Tag Archives: Dancing on behalf of

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

The Summer Solstice

Today is the Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, because the Earth tilts 23.5 degrees on its axis and causes this part of the Earth to face the sun directly. We’re not moving closer to the sun as people often think, it’s just a better direct angle. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year as the tilt changes their angle in the opposite direction. 

Summer-solsticeI don’t remember much mention or attention to this day in my family or in the Catholic schools where I was a student, but I somehow always knew it was a special day.

It must have been later research and actually visiting some sites in Mexico and Ireland where I learned the true importance of this day. Many ancient cultures around the globe; the Mayans, Druids, Celtics and others, oriented their sacred sites to highlight this day.  For them it symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. Stone structures or caves were crafted to allow the light to stream in to their altars announcing that the journey to enlightenment had reached its apex.  

I remember just after my son Kenneth died, looking up at the bright moonlight streaming into our living room, and realizing his death was on a particularly auspicious day, the summer solstice. This assured me that I would never forget the day, never allow it to go by unnoticed. My practice is to find something special to do to honor my son, and to express my gratitude for his life and the part I was allowed to play in it.

Ken, Sheila and Rich in CorpusThis year I’m participating in the Re-Source Gathering of Creation Spirituality here in Pittsburgh around the theme of Compassion.  The conference began last night with circle dancing and chants lead by master teachers from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions. We used InterPlay forms to connect with ourselves, each other, and those we love who are far away, on this plane and on another. This focus on compassion seems especially fitting for this occasion as Ken and I were compassionate companions, suffering together until, on that early morning of the Summer Solstice 1997, the suffering was no more.

Towards a Resilient Grief

Like many people around the world, I watched the bereavement rituals for the beloved Nelson Mandela. In my case, I was looking for clues to answer a question that has been on my mind for years. “Can what is done at the time of a death, and immediately afterwards, help survivors to accept it, and be strengthened by the grief experience?

coffinMandela Mandela of course, was an international hero, an elder statesman and founder of a new nation. The mourners experiencing this loss included not only immediate and extended family members, but citizens of an entire nation, and of the larger world. In looking at this instance of public bereavement, important elements seem relevant to us all.

Celebrating a life

Following the announcement of Mandela’s passing, spontaneous dancing and singing broke out all over South Africa. In the city streets and village squares, and in the stadium before his state funeral, people whistled, sang, and danced with one another.  Having danced at my own son’s funeral I was delighted that people were using song and dance to create a joyful celebration of thanksgiving for Mandela’s life. We know that Mandela would approve since, in a video at age 81, he is seen dancing and he states, “Music and dancing make me at peace with the world…and at peace with myself. (to the audience) But I don’t see much movement happening out there, so let’s join in.”   

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/12/05/watch-this-delightful-video-of-an-81-year-old-nelson-mandela-dancing-on-stage/

womanwithmandelaimage

Expression of Feelings

As the camera panned the crowd it was not hard to spot people crying openly. When a loved one dies, sorrow and tears help us to recognize our loss.  I was grateful that people were able to have their sorrow in the setting of a supportive community. Some people decorated their bodies to express their admiration for Mandela, sporting his image on their shirts, headgear, or ink-stamped upon their faces. People attending his funeral stood in the rain for hours, and when asked about their willingness to do this, they said this was a small inconvenience given the difficulties Mandela had confronted on their behalf. They considered this a way to express their gratitude.

Lessons Learned

During Mandela’s eulogy, world leaders and well-known celebrities, through storytelling and personal reflection, spelled out the lessons of his life. They pointed out events, such as the years of his imprisonment; and lauded him for how he handled his challenges; his ability to forgive and make allies of his former enemies. In President Obama’s comments he asked himself, “How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? “ I’ve noticed that, when friends and family are given the opportunity to share stories with one another, formally as part of a eulogy, or informally at a wake or visitation, a fuller picture of the deceased emerges. It’s as though each person’s life were a puzzle, and each story, a piece. When placed along side one another, the picture becomes complete.  

