The dance school in the New Jersey town of my childhood was run by a quirky showbiz couple: Van, a.k.a. Miss Kelly, and her husband Ted. Miss Kelly was a petite woman with white-blonde hair and ruby lipstick who had a penchant for milky tea from the deli across Broadway. After showing us a combination, she would perch atop a high green stool in the corner by the record player with her black cockerpoo tucked patiently underfoot, and the two of them would watch us bourrée across the floor. When I was of age, I joined the older girls in the advanced pointe class on Saturdays, which included lessons in pas de deux, or partner work, taught by Ted.
Brave Ted. Tall and pencil thin with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a paisley neckerchief, he took us on one by one – the wobbly, the heavy, the zealous, the stiff – doing his damndest to steady us as we pitched into arabesques, to lift us high in our pas de chats. It was like watching someone trying to maneuver bulky furniture that has been greased. We made Ted sweat. And though he showed us, during our multiple pirouettes, how we should pull in our arms, wrist-crossed and lily-like, and lower our turned-out leg, he still took a knee or an elbow for the team in almost every class. It must’ve been a tough way to earn a living.
This experience left me with the distinct impression that it is preferable to work alone.
Resist or yield…or evolve
That preference has changed over time – largely because, though we are alone in many ways, we clearly don’t exist in a vacuum. I have some very specific ideas about how I want my life to be. But if it involves anything outside of me – and how could it not? – then what I want is subject to the chaos of existence.
Recently I was talking to a friend who was reeling from some unexpected news. “I didn’t ask for this,” he said, bewildered and cross. “I didn’t choose it. It’s like life played a trick on me.” He felt he had two options: resist, or yield. Neither felt good. One felt heavy and hard; the other, passive and defeatist.
Is there another way to approach this chaos?
Alvin Lucier is an 87-year-old composer of experimental music. A master of the genre, he is best known for his 1969 composition, I Am Sitting in a Room. Lucier records himself reciting a text, plays it back and re-records it again and again. Since every room where the piece is performed (and recorded) is different, certain frequencies are emphasized while others fall away, and the initial recording warps and varies until it becomes a unique collection of pure tones of the room itself.
In one of his most recent works, Lucier ran his heartbeat through a special sensor, routed the sound through the silk strings of an ancient Chinese instrument, and transmitted it to the moon. Seconds later, each heartbeat bounced back to Earth. Because of all the movement occurring between the Earth and the moon, the returning sound was constantly changing in unpredictable ways.
“The sound should change,” Lucier said in a recent interview, “and I want to let that happen. If I start fooling around with the sound before it even goes up there, the whole piece doesn’t make any sense.”
Dancing with the unknown
Sometimes I’m overly fond of metaphor, but I can’t help extending Lucier’s approach to life itself: does trying to make life stick to a plan – to impose our version at all cost – make any sense?
We arm ourselves to the teeth against the unknown: we’re afraid of it, and of its effect on what we have and what we want. So we resist, or insist, or ignore, or hesitate. It’s physical, too. Check it out next time you’re faced with something you cannot know or dominate: are you holding your breath? clenching your jaws? curling-in your shoulders? literally digging-in your heels? Or maybe you disappear into your thoughts, or a substance, or continuous activity, rather than face the fear of what you can’t control. These reactions are understandable. They come from your survival instinct. But if your survival is not actually in question, they’re a major waste of energy, and can bring you to some very dark places – darker even than the unknowable thing itself.
What if you danced with the unknown – or at least had a good feisty wrestle with it – rather than fighting it with shield and sword, or swooning helplessly before it? Now I’m not talking about being thankful for the “gift” of your trauma or the “great opportunity” your illness affords you. Not for a minute. I’m talking about facing what comes (even the shitty, scary things you didn’t choose and can’t control) without treating life as the enemy. Imagine Alvin Lucier shaking his fist at the moon for distorting his heartbeat. Instead, he works with the unknown. You may love or hate the result, but his process is a perfect illustration of an active partnership with The World Out There. There is such beauty in the spontaneous interaction of your will and Life. A bit different from brave Ted and the awkward teenage ballerinas – though there was beauty to be had in that partnering as well.
We tend to think of our lives, especially what we create, as coming entirely from within. If you’re reading this, then you have surely set things in motion in this world. What seed have you planted, what story was begun? Be still a moment. Step back. How has something you started taken shape on its own? How has life partnered you?
Photo: Chaos theory – the Lorenz attractor
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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