Listening to Dancing


A stereotype persists of the “dumb dancer,” the beautiful mover with nothing much to say. Like many stereotypes, this slander may contain a kernel of truth; there are men and women who enter the field, in part, because language is not their first language, and they prefer to speak with their bodies. This situation has given employment to generations of dance writers. Our greatest pleasure comes when artists thank us for what we’ve published, observing that we’ve understood their work, and articulated it, better than they could.

Poet and critic Mindy Aloff has spent the past 20 years combing world literature—the dance canon and much other material, from Dickens to Rilke to John Updike to Akira Kurosawa—for stories that illuminate the special power of the medium. As she observes in her extended afterword, “A Note on Anecdotes as Ingredients of Dance History,” she chose these stories because she likes them. “When in doubt about including something, I considered whether I’d want to tell the story myself to someone I cared for—not a very sophisticated yardstick, admittedly, yet an honest representation of my feelings about dance, which has given me countless hours of wonderment and pleasure.” Deliberately omitted are the stories everyone knows, and the ones that smear figures of great accomplishment. The collection is nothing if not inspirational, suitable for dance virgins as well as jaded hipsters who think the art form has nothing to tell them.

The organization of her volume is complex; each chapter has many entries, most of which consist of an introduction by Aloff to commentary by someone about someone else. Her sources include poets, novelists, biographers, and of course dance artists, some quoted from memoirs and autobiographies, some recorded in conversation with her and an assistant, others overheard in stories provided by raconteurs. The bibliography includes upwards of 173 items, ranging from 18th-century texts to Wikipedia entries; readers of this collection may find themselves lured to bookstores, libraries, and the Internet for larger doses of the material. Nearly all the great critics of this century are represented, and much ink is devoted to those Aloff calls “towering figures,” from the 19th- century ballerina Marie Taglioni to Margot Fonteyn and George Balanchine.

She engages topics as diverse as makeup and music, money and disability, politics and political correctness. We hear from Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor, Eleanor Powell. We glory in the measured tones of Merce Cunningham, here discussing his first teacher: “All my subsequent involvements with dancers who were concerned with dance as a conveyor of social message or to be used as a testing ground for psychological types have not succeeded in destroying that feeling Mrs. Barrett gave me that dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.”

Several anecdotes touch on what happens when a sophisticated dance world figure finds him or herself in remote territory. Tommy Tune was present when Martha Graham announced to a Texas college crowd, “All great dance stems from the lonely place.” Asked by a young student where that was, Graham replied, “Between your thighs. Next question.”

The collection shows artists from New York and abroad interacting with “civilians” during grueling tours that brought a glimpse of dance’s marvels to the far corners of the continent. How did a Mexican art student living in Los Angeles find his way to the pinnacle of the dance world? Aloff includes José Limón’s explanation, detailed in a statement collected by Selma Jeanne Cohen. She also gives us Boris Kochno quoting the great tragic actress Sarah Bernhardt’s reaction on being taken to see Fokine’s 1910 ballet Schéhérazade: “. . . scarcely had the curtain gone up than she was seen to become much overwrought. Laying about her with her cane, she cried, ‘Let’s get out of here! Quickly! . . . I’m afraid. They are all mutes!’ “