Relating to what is unfinished in a life

South Africa Mandela Mourning

Mandela lived an unusually long life, yet as his ex-wife Winnie stated it, “Even though he was 95 and had done so much, there was so much that was still undone.” Those of us watching and reading about the rituals of Mandela’s crossing; the full military honors, the 21-gun salute, the 95 candles, one for each year of his life, the slaughter of an ox in his home village, know that the true tribute to his life will consist of what we, the mourners choose to do in the years remaining in our own lives.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Occupying Pittsburgh’s Market Square

Last Thursday’s One Billion Rising Pittsburgh event attracted over 400 people and was organized by New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, an organization that InterPlayer, Toni McClendon helped to start. These young, mostly African-American women put together on February 14th, with the help of volunteers of all ages, the most soulful, spiritually enlightening, community inspiring, two hour event in Pittsburgh’s downtown Market Square.

In addition to the stage where dancers from the August Wilson Center performed, and hundreds of women danced Debbie Allen’s Break The Chain, another corner of the square contained a tent the size of a solitary confinement space in a prison. The construction held artwork and petitions to obtain release for women incarcerated for defending themselves against the violent acts of intimate partners. A candled altar space occupied another corner, a place for remembering women from our community who have lost their lives to violence, a resource tent offered information about organizations addressing this vital issue, while the Comfort Tent offered support and respite for anyone strongly affected by this topic of violence against women.

When I shared information about this event with Coke Nakamoto, a dancing social worker friend in California, her comment said it all. “Absolutely love the consciousness brought to the Pittsburgh event. What vision and understanding of the bigger dance beneath the dance!”  No wonder I feel so honored to take the over 15,000 steps my fitness tracker counted that day, (three times the national average) to support these women in bringing their vision to such a spectacular reality. 

Spaces In Our Togetherness

My husband and I were asked to give a talk at a neighboring Alanon meeting last evening. We’d given talks before separately, but never together. There was no time to prepare and I knew there wouldn’t be when I accepted the invitation. But I knew to say yes to this opportunity, a privilege likely to result in a blessing

We decided to divide the presentation into three phrases, and each speak extemporaneously, to each phase. The first was our introduction to addiction, particularly alcoholism, which for each of us occurred at very different times in our lives. The second phase would focus on our early experiences in twelve-step work, and the third with what has happened since we joined Alanon several years ago.

There were the words, and when we think of speeches we think of words. But the words move into the background of my memory of the evening because my awareness was of the spaces in between. It started when Rich and I were seated beside each other looking out onto the thirty or so people in the audience with the moderator seated beside him. I became aware of the molecules of air between us and then between all the figures in the room. It was like we were all floating in a sacred container of silence, the space between the words. I thought of the poem, “Marriage,” by Gibran. “Let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/marriage

When the moderator opened the floor to the audience members to respond, I noticed the silence in between the statements that people made. It was like people needed time to come up from the depths of where they were, to collect their thoughts and say them out loud.

A friend who was present in the room told me later that Rich and I together made an impression much stronger than what we made alone. That confirmed what I felt in my own body and relates to what I’ve known for a long time, 1 + 1 equals way more than 2. Looking back, I didn’t say all that I might have said. I didn’t say it in the most articulate way that perhaps I could have. But it was what it was, and I relax into knowing that another message was being delivered, this one beyond words.

It seems a paradox – the more separate we are, the more connected we became. The more connected we became, the more separate we are. Like other lines from the same poem – “Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

I would wish for all my relationships to be like this, with my husband and adult child, my grandchildren and my friends, connected through the spaces in what we call in InterPlay, “a sneaky deep way.”

A Dance for the Dead

Apparently we weren’t the only people who hadn’t heard of the museum, because although it was the height of tourist season, several dance students and their accompanying family members were the only other people there mid-morning.

The woman taking our admission fee advised us to go immediately to the dance studio in the building behind the museum. A modern dance company was in rehearsal and as visitors we were welcome to observe. Entering the studio we stood in the back, close to the door, not wanting to interrupt or draw attention to ourselves.  But the teacher, a pencil thin woman dressed in a totally black costume appropriate for the witch in any fairytale, greeted us warmly and asked that we come sit down front beside her. An elder dancer, she put me in mind of Martha Graham. She mentioned she would soon be running the entire piece and having an audience would be helpful to the dancers.

Later I learned her name was Deborah Zull and that she had in fact, danced with Graham.  Her charges were a group of collage age women, all wearing long flowing skirts. One girl’s sweatshirt bore the letters, SWATHMORE causing her to stand out a  bit from the others. The piece Ms. Zull was teaching the girls was titled, “Kaddish,” originally choreographed by Anna Sokolow as a solo that Zull has performed many times. She explained the

Kaddish is a Jewish prayer for the dead, usually said by a prayer quorum of ten men (known as a minyan.) But to my delight, Deborah had taken the steps of the solo and arranged them for 10 women.

