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March 29, 2007

i guess you get what I mean, right?

Posted by dogpossum on March 29, 2007 12:40 PM in the category clicky and lindy hop and other dances and music

Jean put me onto something neat here. It's a talk by Ken Robinson about learning and teaching and you can watch the clip here. I can hear some of you sighing and clicking on, but I recommend dropping in to have a look and a listen - it'll make you giggle. And there's some talk about bodies and dance.

It's interesting, because I've written and thought quite a bit about embodied and disembodied knowledge, and how different cultures privilege one or the other. Robinson talks about academics and how their bodies are really just vehicles for carrying their brains around. It's true - I've always loved dancing (mostly la discotheque!), but before I got hardcore about dancing I always thought of my body as something for transporting my brain. I sufferred from serious migraine headaches - I spent a couple of days in bed each fortnight when I was finishing my MA. Can you imagine that? It seems completely crazy to me now, but then I just dealt with it (well, in a getting-depressed-and-wanting-to-blow-myself-up way).
Now I realise that the problem was that I was spending an awful lot of time sitting on my clack, squirrelling my stress away in my muscles. Now I know that if I don't get up out of my chair and shake my arse every day, my muscles start to tense up and get cranky. And I get a headache. But I also know that getting up out of my chair and jiggling about to music I love for an hour is WONDERFUL! Going to the gym - dull. Jogging - duller. But dancing? That shit is GREAT!

Writing about dance for my work happened kind of by accident - I was coming out of a shitty first run at a PhD, I was hating it, I was miserable, but I loved dancing. And I thought, 'What would be my dream situation? What would be most perfect?' And getting another scholarship to write about dancing and score some funding to go to Herrang was that dream project. And you know what? They gave me the scholarship and they sent me to Herrang, and I wrote a big fat thesis and lots of articles about dancing.
Can you imagine anything more nuts? It just seems too great to be true - getting the chance to do combine dance with the loveliness of thinking and writing and reading and talking all day. I still feel insanely lucky - and I'm sure someone's going to bust me some day and ask for the money and degree back.

The thing I like to think and write about, though (after I've written about saucy 1920s song lyrics), is the way dance works as system of meaning and a medium for the exchange of ideas - the way dance is discourse. That shit rocks. I mean, in cultural studies you're so centered on the idea of language and words - most of the theory floating around in this discipline has at its heart the idea that words are the most important, most wonderful way of communicating ideas. I dig that - I'm all over the idea that words are great. But I've found, working with the various theories trucking about, that this doesn't allow much room for other ways of communicating or representing the world. Sure, there might be vast tracts of writing about other disocourses, but they're still vast tracts of words. I can make a joke with my body that simply doesn't translate into words. You just can't make the joke work. But one sight gag is worth a thousand words.
And then, the thing that really gets me pumping, is thinking and writing about the way dancers have gotten a hold of the internet and other hi-tech action and appropriated it for ther own, decidely embodied purposes. The last paper I submitted to a journal had a comment from a reviewer where they wrote:

The author needs to explain this meaning for the dance studies outsider and not use it for other purposes like a some sort of repetitive mantra or abstract motif to try and unify the article, or 'sound academic' . For example, couldn't 'embodied use-value' (p.6) just be 'inherent usefulness'?

And after I got over huffing and puffing and being angry, I thought about the way I've used the expression 'embodied use-value'. I'd spent a large chunk of my thesis exploring the idea of particular technologies having 'embodied use-value'. For me, this meant asking how a particular bit of tech was valued for its place in embodied practice. In other words, dancers value particular types of technology because they can be used in an embodied context. They're not very interested in books of vast theoretical discussions of dance. But they've gone crazy for youtube. Because you can do things with it, with your body. You can watch a clip, stand up and dance along.

I wanted to distinguish between 'usefulness' and embodied usefulness. Sure, the internet is neat for keeping people in contact, but for dancers it's even more useful as a means by which they can access dance footage, download music and organise a dance class. The Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra Live in Swing City CD is a wonderful thing in itself, but when you pop it in the CD player and stand up, it suddenly becomes an incredibly useful and wonderful thing. And the difference is that it acquires a material, physical, immediate, embodied value and meaning. Here is the medium by which I can access the work of musicians in another country, years ago. Here is the means by which I am inspired to move my body. Here is the thread that joins me to my dance partner and to the dancers around me and to the people people in the room who aren't on the dance floor, but are still listening and watching and moving.

When I read Gunther Schuller's book The Swing Era, I certainly find use for his ideas. I read about Ellington and think about his life and read the musical score on the page. But Schuller's book suddenly has far more meaning and value for me when I play the song he's writing about, and get up to physically test the different percussive rhythms and soaring trumpet solos he's describing. That's embodied use-value. It's not just the academic value of an idea or a line of prose. It's not even the things that I might do with his words with my body in the future. It's the things that I do do, and am doing, right now, when I'm shaking my arse.

I think that's one of the things that I find so appealing about dance - each dance is transient. Sure, you can record it and watch it again later. But the real meaning of the dance lies in that moment when your body is in motion, when you're touching your partner and the communicative process simply outstrips the resources of words. You can't write about it later and hope to catch the true meaning, or to articulate the way it really felt. But you can certainly get up and move, and feel the meaning.
I think that's the other important part of dance - it's not just about watching, but about doing. It's necessarily participatory discourse. That's why I'm interested in vernacular dance rather than performance or concert dance - I'm interested in the way vernacular dance doesn't let you just sit there and suck it in. You have to do it, to make it, to participate with your body. So your body cannot possibly just be a container to carry your brain around in. It actually is the medium and the message and the meaning all at once.

Ok, that's a long way away from the original clip, but I guess you get what I mean, right?

Posted by dogpossum on March 29, 2007 12:40 PM in the category clicky and lindy hop and other dances and music