Look up

Published 2. August 2016.

A few months ago, I began receiving mentorship in modern dance. As someone who’s been dancing, in the raw expressive sense, for only about three years, and started learning correct technique and form a year and a half ago, I was expecting the most difficult part to be developing the techniques and positions of the style until they were automatic. I assumed that the layers of movement patterns from martial arts and parkour would likely block progress in a style where movements are optimized with consideration for aesthetics, rather than pure efficiency in mind—the need for straight legs and a straight back when landing and squatting with turned-out feet and legs (called a plier in ballet and modern) being the clearest differences.

I was off the mark by miles. The hardest thing didn't turn out to be the moves, but instead the presence. It’s an openness and vulnerability combined with a full awareness that permeates the space, and the effect is palpable; with it, a performer can hold the attention of the room without overt action. For me, presence is the deliberate choice to not hide, in any manner, from the unfolding moment. Presence is about the choice to see and be seen.

My first practice with Tony started with a warm-up and plenty of dance technique: laboriously slow sit-ups (which I’m just now beginning to do cleanly); rounds of footwork practice consisting of brushes, small leg lifts, and others common to both ballet and modern; and short modern dance phrases executed with a deliberate languidness—being so used to moving with speed and power that slowness, even if effortful, continues to be a challenge to do...I’m regularly reminded that I can stretch the movement out further and “make it a journey.”

After technique work we moved from a focus on movements to the moment, to presence. Now, this change wasn’t stated directly. What was presented was that we were going to practice walking, around the studio space and towards each other. But with an important requirement: I had to stand tall and open, keep my head up, with eyes looking ahead while making eye contact with Tony. Simple...

...but not easy. Something in me was actively resisting this task. I was constantly feeling a pull to look at anything but my mentor: the scene outside the large bay windows of the studio; some more-interesting-than-it-should-be spot on the otherwise uniform grey of the dance floor; the DIY ballet barres, constructed from iron piping. Sounds I could have filtered out in another setting would tug at my attention, demanding I look towards their source. Or a stray thought would catch me and pull me out of the present moment—I might be looking ahead, but I wasn’t fully there anymore. This resistance made the exercise into a distinct challenge where I had to continuously check in and re-commit to the correct orientation: stand tall, head up, and maintain eye contact.

As these weekly practices have continued it’s become clear to me, that there’s a fear in me that wants me to hide, to not risk being seen, and to avoid any discomfort in the moment. That hiding is most evident in the eyes. In an earlier conversation with Tony, prior to working together, he said to me that “dance is communicated first through the eyes.” It’s also, secondarily, about movement and how I occupy space. In one of the earlier practice sessions, I was working on a movement phrase where I’d take one arm in a long arc over my head, letting my head drop but (when done correctly) maintaining eye contact with Tony during the motion. After I completed the phrase once, he asked “Why do you hide yourself?” I was confused and not sure how to answer. I didn’t think I was hiding...or was I? Inevitably the answer was yes, I was. While it wasn’t deliberate, I could sense, in later attempts during that session and in the many practices afterwards, that I would in subtle ways subdue my movements—I wouldn’t fully open my chest, or fail to extend my arm as far as it could reach, or not take the risk of as large of a step as I knew I could pull off. In so many small and insidious ways, I was hiding the fullness of my movement and of my expression.

Once I realised that propensity, I would explain that hiding to myself as the consequence of habit. In the past, when I’ve been learning a new movement or needing to tune into some subtlety of technique, my habit has been either to close my eyes or to cast them off to the side and down. That pattern is universal; it shows up whether I’m working on martial arts or parkour; whether I’m dancing solo or with a partner. It’s a habit I thought had served me in the past—but did it really?

During one session, while practicing a sidestep into a single-leg balancing pose, my gaze kept drifting off to the side as I focused on trying to feel the full extension of the balancing leg. I mentioned to him how that habit helps me tune in to a new movement. He scoffed, laughing, and saying that I didn’t need that habit, and that I had the physical ability to tune into the smallest details while still keeping my head up and maintaining eye contact. I was hesitant—after all, this habit had served me well in learning movement arts for so long, and everyone’s different, right?—but he was sure enough that I had to challenge myself to see if he was right. To my surprise, he was: I didn’t need to avert or close my eyes, and in fact for many movements it improved balance and alignment, which I shouldn’t have been surprised by because as I’ve told students hundreds of times “the body goes where the head goes.”

