DON'T GO BACK TO SLEEP: Reflections on Dance Exchange's Winter Intensive

At the beginning of January, I attended the Dance Exchange Winter Institute. The description read: Join us for our upcoming Winter Institute, January 3 to 6. As part of our Organizing Artists for Change initiative, we will explore intergenerational dancemaking and collaboration with participants from our local region and across the globe. Anyone 18+ is welcome to join.

Participate in a daily movement practice, share collaborative practices and tools for dancemaking, and cultivate a deeper understanding of our role as artist-citizens. This will be a supportive environment for focused training and development for movers and thinkers of all ages and physical capacities- for those coming to dance through another field, returning to dance after many years, or currently in a daily dance practice.

How do I explain that my world is now different?

There were the obvious takeaways that were promised in the course description, and there were the bonds and friendships formed at intensives like this. There were 4 days of activity. But something much more profound happened to me, and how do I say that?

I remembered dancing.

There were bodies spanning 7 generations and all different styles and types of trainings. We had jazz class with Ralph Glenmore- a former principal with Alvin Ailey, under Alvin Ailey- which reminded me that I have skills I never use anymore. Skills I love to express. We listened with our bodies, we spoke with our bodies. There was no sound, really. No music to interpret. No responsibility except to be ourselves, and witness other dancers being themselves.

I wasn’t Shannon Dunne, capital S capital D. I wasn’t that girl from America who teaches in DC, I wasn’t anyone. I wasn’t Miss. Shannon. I was something more pure, and timeless, and unnamed. I was my movement.

When I dance as a sean-nós dancer, I have so much that I feel responsible for. Every movement is weighted with all sorts of emotion and history and responsibility and ghosts.

Cultural appropriation is real, and it’s been an important part of my mission that I value, respect, acknowledge, and teach what is true to the tradition. I feel strongly that SDD should not use someone else’s tradition as a vehicle for my own ego. But I lost myself by over-focusing on demonstrating respect for others, as opposed to expressing admiration, connection, or participation with others, .

I constantly struggle against what sean-nós dancing is NOT. It is a lack based mentality that limits the body, mind, and spirit. I have an entire dance history in my body that includes pantomime, modern, jazz, ballet, tap, musical theater, club dancing, social dancing, and more. To cut myself off from those parts was to cut myself off from my body, as that is where those things live. To cut off a dancer from their body is to cut them off from their soul.

Thanks to the Dance Exchange’s tools and format, I have a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities between cultural tradition and artistic practice, and more importantly how we might continue to explore those similarities and differences through dance.

I came across this poem the day after the intensive ended:

Don’t Go Back to Sleep

by Rumi

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

This is my goal for this semester: to stay awake and enlivened. This past week I simply used some of the tools I learned from Dance Exchange to enliven our classes. The children, especially, LOVED it, though the adults were also enjoying the play. David, for example, incorporated a Travola-esq disco move into his jig that was spectacular, which made me wonder: what is part of our vernacular, as Americans, that is appropriate to include? Is it ever? That’s maybe a big question for another day.

This past week:

  • I asked students, as movers: What do you see? What do you notice? What does the eye see, the mind see?

  • We played a lot of movement games, some using traditional vocabulary, some using traditional concepts, some using traditional music.

  • We danced traditional steps to different music (hornpipes to Go-go!)

  • We celebrated our own ability to move first, and practiced the tradition second.

  • Skill learning was different than investigating and playing.

  • I let my body lead class.

Follow Shannon Dunne Dance on twitter and instagram for more documentation of our specific activities.