Saturday, 23 August 2014

Disoriental Dancing

This post has been brewing for several weeks now, so dancers in my classes will have heard all of this at some point and performed the choreography which gave rise to this series of thoughts. I felt I needed to write them up, for future reference.

Working on the notes for the class choreography and the difficulties dancers were having in the last lesson of term set me thinking about awareness of space and direction, how I describe them, and how easy it can be for newer dancers to have difficulty with them.  My choreography notes always contain a table of the abbreviations I use to describe directions and as I copied it into a new document, I thought about the root of the words oriental and orientation. At times like this, I reach for my battered copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Orient, (noun): the East, countries east of the Mediterranean, especially East Asia. Middle English from Old French from Latin oriens, orientis rising, sunrise, east (oriri rise).

Oriental (adjective): of the east or of those countries east of the Mediterranean.

Orient, (verb): place to face east, determine position with regard to points of compass, settle or find bearings, direct towards, gain a sense of direction, position or relationship with one's surroundings, (from French orienter from Latin, as before).  Also Orientate, as a back form from ...

Orientation (noun): the act or process of orienting oneself or being oriented to find one's relative position, gain knowledge of surroundings, information or sense of self.

Add the prefix dis- and you have the reverse, removal or absence of this.

Disorientation (noun): A temporary or permanent loss of or state of confusion over one's sense of direction, position or relationship to surroundings, place, time, sense of what is correct, or personal identity.

Which is a very good word to describe the feelings of bewilderment resulting from the sensory overload involved in trying to keep track of, and concentrate on, what your feet, hips and arms are all supposed to be doing, the direction of travel and where you are supposed to be facing in relation to the 'front' and other dancers, while keeping time with and listening for cues in the music and probably also listening to instructions and prompts AND trying to watch and mimic the teacher (or the dancers in front or to the side and occasionally all of them in turn). It's amazing no-one falls over and not surprising at all that many dance students feel they have problems with coordination.

Many people think their coordination is bad, but actually, it's such a common issue when learning to dance as to be normal. I think beginners assume that practiced and professional dancers don't have problems with coordination, but I've been in a class with other professional dancers where none of us could coordinate our arms and legs on the first try in one exercise. It took a bit of thinking about and slow, deliberate practice a few times before we were up to speed and could then let our bodies take over and stop concentrating so hard. Except for certain neurological and movement disorders can make it very challenging indeed, coordination can be learned and improved. This is why I regularly add coordination exercises in my classes - I need the practice too!

So let's have a look at issues of space and direction, and I'll discuss some other things which conspire to make you feel clumsy and uncoordinated when you're learning to dance in future posts.

When you're dancing, you are moving your body through space and time. I bet you've never thought of it like that!

The time element is in the beat/time signature, speed (beats per minute), rhythm(s), melodic phrasing, the corresponding speed and duration of dance moves and overall duration of the music and dance.

In terms of space, there are two sets of references:

Fixed, which describes directions in relation to the dance space. The dance space is often thought of as a box, with four walls and four diagonals. Turning clockwise from the front, you would face the right front diagonal, right side, right back diagonal, back, left back diagonal, left side, and left front diagonal. If you were on a traditional stage, the front wall is where your audience would be. Stage right and left are from the point of view of you as a performer on stage. Old stages sometimes had a slope or 'rake' so that they were higher at the back, so upstage is towards the back wall, and downstage is towards the front. Up is towards the ceiling, down is towards the floor. On is into the dance space, off is out of the dance space.
Some people think of these directions like points on a compass; others prefer to divide their space into 12 and think of a clock face.

Relative or Body, which describes directions in relation to your (the dancer's) body. You have a front, right side, back and left side. I sometimes refer to 'dancing in your own box'. You can move your whole self or just bits of you forwards, backwards, left, right, diagonally, turning clockwise (i.e. to your right) and anticlockwise (to your left), upwards, downwards, outwards (away from your centre) or inwards (towards your centre).

When dancing 'on your feet' (as opposed to sitting, lying, etc) your weight can be even, across both feet, or transferred from one foot to the other, or moved towards your toes or heels. When you are doing something like a hip drop, your supporting leg is the one carrying most of your weight, and your working leg/hip is the one doing the hip drop.  The leading foot is the one you step onto first, which may or may not be the same as your direction of travel. The trailing arm or leg is usually the one on the other side, for example, away from the direction of travel. It can be useful to think in this way when learning moves, as it relates them to the body, reducing the right/left confusion which arises when you do the move 'on the other side'.

I use clockwise and anticlockwise for the direction of circular movements, turns and curved pathways, to distinguish them from the directions right and left.  I could say round to the right, but this begs the question - on the spot or in how wide a circle?

Okay so far? As with anything, dance has its jargon.  Different teachers may explain things differently, but once you start to become familiar with a way of thinking about space and directions, it can make learning to dance easier.

It may help to think of your dance space as a box,  but what if the box has no distinct front or is a circle or other shape, with audience spaced around it? Dancing on a diagonal may take a bit more concentration, but you just have to decide which way is front. Your own personal front, sides and back don't change. Difficulties arise in trying to cope with both sets of spatial references, and the issues of right-left confusion, mirroring and handedness (which are big enough to need their own, separate post!).

Working with two sets of spatial references may need some thought, but is an accurate way of recording and thinking about what you are doing and where. It starts to get confusing when there is a perceived clash of directions, for example, moving forwards facing the back (i.e.upstage), working with your right leg/hip while turning left (or vice versa), or arms held in front while you are facing anywhere but front.

If you're in a class or workshop, and you find yourself a bit 'lost in space', there's a good chance that others are too, so ask the teacher to explain or go through it again. Break the movement phrase or combination down, thinking about the fixed and body-relative references and timing. Repeat a few times, building speed, then try to stop thinking about it so hard and feel the whole body movement instead. With practice, everything will start to fall into place and you'll feel less uncoordinated and disoriented.

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