Improvisation and Vernomenology.

Improvisation is a key component of Practice as Research. Improvising allows the body to explore creative habits, to discover new ones, to juggle around an idea until some understanding of it is reached within your kinaesthetic intelligence. I am totally fine with all these pieces of information.

In fact, I love improvisation! In my work with Rosemary Butcher I would improvise with deep and particular focus on a given stimulus for up to half an hour without pause, and I would be as happy as a clam. I’m a blues dancer, which is social dance form relying entirely on improvisation, and a good contact improv jam is one of the happiest places for me to put my body.

But I’m also an improvised talker, and that’s where Practice as Research begins to have a problem with me.

Vida Midgelow talks about Practice as Research as a process of liquid knowing: knowing built on a foundation of experience that runs through your whole physical system, without needing conscious cerebral processing; as if the verbal brain were a pot-holed by-road through a washed-out ex-industrial (and horribly over-hyphenated) town, which you could avoid simply by taking the physical super-highway.

I agree with her about so many, so many things! That life is a constantly improvised process! That knowledge is emergent! That immediate, instinctive knowing draws on and bounces off the world and keeps on learning as it goes – the idea is glorious! …But then she explains that “Coming to language is a significant process,” (versus the simplicity of improvised movement), and I wonder why it has to be that way.

You, and I, have a liquid brain.

That is, the knowledge we hold verbally is based on the whole-body experience of our improvised lives, and we should not under-privilege* the capabilities of that expression. A great deal of care is taken in academia to be careful with our words: to treat them as if they were all automatically conclusions, whereas in fact they are as ephemeral as dancing. In the era of technology this is doubly the case: I wrote the introduction to this article three times before I started, all of it denied to you with a swift brush of ctrl+z. Yes publication, yes transcription, yes digital archiving, but those are the outcomes, not the production of emergent linguistic knowledge.

To borrow a phrase from Candace Feck, language is “shaped at the point of utterance.” We have poetic and artistic forms dedicated to the idea that improvisation can occur at the end of a pen; and yet I feel like I struggle to find a place for that which occurs between lips and tongue in the scholarly world. To phrase this in terms of multiple intelligences, I am a discursive thinker who needs words to play in the space before I choreograph them into any kind of structure in my head.

So, practice as research, I’m totally with you on the subject on the subject of knowledge produced via improvisation… how do you feel about the knowledge that words can dance?

 

 

 

*It’s unusual to claim that verbal expression is in a situation of being under-privileged. Written language certainly experiences a high degree of privilege in almost any environment, but lived-experience oral histories often do not. In the current climate of dance studies, physical knowledge often also enjoys privilege over that which can be expressed verbally. My thanks to Lucas Weismann for requesting this clarification.

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Friends at the Theatre

Today I read Balanchine in the New York public library. Balanchine both personal and professional – the choreographer and dancer, the man and the lover.

Being somewhat familiar with the material (set texts for the next semester), I didn’t try to go in chronological order – I simply worked m way alphabetically down the list: from Acocella to Gottlieb, taking notes as I went. I took a break to grab a bagel. Before I knew it, hours had slipped by – I could happily have stayed for more.

I read about his material and his teaching style, recognizing fragments from my own classes. I learned that he shared tender evenings with a young Suzanne Farrell in an inn, and later a 24 hour Dunkin’ Doughnuts, only a few blocks from where I’m currently staying. I made a mental note to try and find them on my way home.

First though, the library was showing Cover Girl, a classic film from the 1940’s with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Too much to hope for, I guess, that they’d be showing one with Balanchine’s choreography, although I did note some of his collaborators in the credits. Since this was a free screening on a Sunday, the room slowly began to populate with individuals somewhat older than myself.

The first friend I spotted was, unsurprisingly, Martha Graham, white hair in a bun, perching a few rows behind me. A wispy John Cage sat at my left shoulder, telling jokes through the opening credits; Maria Tallchief made elegant gestures from the front row as she conversed with a companion whose face I couldn’t see.

Mr. B. arrived just as the film was about to start, slipping through the door and taking a seat far right, missing nothing over his hawk-like nose. Merce Cunningham was conspicuous by his absence, although perhaps he could have been in the back – I don’t suppose it would have mattered to him.

The credits rolled.

For me New York is always the home of dance. This may well be a betrayal of both my geographic and pedagogic origins, but I am long since past caring – I’m a modern baby. The inn and the Dunkin’ Doughnuts have sadly gone, but the city, especially at Christmas, still reminds me why I love what I love, and chose to do what I do.

From Broadway, Manhattan, happy 2015.

Introduction to comm lag – conversation magic!

Credit: I was introduced to the concept of comm lag by Ted Madry Andrew Smith, who are phenomenal social dance teachers.  You can keep up with Andrew at Life of a Southpaw.

