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What writers can learn from modern dance

A couple weeks ago, Francisco and I took Mariel to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which offers classes through its extension program. Mariel is crazy about dance, and we  were stopping by Ailey to see if we could enroll her in toddler ballet. Already past the enrollment deadline, class would have to be put off until the next session, but we could sit in on any of the extension classes for $4.00, which we did.

I don’t know much about dance of any sort, and I have a profound aversion to dancing myself (I’m happy for people who enjoy it, but I don’t and am convinced I won’t, and nothing makes me want to have a melodramatic episode more than being asked to dance), and so it was utterly strange how moved I felt by the modern dance class we observed. The teacher, a woman who appeared to be in her 60s, had been a student of Martha Graham, who (I know this much) is considered one of the most important–if not the most important–progenitors of modern dance. The class was diverse in race, age, and ability, but it was clear that all of the students were committed to learning the dance the teacher was trying to pass down to them.

She sat in a chair and watched them move, then nodded and made quiet comments about how they could improve. Then, they’d progress to the next series of movements, and the teacher would show them, supplementing her own movements with words only when necessary.

There was one particular segment of the dance that seemed especially challenging, and the teacher coached them through it by talking about her own memories of learning the dance under Graham’s direction. Some of the students still didn’t get the movement. The teacher paused, seemingly considering how to continue. “I don’t like talking about images,” she finally said. “I think they are very private things. But I will share with you how Martha explained this to us.”

She went on to share Graham’s metaphor–a scorpion bending back to bite its own tail, a vivid image, and one that made perfect sense–to me, at least–as she arced her own back to provide a visual pairing. I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the dance. I was still thinking about the teacher’s statement: “I don’t like talking about images. I think they are very private things.”

As writers, we spend a great deal of our time crafting the perfect metaphors and similes, the comparisons that we think will allow our readers to “get” what we’re trying to say. This is particularly true for travel writers, who want to put readers in a place or immerse them in an experience they haven’t likely been to or had themselves. We think that these metaphors will make an image or idea more relevant, personal, meaningful, or comprehensible… and they often do. But what might our writing be like if we tried on the idea, at least once in a while, that we don’t always have to use metaphors to explain things?

What I read into the teacher’s declaration of images to be “private things” was the idea that the metaphor or image can actually be alienating, even though its intent is anything but. The parallels we draw are, after all, based on our own experiences and frames of reference. Thus, our metaphors are an attempt to explain, but without a point of reference, they may not “work” for the person on the other end of them.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon metaphor– not at all. But what I am suggesting is that we think more critically about how our images draw people in or keep them out, how the images we create to be shared with others may be too private, sometimes, to be useful.


4 responses »

  1. Very interesting. Loved this part -> “The parallels we draw are, after all, based on our own experiences and frames of reference. Thus, our metaphors are an attempt to explain, but without a point of reference, they may not “work” for the person on the other end of them.”

    So true!

  2. Good point, Julie. One of the thrills, for me, of reading a great piece of writing is when the author’s images or metaphors just hit me exactly right. But the flip side of that is the disappointment when they don’t click.

  3. Fascinating. And a turn around from the commonly accepted idea that imagery enhances writing. Is the idea commonly accepted, though, or is that my truth? Any questioning, pondering, is like peeling an onion layer by layer.

    There we go again. I make a statement, and then question its truth in the very next sentence. Like peeling an onion. The reader buys chopped onions at the grocery store, has never peeled an onion in her life, and does not know what I am talking about. So the image does not work.

    All that we can do is write our own truth, and hope the reader sees it. If there is disagreement, at least it starts a dialogue.

  4. wow! very interesting.


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