A woman stands before the ensemble. She has any height, weight, or frame you desire. Her hair is a color you hate or a color you love. Maybe she wears makeup; maybe she doesn’t. Perhaps because she knows we’ll be moving a lot, she has her hair pulled away from her face. Because she anticipates a workout, she doesn’t bother with makeup. If she wears dark colors, I perceive her as an energetic silhouette. If she wears light colors, I try to create a picture from the parts I can discern.
She moves her body silently, and I have a vague visual impression of her limbs in motion. She addresses the group:
“Okay everyone, mirror my movements—do what I do. Put your hand here,”—she moves one arm—”and do this with your other arm. There, some of you have it!”
Sighs of relief and grumbles of frustration surround me as the ensemble tries to accomplish what she has modeled. I have two options here: I can stand motionless until I understand what to do, or I can attempt to move as she does, knowing that my gesture will be a shady estimate. I can also wait and see if our instructor gives a general scolding remark:
“Come on, ladies, move your bodies more. Put your body into it. Watch me.”
Again, the risers will creak. I will hear and feel movement around me. Some will adopt her movement successfully, which will elicit a compliment:
“There you go—now you are really getting it!”
What is it? What is the gesture she wants us to make? How do I hold my body?
If I am lucky, some quick learner behind me will reach around and move me. Someone will lean to the side and hiss a clarifying instruction. Though they help, these hasty explanations aren’t reliable. I never know if someone will notice that I’m not keeping up. If someone does notice, her instructions will be rushed, crammed into the few seconds between new movements.
When the teacher says, “Move your arm in a circle,” I think, Which arm? A circle in front of me or behind me? Do you want my entire arm to swivel at my shoulder joint? Do you want my elbow to bend so that I trace the circle with my forearm?
Since the rest of the group can watch her, she does not have to address these questions. She can get excited when they do it right—and frustrated when they do it wrong. After all, she has told them to watch her. If they don’t understand how to move, then they aren’t paying attention.
This woman has filled many roles across my life. She has been a dance instructor, a aerobics whiz, a chorus conductor, a photographer. She has been anyone who told me how to hold myself using her own body and few words—never once touching me.
She has failed me and, naturally, I have failed her. I’ve never known what she wanted, and, when I’ve asked for explanations, I’ve met her confused and flustered elaborations.
“Here, just hold your arm like this.”
“Your right arm. I’ll show you.” This declaration brings her close to me, modeling the movement with exaggeration.
“I can’t see you—can you move my arm?”
“Oh…sure.” And she begins to move me, her hands clawing and grabbing, thrusting my limb into the action. “Like that, see?” The grace with which she moves herself is lost when she touches me—her tactile guidance feels unnatural.
I want to leave the studio of the Convenient Composite Choreographer and find a more pleasant place.
It’s 7PM on a Tuesday night. My loyal readers know where I am: chorus rehearsal. I’m standing in my place on the risers, dead center on the second row; a small piece of contrasting tape marks my spot. The risers creak as women find their places. I can feel the air around me growing thick with bodies. My fellow singers exchange quips and greetings, and I recognize familiar laughs and voices.
Anne stands before us and leads our aerobic warmup. She turns on some soothing music, and begins to give instruction.
“Okay everyone, let’s start at the head. Massage your scalp with your two hands.”
I place my hands on the crown of my head.
“Work your way down, using your thumbs to massage the large muscles on the back of your head, connecting your head to your neck.”
With a growing sense of calm, I follow her instructions. She guides us through jaw, neck, and shoulder massage, then tells us to roll our shoulders. She tells us to bend our knees and bring our elbows up. She says, “Plant your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your weight over your feet as your reach to the left—and to the right.” As my weight starts to shift to my arms, she reminds the group, “Keep your weight over your feet.” I correct the movement and discover a profound level of balance. I lean into the stretch.
Anne tells us to draw circles and figure eights with our hips. She tells us to reach up above our heads. When she wants us to bring our arms down, she says, “Act like you’re pushing down through wet sand.” My arms come down slowly, and I feel self-imposed resistance as I imagine the feeling of working through wet sand. Anne’s words reformat these simple exercises, helping me understand the level of control I must exert in each one.
Thirty minutes pass and I don’t need to ask for clarification. This is the first time I’ve learned movements in a group setting, without feeling remedial. Able to understand each new movement, I feel that I am keeping up—learning as fast as the others around me.
Later, Anne helps me through the remaining few movements in one of our choreography routines. “Act like you’re grabbing your skirt with both hands,” she says. Immediately, I picture a wide ball gown; I take either side of my imaginary skirt (complete with crinoline), preparing for a curtsy. “No, in front of you,” Anne clarifies, adjusting my hands without hesitation. “Like you’re lifting a skirt—your hands come in front of your knees.”
“Oh, like a can-can skirt?” In my mind, I wave a sad goodbye to my floor-length burgundy ball dress. I create a flirtatious, black and red knee-length can-can frock with silk and ruffles.
Again, Anne adjusts my movement. When neither of us can think of an explanation, she skips words and moves me directly. Without awkwardness or reticence, she takes my hands, turns my hips, or places a guiding hand on my shoulder. Like other instructors, she uses her body to model movements for me, but, unlike other instructors, she lets me feel her movements, putting my hands over hers so I can understand each gesture.
Though choreography is visual, movement is emotional. Until recently, most people have taught me movement in translation—trying (and failing) to use vision to help me understand what to do with my body. Willing to move me and move with me, teachers like Anne demonstrate movement as a collaboration between the mover and the moving world, between your body and what you want your body to do.