Since then I’ve led numerous workshops, roundtables and excitable debates on the subject, and the concept has become so entwined with the management of my day to day life that I feel like a hard copy is worth putting out there for people to refer to. So whether you’re coming here having already talked about this with me, or whether you just want to try out my favourite way of improving your conversation/social interaction, this is a casually transcribed version of my introduction to comm lag. Enjoy!

What is comm lag?

Comm lag is the time it takes to parse and respond to communicated information. When someone asks a question, some people will reply almost instantly, where others will take a certain amount of time. The longer it takes, the longer your comm lag.

Obviously this will depend hugely on context: you’ll generally be able to respond quicker to “How are you?” than to “What were the five most significant moments of your life between the ages of 3 and 10?”… although people with fast comm lag will still usually answer both questions much more quickly.

Additionally, some people (in some contexts) will have negative comm lag: they feel as if they’ve understood what’s being said, and will respond before the speaker has finished. Sometimes this is more successful than others but, as with all ranges of speeds, none of this is prescriptively good or bad.

Even just given those three pieces of information, you probably already have some idea of whether you have fast or slow comm lag, or you already know some situations that can effect your speed. If you don’t feel like you know your own comm lag, or you want to give it a chance to appear, I’ll be adding some exercises shortly that you can try out. You also might have an idea of how your comm lag speed affects how you interact with other people, and how they interpret you, because comm lag can look like a lot of other things, which leads it to carry both positive and negative associations.

Wait a second, why is this on a DANCE blog???

Because dancing is communication. Because I’m passionately involved with the world of social dance, which leads me to think about socialising in general. Because dancers talk to each other. Because improvisation is a place where comm lag can manifest… and it can be a place where people can interact with a totally different comm lag style. Because as a dancer I have found comm lag to be useful, relevant and interesting to my practice. Because comm lag can be danced.

What is comm lag NOT?

Comm lag is not the same as introversion or extroversion, although I’m fairly sure there is some statistical correlation. What is definitely true is that we respond differently to individuals with fast and slow comm lag, and this can push them into particular social roles… roles they might not be best suited to or most comfortable occupying.

Traits associated with different types of comm lag:

Using a particular speed of comm lag can give an impression of your character. From group discussions, those impressions can be grouped as follows:

Positive Traits Negative Traits
Slow Comm lag Empathetic, attentive, understanding, respectful, community-focused. Slow, stupid, unfocussed, disinterested.
Fast Comm lag Smart, good leaders, enthusiastic, in-synch, capable. Brash, over-eager, disrespectful of groups.
Negative Comm lag Intimate…. fast comm lag x10. Arrogant, dismissive, bored.

The above may be true… or they may be how you are read regardless of your intention if you tend strongly towards a particular response speed. I have extremely fast comm lag, combined with an academic/articulate speaking style, so it’s very very easy for me to come across as butting in, taking over, and not really caring about what anyone else has to say. I also know that I’m likely to jump in and respond to questions or problems, even when others in the conversation are far more capable of answering, or more qualified to do so.

For my friends with slower comm lag, the opposite is true. Leadership opportunities, interview situations, and task management are socially geared towards people with faster comm lag. If someone jumps in before you have time to process, often you won’t get a say, and people assume you didn’t have anything to contribute. You come across as shy or anxious when you want to be social, and people think you need extra support when all you need is extra time.

So what can I do?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that there are some good reasons to try and even out the comm lag divide. At the same time, comm lag is not something you do AT other people, it’s your particular comfort zone within a conversation. It’s much easier for people with fast comm lag to slow down than it is for people with slow comm lag to speed up, but speaking from experience it’s uncomfortable and somewhat frustrating… so what are some strategies that don’t require people to make long term changes to their speech?

For everybody:

  • Make your comm lag explicit. “I’m jumping really fast – I love what you’re saying, but can I check that you’re finished?” “I tend to take a minute to process, can you give me that time?” If people know what’s going on, it’s easer to accommodate it, and less likely to be read poorly.
  • Pick a comfortable medium. Technology is a great way of letting people take the time they need to respond. If it’s important to have a conversation, re-route it to a medium that suits the speeds of everyone involved.

For slow comm-laggers

  • State your intention to answer by repetition or affirmation. “That’s a great question…. let me see… ok, here’s what I think.”
  • Ask for what you need. “I’m really excited about this topic, but I need a second to process, can you come back to me?”
  • Gesture. Nod, “hmmm”, lean in… show that you’re engaged and with a conversation.

Fast comm-laggers

Sorry guys, you probably have more work to do. In part because slowing down is much easier than speeding up, but also in part because I’m writing from the position of a fast comm-lagger, and I’m much more able to come up with things that seem to work for me.

  • Multi-task. Take notes, do your hair, look salient points up on google… give yourself practical, useful reasons to wait until the end of sentences or slow down your processing speed.
  • Validate. Remind yourself of the value of the person speaking, and the fact that they have a viewpoint different to yours. Obtain it…. all of it.
  • Invite. Use your speed to the advantage of others in a group by directing the conversation towards those with slower comm lag. If you’re going to grab the ball, make sure everyone gets to play.
  • Keep a tally. How often have you been the first to answer? How often have you heard other people speak? Should you do something about it?

