Caroline Sutton Clark
One of my favorite pastimes for years has been getting together with another dancer friend or two over coffee and hearing their stories and insights about dance. There’s really nothing better than listening to someone talk about what he or she loves to do, even though such deep investment in dance, as in anything, invariably includes some history of pain and sacrifice. Talking with dancers of many forms, I’ve watched spines elongate, breath deepen, gestures become more fluid or expansive, and eyes begin to shine. Overall, as people reintegrate memories and feel listened to, they become both energised and more peaceful.
As the 2017 Caroline Plummer Research Fellow in Dance, I have been in Dunedin, New Zealand, since February seeking out the many ways that people dance here. I use oral history as my research methodology for the fellowship. In addition, for my own welfare, I participate in as many dance practices throughout Dunedin as I can. In these sessions I meet people, learn about the city by going to studios and community halls, feel the benefits of exercise, challenge my brain with new patterns, rhythms, and ideas, and stimulate mind, body, and soul in a positive, supportive environment.
Indeed, countless research studies confirm that dance is a uniquely powerful practice towards health and well-being. Dance contributes towards increased physical, intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, and, for some, spiritual flourishing. In short, dance is great for whatever ails you.
It is well-known that the physical senses can transport us back to a specific moment in our pasts with an immediacy that is almost astonishing. As a dance scholar, I focus on a slightly different physical sense of kinesthetics: sensing movement. Building on the work of oral historian and dancer Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, over the past seven years I have developed a simple yet profound exercise for using movement as a stimulus for oral history interviewing:
Within a workshop setting, participants allow a movement memory to come to mind that they feel comfortable sharing with a partner. Subsequently, each participant develops a very short (5 seconds or so) movement sequence reenacting the memory. Then, partner A (the narrator) teaches the movement sequence to partner B without discussing the memory associated with it. Finally, when the movement feels synchronized, the partners rest and the narrator tells the memory however he or she wants with no interruption by the listener (partner B). When the teller is finished, the listener then asks questions of detail until the conversation feels complete. Participants then switch roles.
The entire room changes as a result of this process: calm, heartfelt, happy, timeless. My current theorizing posits that movement acts as a memory stimulus by re-visiting the intersection of a sense of self with physical pathways. Then, the listener becomes attentive to the teller first through moving together. Much of the recent scholarship on somatic attention and kinesthetic empathy, fueled by interest in mirror neurons, suggests that such relationships between bodies comprise much of our potential attunement towards one another. As a result, in this workshop process an empathetic relationship that facilitates sharing life stories is established before the narrator even speaks.
In my own experience of this exercise, I have told memories that I would never have thought to tell anyone because my standard autobiographical narratives don’t cover such seemingly small moments (for example, playing on the swingset in the sunshine on a specific day). Yet, they become incredibly profound in the telling, and I remain grateful, even years later, that someone on this planet knows that story.
Through dancing we become more attentive to ourselves, others, and the world while everything constantly changes.
Caroline Sutton Clark has a Ph.D. in Dance from Texas Woman’s University and M.F.A. from the University of Hawai’i. Clark is in New Zealand for six months as the 2017 Caroline Plummer Research Fellow in Community Dance, designing and implementing a culturally diverse community oral history project.
“Dance is great for whatever ails you”: See for example Alpert, Patricia T. “The Health Benefits of Dance.” Home Health Care Management & Practice, Vol 23, Issue 2, 2 Dec. 2010. 155-157.
For somatic attention, see for example Csordas, Thomas J. “Somatic Modes Of Attention.” Cultural Anthropology 8.2 (1993): 135-156. MLA International Bibliography. 28 Sept. 2010. For kinesthetic empathy, see for example Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices. Ed. Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason. Bristol, UK; Chicago: Intellect, 2012.