Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Injury. Injury. Injury. Words that strike fear into the heart of every dancer. Right now, I am sitting here nursing my ankle hoping that it will regain enough strength and resilience for a 3-hour class I am teaching tonight.

Photo from http://www.onstage-studios.com/Toe-Shoe-Stretch.jpg

I do not think there is any part of my body that I have not sprained, broken, torn or bruised. Embarrassingly, not all of these injuries are due to dance … quite a lot of them are actually due to my supreme klutziness. Each day is a battle against time’s ruthless acquisition of flexibility, stamina, strength, resilience and will. It might help if I could walk with same grace as I dance. Sigh …

Dancing is so much more than technique. It is also so much more than making loud movements to deceive the eye.

It disheartens me when students want to jump start to choreographed numbers when they have no grasp of basic technique. Running before you learn to walk leads to broken ankles. And then there are the dancers who always pull out the “money moves” – loud, aggressive showstoppers to seize the audience’s applause. These are tried and tested showy tricks which appear technically difficult but are actually, and usually, pulled out in desperation to conceal lack of technique, skill, creativity, subtlety and refinement. Hey, I use them too – hangs head in shame. Most of us have at least one or two money moves which we use fairly often. But on the whole we try to limit these.

A particular dancer, best known as BW, is infamous for her money moves. Her dance is best defined as 80% money moves and 20% acting. In fact, she is the creator of the “diamond” technique. Being a fairly large girl, she has learnt to trump out hard, raw movements to compensate for her size. These showy moves inevitably elicit gasps and loud applause from the audience, usually in appreciation that someone of her physical attributes can execute those moves. I am not being snarky here but this is a constantly overheard comment about her.

Photo from http://www.engagement-rings-jewelry.com/images/diamonds.jpg

On one hand, I feel insulted for her that the applause is because of her size. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see her dance as I see how she tries to cover up her weak technique with money moves all over the place. All at the expense of well-thought out choreography, a true feel for the music and … well … soul.

She once approached me to ask for the “secret” behind my lyrical style – all under the pretext of unsubtle flattery of my “lyrical grace, fluidity and preference for lyrical numbers”. She even pulled out her usual crock about us being sisters in dance. What am I talking about? Everything about her is obvious. I just wished she had the balls to just come right to confess that she wants to learn my style instead of insulting my intelligence and putting me off my food.

I admit I am not the best teacher as I can never explain my lyrical style. It would be like trying to explain my soul. Where do you start? Where do you end? Can words convey everything? Or is the unspoken more powerful and moving?

Stumped for a way to answer her question fairly without condescension or scorn, I could only offer her one of the truths I hold dear.

“You dance for the clamorous applause at the end of your performance. I dance for the seconds of silence before the applause at the end of mine.”

It was terribly hard for her to comprehend as we are such different people, what more dancers. For her to try to emulate my lyrical style would be as fruitless as forcing me to perform one of her full frontal pelvic thrusts during a lyrical number.

Months later, she showed up at my door with one of her teachers, seeking my help in correcting their undulations. I really am way too polite. Many of the other dancers chided me - I should have shut the door in their faces. But I just could not force myself to be so rude. I’m not a total fool though. I know that they were not there simply to learn how to execute an undulation … they were hoping to learn how I would execute taqsim - an improvisational slow number. They even brought the song. You cannot see me now but my eyes are narrowed to wry, Garfield-like half-mast slits as I typed that.

The taqsim portion was only a 28-second solo bit. By virtue of the name, it means improvision. Yet these two took detailed notes and recorded every move at each 5-10 second intervals. They even counted out the movements and used a stop watch to time them. I knew then these two would never be able to truly perform a lyrical piece. They had no soul. Everything was calculated. They will never realise you cannot calculate soul.

I have a signature dance but I have never performed it the same way twice. The basic choreography is there but I might change a particular combination of movements here, or the direction or the number of repetitions there. Because each performance is danced with a different energy and soul. Sometimes they are the same – the mournful lover waiting for her beloved’s return. Other times, the angry, scorned lover takes over. Yet others, the shy and fragile girl or the cheeky flirt. They decide how the dance will go. Not the number of counts. Not the detailed notes stolen from the movements of another dancer.

I immerse myself into a character or song prior to performance much like method actors. For weeks before a show, I listen to the song again and again or songs with a similar cadence, feel, sound or energy. I listen to the whispering in my ears, my head, my soul. I identify who is speaking to me and I begin to inhabit and open myself up to that soul. Each time I perform that song, a different muse sings to me.

If it is the gentle, mother-earth figure full of curves and soft caresses, I am quieter, more introspective, calmer and softer in my interaction with people. If it is the angry, vengeful lover, I am edgy, fiery, slightly dangerous and high-strung. If it is the shy, bashful girl, I try to avoid people that entire week. That’s not to say that I am schizophrenic but that these traits, already in me, come much more to the fore and are heightened during the week before performance.

But what happens if you have back to back shows and they are two very different dance styles or energy? These past weeks I have been planning and choreographing two very different pieces of music. Talk about dual personality!

One song is a Latin song which calls for fast, fiery movements with a subtlety seductive and slight jazzy beat. It calls for an upbeat, cheeky, fiery and passionate interpretation. The other is a classical lyrical piece full of mournful, soft wails, sensual saxophone tones, flowing rhythms and light, gentle fluidity.