What you shouldn’t do, is stress about it. For one thing, stress will probably exaggerate your comm lag in the direction it already tends. If I’m anxious I chitter like a hamster on caffeine (it’s TERRIBLE,) but you might just as easily end up freezing like a rabbit in the headlights. I like to talk about comm lag not only because I think it helps conversations better, but because it helps people understand me. I know that when people ask me to slow down, they really ARE talking about my conversation speed, and not implying anything about my attitude or character. I’m also hugely touched when my friends notice my own efforts to slow down for them, or when we can mutually appreciate the satisfaction of an explosive, perpetually interrupting bricolage of ideas.

Conclusion

As I said originally, this article is usually presented as a discussion, with opportunity for everyone participating to join in and talk about how they experience comm lag, and ways that it can work for them. It can be role-played and tried out physically. Hopefully everyone can come away feeling like they picked up some useful information. To that end, I welcome all commentary on this post… of course, in your own time.

p.s. If you’re interested in having an in-person discussion/conversation/facilitated workshop on comm lag, please use the links about to get in touch.

Ghosts in Dance

I was invited earlier this year to be part of a national conference on U.K. higher education.

I was part of a pannel presentation entitled “Ghosts in Dance Education,” where a number of lecturers from a variety of dance h.e. institutions brought foward provocations from the point of view of various disciplines within the field.  Guided by the student voice (played admirably by Julia Gleich), we were trying to find ways of integrating history into practice.   I was invited to speak for the ghost of Rudolph von Laban, which I did with utmost delight, producing a presentation that I believe will long remain a favourite in my body of work.  It’s very short, and you can see it here.

Did you get the joke?

Maybe not.  You have to have had some Laban training.  The joke is that the entire presentation is organised as the performance of one of Laban’s own movement scales, and the text is related to the positions prescribed by the training execise.

It became somehow a metaphor for what I believe about dance, the integration of theory and practice, of history in the present, and what it means to communicate knowledge.  I share it in the hope that it can remain alive and perhaps be disseminated further.  Discussion of the words, the presentation format or the blog post itself are warmly welcomed.

For more information on the rest of the Ghosts in Dance pannel and its conclusions, links are on their way.

… it’s STILL not what you think…

A while ago I put up a post about a video from SF Globe that you can find here, which is useful to read before continuing this post.  Half an hour after putting up I received this comment:

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and this is from one of MY favourite dance teachers/partners/friends.

My initial thought was “Oh dear god I’ve been horribly arrogant.” After all – I’d criticised SFG for failing to understand what was going on in the video by claiming ownership of a particular community… and here I was totally failing to recognise one of that community’s major figures.

For those interested, Jean Veloz is a living legend who was a star of  swing dance on the silver screen and a fabulous live exhibition dancer between the 1940s-80s, who then came out of retirement in the 90’s to continue being kickass at community events worldwide.  Admittedly I had to go and learn all of that after watching the two linked videos – particularly recommend the one from Groovy Movie.  You can learn more about Jean through her own website.

So… are they going to take my swing dancer card away?  Should I be embarrassed about not knowing the history of my practice?  I mean, I do for other dance forms don’t I?  But how much of that is being specifically a dance scholar in those styles?  I sat for a while after receiving that comment alternating between mortification and a ton of questions, some of which I think I have answers for, and some I’ll be posing to you.

At the end of the day, my social dancing is… umm… social!  It’s a practice that links me to a community, and one which I very much love.  But is my practical participation enough to identify me as a member of that community?  I mean, I know some of the historical/contextual information, but clearly I also have some very large holes – do they matter?  I’m sure that for some members of that community the answer would be “Yes.”  But would they be right?

So what defines this particular community’s membership?  Practice?  Knowledge?  Skill?  Contribution?  Investment in the values of the community?  Self-identification?  A mix of all of the above?

My hypothesis is that all communities have different rules, worked out from a combination of the social norms of participating members.  I’m going to show my linguistic side here when I say that there is a difference between community participation and community membership – but going to admit that I’m lost about where to draw the line.

Also, where are the boundaries of the community?  Swing dance has local, national and global chapters, as I’m sure do many practice-based social groups.  I’ve participated at all those levels, but where am I actually a member?  Given that I’ve just moved countries, do I have to be accepted by the Columbus community in some way before I can identify as belonging there?  What constitutes acceptance?

My ties are strongest to skill practice and to values: dance as a method of positive community building; dance that can be shared with everyone; dance that seeks communication with others.  I call myself a social dancer because I’m always somewhat carrying those values with me wherever I go, and because I can identify others who share those community values around the world.  So perhaps I can hold on to my swing dancer card for now…

…and I’m glad I got the chance to discover Jean Veloz and work towards not getting it wrong.

A dance blog for the thinking body.