“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

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Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

Salsa: freeing the self from the self

I went salsa dancing tonight, the first time in a year or so, with my best friend. Thank goodness she likes to dance as much as I do, and doesn’t need much convincing to go out. It took me a few minutes — and a few good partners — to get back into the swing of things, but there it was after I’d warmed up: the sometimes-awkward but swirlingly fun language I had learned to speak by taking salsa classes a few years ago. Just the same, just like I remembered it.

It’s fun to dance in Boston; you get quite a mix of partners, ranging by color/ethnicity, language, country of origin, profession, age, socioeconomic class, and probably sexual orientation (though in a traditional room if you’re female you dance with men). I danced with a professor at MIT who’d spoken at the World Health Organization; a young graduate student who’d lived in the forests of Brazil and was studying shamanism; a philosophy student-cum-software programmer who made me laugh so hard I couldn’t dance; and many others.

Salsa_figura

Though I chewed people’s ears off (I tend to talk a lot while I dance, which I admit may be a nervous/neurotic habit) and drew in new ideas while cutting a rug, the primary joy of dancing tonight was quite simply freeing the self from the self…relearning a most basic part of humanity: connecting to another person through touch, and spending a few minutes in shared rhythm. Mothers and their babies know it; lovers revel in it; massage therapists and prostitutes are paid for it; and most of the rest of us don’t get enough of it. It’s not getting sweaty with people that means anything; it’s knowing that you’re alive because another person is holding you, even if just by the hand. And the music makes the conversation you never need to have. For those of us who like to think we use our brains to noble ends, it’s particularly important to remember that the fact of being human giving meaning to the work we’re doing and connects us to the human world where we hope to do our greatest good.

Basically, dance is there to free me from me. And come back to me. Kind of like spinning on the hand of a partner; you’ll come back to center once you’re done with the turn.