My Passions: Dance

IMG_0681One of my peak experiences was a day I spent inside an enclosure at the Edinburgh Zoo. I was part of a performance in which dancers were on display like zoo animals. We didn’t speak but connected via improvisational movement exercises – clustering together, for instance, or one person initiating a gesture and others picking it up in a game of monkey see, monkey do. Sometimes we pressed up against the glass of the enclosure and stared at the people who were staring at us. At midday, a keeper brought us some food (Chinese takeout).

I was in Edinburgh to see the Fringe Festival. A few days earlier, I’d gone to the zoo performance and got into a conversation with the choreographer, who was taking a turn in the viewing area. She was inviting some dance critics to join the dancers in the enclosure later in the week and asked if I’d like to do it. Would I!!!

Janis Claxton in bright green

Janis Claxton in bright green

Being a zoo animal for a day was wacky and playful and fun. It was also profound. The choreographer, Janis Claxton, is a serious student of primate behavior, and the performance – which ran for two weeks – explored nonverbal communication, the dynamics and flow of social groupings, how we humans perceive other species … and how we perceive ourselves.

That’s what I love about dance, that it’s playful and complex and visceral. And, particularly when I write about dance – and I need to express in words the ideas, images, and emotional resonance of this ephemeral, nonverbal art form – it pushes me toward some of the deepest questions about what it means to be human. Dance moves me; dance and dancers. All of us put ourselves out in the world in various ways, we take the risk of exposing ourselves and being vulnerable. There is something enormously touching to me about the way dancers do that, in their having the courage to convey ideas and emotions through nothing but their bodies. Many of the dances that have most affected me also take me to a spiritual place; it doesn’t surprise me at all that in many cultures, dance is a doorway to the sacred.

As for my doorway into dance … I was not one of those little girls who lusted after a pink tutu and ballet slippers. I tried a ballet class once and thought baseball was way more fun. But a high school gym teacher (thank you, Janet Stark) offered modern dance as part of in our freshman gym class and directed a dance group that did a performance every spring. Modern dance, I discovered, was weird and rich in ideas. And I loved the way it felt to move. Little of The Tin Horse is autobiographical, but I did bring my feelings about dancing into Elaine’s response to taking dance classes: “Dance was … intoxicating and primal, my bare feet on the wooden floor, the occasional exhilarating times when I didn’t just do steps but inhabited a dancer’s essence – it was like the lines from Yeats I loved, ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance?’”

I joined the high school dance group and actually still remember some of the choreography of pieces we did. Edgy modern dance remains my first love, though I enjoy seeing artful moving bodies in every form: tap, ballet, hiphop, world dance.

I’ve written about dance for several newspapers, High Performance Magazine, and Dance Magazine, and have taught dance criticism at San Diego State University. I now do most of my reviewing for the website San Diego Story. Here are links to a few of my favorite pieces I’ve done over the years:

–  an interview with German dance-theater genius Pina Bausch. Bausch rarely gave interviews but made an exception when she was in San Diego for the Kyoto Prize Symposium in 2009 (a year before her death). Driving to meet her, I kept pinching myself and thinking how incredibly lucky I was.

an appreciation of hip-hop dance (inspired by my SDSU students, who convinced me of the importance of this art form)



a review of the Spanish performance art group Kamchatka at a recent festival. I love it that one of the people from Kamchatka responded to my review, and we had a conversation.

To my amazement, at age 58 I also became a dance instructor. I teach Nia, which combines dance, martial arts, and healing forms like yoga. When I first started, I thought I might continue for a couple of years. At 63, I’m still teaching and am moving with energy and fluidity that astonish me … and make me very grateful.