She reviewed sections of the piece with individual girls and small groups, focusing not on the meaning but on the dynamics of the movements themselves. She demonstrated the powerful thrusting motions of beating her chest, the subtle change of gaze, up and off into the distance. Each detail, done fully and properly, communicated the angst, the sorrow, the misery of grief and loss, to us the audience, and back into the psyches of the young girls. I imagine that repetitively dancing this dance, these young women’s body/spirits will come to know something profound about grief, something my husband and I could assure them, will most certainly come in handy in their futures. 

Stage Grandmother

I locate my granddaughter in a group of costumed dancers in the wings stage left, on their break from the tech rehearsal for their dance recital. I’m relieved to find her and be able to hand her the small paper sack containing her lunch.

“I wasn’t sure whether you liked chicken or beef so I got you a half a wrap of each,” I told her.  She was surprised to see me in that location but her smile said I was most welcome. We’d been attempting to text one another for the last 45 minutes but the texts wouldn’t go in or out of her phone. Texting had worked the night before but later her brother told me it was because their Dad had set her phone not to work during school hours so she wouldn’t be distracting her schoolwork with it.

I totally agreed with my son-in-law’s regulating his daughter’s cell phone use but I felt upset that no one had thought about this barrier interfering with my doing my duty. Her phone could communicate with her father and two brothers, but they were two hours away at a statewide soccer match. I had flown in to Nebraska from Pittsburgh to be a surrogate stage mother. My daughter, her mother, would be here with all the other mothers if she could; carrying costumes, holding shoe bags and lunches, helping backstage with make-up, taking pictures with her cell phone. But she died of breast cancer when my granddaughter was seven, and though she’s been busy demonstrating, as most fourteen-year-old girls tend to do, that she doesn’t need a mother, I determine that she does. And it’s important to me to be there for her, especially since I had been a professional dancer in my own young life.  Unlike her soccer, where I can’t offer much help, dancing is more in my line of expertise.

“Would you like a couple of notes from your dancing grandmother about your dancing?” I asked. When she said yes, I forged ahead. “In the America number, your energy is great for the big movements, but you tend to drop it when you walk into the new formation.” She admitted she did this because she was tired. “For the performance, the task is to keep the energy up through the lesser movements because it’s all of one piece. It all matters,” I tell her.

My second note involves not standing behind the person in front of you. They may not be where they’re suppose to be, and you may be right on your mark, but you have to adjust to their incorrect position or no one will see you.”

She accepted my advice graciously, and seeing her do what I suggested in the performance, made me an especially proud stage grandmother. 

Dancing For Life

When I awoke this morning I could tell I had danced last night. Some soreness in the muscles, yes, but the clarity and expansive feeling in my body – that’s the true, morning after reward. I try to dance some most days , but yesterday was a push beyond my usual. At the invitation of Lynn Coghill, members of our troupe danced at the 2nd Annual Gospel Liturgical Dance Festival at the Community College of Allegheny County – North Shore. We experienced an exercise regime called “Praisemoves” which involves stretching and holding poses while the instructor recites verses from the bible. It was quite a bit more challenging than it looked, which I was about to find out in the middle of the night.

A few hours after falling asleep, I awoke with muscle spasms in my legs. They were happening in both legs at once, though each leg had its own pattern. I learned on Medicinenet.com that muscle cramps or spasms occur when large muscles are overstretched or held in the same position for prolonged periods of time.  They also report that the cause may be an imbalance in the elements that muscle cells require; water, glucose, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. That’s probably why, when I came downstairs and ate some banana and drank a bit of milk,  (something I remembered Lynn telling me she does when this happens) the spasms went away. 

We met a liturgical dancer in her 50s and heard her inspiring story of how she has met the challenge of being diagnosed with rheumatoid  arthritis in her mid 20s. Though there are moves she cannot do, she is a beautiful dancer, and dancing her prayers has kept her living an energetic and embodied life.  

And while I was reflecting on how continuing to dance into my later years has kept me in touch with my body and feeling good, a friend sent me the Science Friday video about babies and birds matching movements with rhythm. It seems the impulse to respond to rhythm is innate. And though we don’t yet understand why, science demonstrates what we dancers know – moving to rhythm makes us feel good and gives us the experience of joy. And dancing ones prayers is the greatest joy of all.

http://www.sciencefriday.com/videos/watch/10289