Fluctuating between the two is challenging. Like two lovers, they are jealous and possessive and demand complete fidelity and attention. I’ve never been good at two-timing and thus, the past few weeks have seen me struggling to juggle between them without sacrificing one for the other. Switching between the two muses takes a huge conscious effort and will.

Sometimes one muse will speak much louder than the other and you have to heed her. Other times, the other will pout and hide herself away in pique because you have neglected her. Muses are capricious things and can wreak havoc should you underestimate their importance or fail to show them the due respect.

How so many of the dancers out there can dance without a muse puzzles me. Yesterday, I met 3A and J for afternoon drinks. Sitting in the balmy outdoor café of the Oysta Bar, part of the Indochine group, we caught up on gossip, news of the dance world and serious discussions of the social issues our age group face.

The abysmally slow service forced us to have a longer and more leisurely afternoon than we would have like. It must have taken us about 30 minutes just to get our check and another 15 minutes to get our change. During that time, 3A made a comment about a fellow dancer, S’ decision years ago to focus on dance as a career. She scoffed at S’ naiveté and her lack of real feeling for music or dance. I wondered at the paradox of S’ decision when she did not seem to harbour the same love for dance as many of us. For most of us, we live, breath, eat and drink dance even as we go about the daily routine of our lives.

S and I once went overseas for a performance. There was nothing to do in the afternoons while we were there but rather than dance or practise, she preferred to spend her time watching telly in our hotel room. I was so bored and in the end, managed to harangue the hotel into arranging for a function room for me every afternoon to practise, choreograph or just plain work out. Yet this is the woman who claimed to love the dance so much she gave up a career for it. I just do not understand it.

After knowing her for many years now, I also realised she does not fully choreographs her dance numbers, preferring to wing it. While I believe that you should dance with soul and not mechanically, when you are a stage performer, you do need some element of planning - showmanship, impeccable timing, cognitive and intelligent usage of the entire stage area, awareness of lighting and many other elements in order to deliver a performance that restaurant or club dancers cannot aspire to.

Again, 3A condescendingly told me I was the one who was naïve and not everyone was obsessive-compulsive like me. O … K …

With shows likes So You Think You Can Dance and the coming, farcical, so-called international dance contest that is about to hit Singapore next month, it is little wonder that so many aspiring dancers enter the scene with little comprehension and appreciation of dance. They see the bright costumes, the dramatic make-up and the accolades of the audience and they crave the glitter and glamour of it all.

What they do not see is the broken toe nails, the blistered soles, the torn ligaments, the sprained joints, the pulled muscles, the hours spent repairing costumes, the vast amount of money spent at master classes, the hours and hours spent in front of the mirror working on one single combination of moves again and again till it is perfect. They do not see the struggle to keep the body limber with the onset of age, the aches and pains from past injuries and the fickleness of audiences.

As I reflect on this, I am icing my ankle and hoping for the best tonight. A broken down dancer, sitting gingerly on the bed, balancing the fragile remains of her instrument, counting the shortening threads of her life. It’s a hard lot I chose. Or did not choose, if you consider that my family made that decision for me from birth. If given the choice, would I do it again?

Yes … definitely.

I once hung up my shoes for many years to please the selfish and insecure desires of an undeserving spouse. I did not realise I not only shelved my shoes but also my happiness, freedom and passion. I lost myself. When I truly had nothing left, it was dance that lifted me and made me feel alive again.

For every broken ankle, every torn ligament, every tear of pain, every crippling insecurity, every insult to dignity, every blow to the ego … it is worth it. I do not want to imagine the day when I cannot do this anymore. When my body finally concedes the battle. It is a frightening thought and scares me more than death. I fear when that day comes, I may turn around and realise I have nothing to live for.

Photo from http://www.freewebs.com/var1/bussellshoes.jpg

So ... Injury. Injury. Injury. I’ll take that. As long as I can still dance.


Blogger hinata said...

Hearing your take on dance is so refreshing - my only experience with dance was torturous ballet classes in primary school, and while I enjoy theatre and music, dance always seemed so foreign to me... After your post, I think I understand it a lot better now. Thanks for opening my eyes to the art in dance! (and just in time for the Arts Fest :))

And hope your ankle heals up well!

10:36 am  
Anonymous mae said...

Poor you! I hope it heals real soon... oh, and i'll have one of those diamonds please... the big one! lol.

8:19 pm  
Anonymous stephen said...

Stephanie...inspiring words...I hope you heal well and never stop the dance...

1:16 am  
Anonymous RobotII said...

I found your site while searching to see where I got in google rankings. Good luck with your injury and your dancing.

6:23 am  
Anonymous Karen said...

Oh my... how beautifully written, how poignant.

I hope you heal soon!

5:02 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Hinata - Thanks so much ... I think parents who force their kids to do anything against their interest are actually creating more harm than good .. but what do I know?

Glad to open your eyes arts wise, LOL ... you are welcomed anytime you want an opinion about the arts since that is my area of interest. :)

Mae - Sigh, suffering chronic klutziitis is pure hell. Er, you might wanna consider that ... the diamond technique is a way to er ... dance such that you can get diamonds. It's really horrendous ... LOL.

Thanks Stephen.

Hey Robotii, thanks for visiting even if it is by accident! :)

Karen - thanks so much and come back again!

4:39 am  

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