Well before that moment, I had known that I had to confront this tendency to hide and to let the fear of being seen win. Within the context of the mentorship, eradicating that justification was an absolute requirement. At the end of the second day of practice I was challenged to do the phrase I had been learning that day—a series of long steps with my arms held out to the sides the whole time, followed by shifting to a single-leg balance with a drop of the head to the side—all while never breaking eye contact or otherwise losing focus. I succeeded, but only after several attempts. Obviously it was going to be a long road to becoming comfortable with maintaining a strong physical presence, and even longer if I was only practicing once every week. I set myself the challenge to practice this challenge of presence—to stand tall and open, looking ahead and around, and most importantly making eye contact—throughout daily life, though especially during social dances. The goal was primarily to acclimate to that stress in the studio so that it didn't become overwhelming during a performance, but I realised I needed to expand that: I don’t want to have my default orientation towards the world to be one of hiding or muting my presence.

As I’ve worked to carry the practice of being upright and engaged from the dance studio to the rest of the world over the past weeks, it's become clear to me that the tendency to look down and away or otherwise tune out from the present situation is a way to hide, a means of pushing away uncomfortable parts of the moment because we’re afraid.

I often felt uncomfortable, and sometimes afraid, during practices. That fear would manifest as a feeling of tightness in my abdomen, a subconscious holding of excess tension (especially across my shoulders), and shortened breathing. My balance would be off, and I found it harder to stay focused when I was especially nervous. In the studio I had no choice but to face that fear and learn to dance with it; facing it in the outside world was harder, as I had clearly established a habit of avoiding it more often than not.

I can see now why I'd chosen to hide by dropping my gaze or otherwise reducing my presence around others. Knowing that others see you and that they may be judging you is terrifying, and it’s not bound to being physically seen. A wonderful example is my friend Birdie’s response to recognition for her writing. When I chose to look up and to be fully aware of Tony—someone whose role was specifically to watch and judge me—a cascade of fearful, anxious, questions would pass by: "Shit, he can see me." "What does he think of my movement? He must think it's terrible, I just messed up again…." "Does he accept me?" "I failed at keeping eye contact again. Why can't I do this right?"

That process of untangling the tendrils of the old habit is ongoing. When I got started, I failed far more than I succeeded at keeping my gaze up and my awareness open, whether that was walking across town, talking or dancing with a partner, solo dancing within a group, or otherwise. And it wasn't easy to do this regularly, especially within the context of dance, where you're expressing yourself creatively. In partner dancing there was a reflexive habit to flinch away from eye contact after a few moments. In ecstatic dance it was even easier to tune out, close my eyes, and sink into the music than to hold to my challenge of keeping my eyes open and aware of the whole room, making eye contact with the others dancing there, as I would for a performance.

It took a few weeks for the success-to-failure ratio to shift in favor of the former. As that happened I noticed at ecstatic dances that it was emotionally challenging to remain in that open awareness. On one exceptional occasion I felt odd, the feeling was blunted by dancing, but there was a shakiness and desire to retreat into myself. I needed to step out after one song to sit and feel into the physical sensations that were arising. Dance is always capable of breaking feelings loose, and with the addition of connection to the whole of the dance, feeling the presence of every individual there instead of just your own, that seemed to add a layer of acceptance and connection that was bizarrely challenging to receive in the moment.

And it was exactly that acceptance that, despite the initial stresses, has made the challenge of looking up and being fully present worthwhile. Though I'm only a few months into this practice I've noticed huge shifts in how I interact and how I'm received. There are more positive interactions, conversations and unexpected meetings than I’d experienced in the past. Now the average experience within a dance is one of a more solid and sure connection and flow. I'm able to notice more details in the world in general when I stay fully present—when I’m not distracted by my phone or some internal self-deprecating diatribe I free up my mind to notice what's actually going on around me.

I'm beginning to see that the belief that I “need” to tune out in order to focus on my movement or feeling is bullshit. I can be both aware and connected to myself and to my surroundings and still be executing the movement to the best of my abilities.

It's simple, but not easy. Still, of all the changes and experiments I've done in recent memory, this one has been the most impactful, making every moment where I hold that awareness richer and deeper. As someone who's often thought of himself as a lone wolf, both through choice and circumstance, and often felt isolated or misunderstood, the shift towards both seeing and accepting that I’m being seen has been immensely healing. A rootedness, a solidity of connection both to myself and to others, has appeared and deepened as this practice has taken hold.

It may be a difficult choice, but choosing to look up has been worth all the discomfort. I’m not blithely assuming that the hard part is over, either—I can tell that this practice will be continue to be challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright painful. It may prove to be a lifelong practice of returning to looking up, returning to full awareness. And I know it'll be worth it.