I’m not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve taken my share of dance and movement classes in my previous life as an acting student. I don’t mind being able to tell people that “I studied dance at Alvin Ailey,” which is technically true, as that’s where the acting students in the Actors Studio graduate program had dance classes. I was a hard-working if mostly-hopeless student, and a frequent cause of eye-rolling and pity-sighs from our teacher Rodni, who moved with incredible control, strength, specificity, and power. It was not necessarily transferable.
The man who taught me more about dance and movement than anyone else in my life was Henry, the impossibly graceful, endlessly wise, and astoundingly patient head of the dance department at my undergraduate state college. Truly, there was something superhuman about the man (I assume there still is, he’s alive and well, and I imagine will be for many centuries to come). Taking a dance class with Henry was what I imagine taking a physics class with a gifted professor is like; it seemed as though every lesson had several “ah-ha” moments in which something marvelous about the body in space suddenly broke its way into my bewildered brain.
An example: What is walking? Henry would ask us as we ambled around the studio. The answer, which I was distinctly proud to call out in class when I had my eureka moment: Walking is falling. Think about it, you’ll get it.
Getting through to me was a doubly remarkable feat on Henry’s part, given that I’m autistic (Asperger’s, to be precise), which was unknown to me at the time, and surely made the job of teaching me how to move in a coordinated, graceful way exceedingly difficult. Rodni, gifted as he was, could have learned a few things from Henry, I have no doubt.
One particular “ah-ha” moment with Henry came outside of regular class time, when for some reason I can’t recall, he was looking over some of the choreography he had written for the school’s next big dance concert. I had never seen choreography written down before, only taught to me in person (an experience I do not envy any choreographer). Musical notation I could understand conceptually, of course, but how could one codify movement in unmoving glyphs?
I don’t know what most choreographers do, but Henry’s approach was pretty damned simple: stick figures. Much like a comic strip, the figures would be drawn in particular poses, indicating the moves the dancers would execute at various points in the music. There were probably arrows indicating direction and other marginalia scribbled throughout, but this is all I can remember.
I think I expressed my surprise that this was how choreography was written, that it could be done with stationary pictures even though the art form itself is based entirely on motion. Henry explained that rather than think of them as representations of movement, each picture should be thought of as points for the dancer to reach, marks to hit with their bodies. The stick figure poses were guideposts, “You Are Here” indicators.
“The pictures are the choreography,” explained Henry. “In between the pictures is the dance.”
There’s that cliché about the journey being of greater value than the destination, “it’s not where you go, it’s how you get there,” and so on. Maxims on that theme are so overused that they usually come off as trite to me, if not meaningless, or at least what Daniel Dennett might call a “deepity,” an idea that is true on its face in the most basic and obvious way, but without any of the profundity it’s presumed to convey.
I may be coming around.
Another fellow who, though I’ve never met him, I nonetheless consider one of my most important teachers, is the writer Alan Jacobs. One of his recent books is a short volume called, simply, How to Think, and truly, I feel like no one should be allowed to discuss politics or religion, write opinion columns, or use Twitter until they’ve read it.
The book warrants a substantive review of its own, but I want to call attention to one passage that had my neurons firing off like the 1812 Overture. Thinking, according to Jacobs, is a skill that has been wrongly equated with coming up with answers, decisions, and responses. Thinking becomes about being right, about winning. Jacobs explains what it’s really about:
This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.
Decisions, answers, conclusions; these are the final pose at the end of the music before the curtain falls. Each new piece of data acquired, each bit of information learned, are marks to hit, the guideposts that lead us on. They are static snapshots, pictures. But the thinking itself is what happens while we’re seeking those data points, hunting for information, and piecing it all together in our minds.
In between the pictures is the dance.
A few months ago, a friend of mine fervently insisted I read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, one of those anti-self-help books that seem to hip right now. I was somewhat reluctant. (Oooh, it has “fuck” in the title! How edgy!) But I am so glad I did, because, much to my surprise, it taught me what happiness is.
That’s overstating it somewhat. But Manson offers a way of thinking about happiness that, for whatever reason, had never consciously occurred to me. Simply put, Manson says that happiness is not a state one achieves, but it is rather a process, it is what we experience when we are solving the problems we want to be solving.
That’s it. Happiness is not something to be attained, it’s just what happens while we’re solving problems. If we hate or don’t care about a set of problems, we’re miserable. If we do care about them, the process of solving them is what makes for a rewarding, meaningful existence. If I am spending my time and energies on tasks that hold no meaning for me, I’ll hate every moment of it.
But when I’m directing a play for my university students, for example, I can actually experience bliss, because I’m solving the problems presented by the production so that it can become its own living, breathing work of art. When it’s over, and the run of the play has finished, I almost always crash hard, and have serious trouble clambering my way out of a serious depression. This is largely because completing the play is not what brings me happiness (though averting a disaster for the production also averts severe psychological breakdowns).
It’s putting the play together that brings me meaning; helping the actors understand what they’re saying and why their characters do what they do; arranging the movement and positions of bodies on stage; coming up with ideas for costumes, sets, props, and sound; helping individual students overcome their hangups and anxieties so that they can grow into their roles and blossom. While it’s gratifying when each problem gets solved, checking off boxes on the great beast of a to-do list that a theatre production can be, each solved problem is one mark, one picture.
The struggle is the point. The joy is in the journey. Happiness is in the process. And in between the pictures is the dance.
Am I too old to have just figured some of this out? Having spent 40 years obsessing over goals and products, I never noticed that everything that mattered was in the reaching, in the creating. The doing, not the having-done. The -ing’s, not the -ed’s. Looking back, it becomes obvious.
I have time left, I think. I hope. I can’t have those previous 40 years back, but maybe I can reframe my memory, tell my story to myself in a way that focuses on the journeys rather than the successes and failures. And maybe I can start the next story from this perspective, though not as a goal to be achieved — I must think differently about my life— but as a process, a discipline, an asymptotic odyssey.
Look, some goals must be achieved, whether they provide meaning or not. Marks do have to be hit and some boxes absolutely have to be checked. You know what kind of box-checking I mean, the Maslovian, bottom-of-the-triangle kind, the kind that provide for one’s life necessities, and that of those in one’s care. There is not always joy in hitting the most remedial marks of mere survival. Though maybe there sometimes is.
This is how love works too, isn’t it? Whether familial, platonic, or romantic, it’s the active cultivation of a relationship, the choice to give of oneself to another person, be it a child, friend, or lover. Like happiness, love can’t just be a feeling, a state that we achieve, or a spell cast upon us. It’s the choice to love — a choice we keep making, moment to moment, picture to picture — that gives it meaning, that makes it matter, that makes it real.
I think that has to be it.
Walking is falling, and in between the pictures is the dance. In between the answers is the thinking. In between the giving is the love.
In between the moments, in between the events, in between the accomplishments, in between the failures, in between the losses, in between the lessons, the steps, the miles.
In between the seconds is life. That’s where it is.