solo composition figured on paper. No partner necessary. Yet despite the title of the series, speaking in silence to herself was not enough for Delaunay. Why, otherwise, the plexiglass box and the gallery exhibitions? Self-sufficiency—witnessing herself—wasn’t enough. In seeking an audience she was looking for reflection. She looked for more than the face in the mirror; she looked for the face that would tell her that she was there.
But for the dancer—no presentation box, no captured after-image. There is a past of the dance, but it is external to the act of dancing. From West Africa via Buenos Aires and Montevideo to Paris and back; from the Deep South to Harlem to Hollywood—social dances develop as an accretion of the histories of the people who have danced them, and the unequal relations of power, including commercialization by the film and leisure industries, that determine them. It’s a racialized history, and it doesn’t disappear just because we acknowledge it.
Another kind of past is held in the body of the dancer herself: the past of practice, knowledge, convention, and physical experience. What gets called “muscle memory” is just part of it. The memory into which you step as you begin to dance includes all the dances you’ve ever danced before, all the partners you’ve ever had, all the practice you’ve put in, all the music you’ve listened to, all the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Nicholas Brothers you’ve ever watched. But the dance itself has no memory. It has a present, most certainly. The defining feature of dancing is that it takes place in the present. Creating a dance with a partner is all about that moment, not the moment before or the moment after. For there is no future to the dance either, except in starting again.
A dance ends, and after a pause another begins. An evening spent on the social dance floor can feel like a sequence of endings, in that the point of each dance is to fill the space before the music comes to a stop. The anticipated end gives shape to the dance; without it there would be simply movement. But unlike the ending of a story, which casts a retrospect on what has gone before, in the dance there is no possibility of return or recovery or reinterpretation. The moment is simply over. There is no afterlife of the dance except in the promise of another.
This is one way in which dance-reading differs from other kinds of reading. The joy of dancing as a follower is to listen for the barely said—to interpret signs almost before they have been given, to read messages in the moment they are being sent. It is a process of deciphering—a sort of hermeneutics—and yet there is no secret to be uncovered. Nothing is being expressed except movement, and it is a mute language, empty of hidden extras, empty of enigma. Memory has no work to do, and nothing to work on. Time passes and experience is had, but meaning can attach to it only by a posthumous storytelling, or the frame offered by the language of the predicate.