Dance

Dancers Share Accumulated Wisdom in “Mindful Movement” and “A Life in Dance”

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When dancers take it into their heads to produce books, especially in this mad era of self-publishing, the results can be cumbersome and messy. The commonly held notion that dancers are inarticulate — that language, as in writing and speaking, is not their first language — is, sadly, too often the case. There are notable exceptions — Twyla Tharp talks a blue streak and has written several useful books — but incredible physical fluency takes time to develop, as does fluency with words, and each of us has only so much time.

Martha Eddy, raised in Spanish Harlem in the Sixties by parents who were community organizers, danced as a child, coming up through the legendary training programs at the 92nd Street Y and then studying at the Martha Graham School and at Clark Center before heading off to the newly founded Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. There she first encountered the cadre of somatic arts and therapies (“somatics,” broadly speaking, refers to the cultivated awareness of inhabiting a physical body) that would ultimately shape her life’s work. Eddy later earned a doctorate in movement science and education from Columbia’s Teachers College, and she now teaches at Princeton and in studios and programs of her own devising, such as the Center for Kinesthetic Education and Moving for Life.

Her 2016 book, Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action, has been fifteen years in the making; it’s her scrapbook, her journal, a kit bag of everything she’s learned, thought, and taught in forty years on the front lines. The hardbound edition weighs in at about two pounds, and the columns of type are preternaturally wide; it’s easy to lose your place, especially in the sea of passive sentences, parenthetical notes, acronyms, and erratic editing. The book carries all the baggage of academic publishing, including thirty-five pages of bibliography.

Even so, Eddy’s material is valuable, tracing the history and geography of somatics from its origins in Europe to its flowering in twentieth-century North America, where primary exponents have included such pioneers as F.M. Alexander, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Moshe Feldenkrais. The book provides charts, interviews, first-person testimonials, and photographs, and it includes several chapters written by other people, such as Rebecca Nettl-Fiol’s “How Dance Has Helped Situate Academic Fields of Somatic Inquiry: Case Study University of Illinois–Urbana.” Anyone planning to teach either dance or somatics — actually, anyone with a body — will find useful information here, but should be prepared to invest many hours in teasing it out.

In the late Fifties, I started frequenting bookstores filled with titles like Actors on Acting and Directors on Directing. I grew up reading chapter books about British ballet students freezing in postwar London, but I don’t remember seeing books by dancers about dance careers until the Poor Dancer’s Almanac appeared on the scene, first in 1976, assembled by lawyer-dancer Ted Striggles, and then in 1993, in a fat new version edited by David R. White, Lise Friedman, and Tia Tibbets Levinson subtitled Managing Life & Work in the Performing Arts. But circumstances in both dance and publishing have changed dramatically in the intervening decades, making the new paperback A Life in Dance: A Practical Guide, by Rebecca Stenn and Fran Kirmser, especially timely and appealing.

Stenn, a decade younger than Eddy, grew up in London, Ontario, and also began studying dance in childhood, at first to correct a pigeon-toed foot. But she got hooked, and later left home to attend Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy, spend a year at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and earn a BFA from the Juilliard School. She toured for years with MOMIX, Pilobolus, and her own troupe, then began teaching at the New School, got her MFA, and now teaches at Princeton as well, while serving as choreographer-in-residence at Dartmouth and raising two sons. A Life in Dance draws on people she encountered at every stage of this diverse career.

Stenn’s parents and grandparents were English teachers; that heritage shows in the remarkably clean, readable volume she and Kirmser published this summer. It weighs in, dancebag-ready, at less than a pound. Stenn, inspired by the Poor Dancer’s Almanac, had been cogitating the project for five years; Kirmser, a former dancer derailed by injury who’s now a consultant and producer, came aboard two years ago, bringing expertise and contacts in finance, management, and pop culture.

Recent disruptions in the publishing industry mean writers pretty much have to be famous, or notorious, before a mainstream company will take a chance on printing and distributing their books. They say you need a platform; in other words, you need to be a brand they can market. Stenn and Kirmser opted to self-publish, using a South Carolina service called CreateSpace. Aiming their project at people just starting out in the professional dance world, the pair pre-sold it to some college dance departments; commercial publishers have said that if it does well enough on the internet (you can order it from Amazon, for $20), they might offer a contract for the next edition.

A Life’s title is a misnomer; the book is actually a compendium of many lives, some of them only just begun. Included are brief profiles of close to forty dancers and choreographers from a variety of races, backgrounds, and sexual orientations. Some are barely old enough to drink (like tap virtuoso Caleb Teicher); others are eligible for Medicare (choreographer Wendy Osserman and dance educator/philanthropist Jody Arnhold). Many are still dancing; many are teaching; some, like Philip Montana, have “graduated” into other careers: Montana’s completing his medical education at Dartmouth. Almost all have something eloquent and/or startling to contribute to a young dancer’s education.

Like Eddy’s book, A Life in Dance partakes of various formats: interviews, sections reported by Stenn or Kirmser, sections written entirely by their subjects. It could use the services of a good designer, one who’d provide running section heads and finding aids that might improve access to the sundry chapters, topics, and personalities. The reference section at the back, sketchy and New York–centric, calls out for expansion. But the collection’s vision and intention are clear.

My suggestion to Eddy is, as Feldenkrais might say, “Do less.” And to Stenn and Kirmser, “Do more.”

Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action
By Martha Eddy
Intellect
369 pp.

A Life in Dance
By Rebecca Stenn and Fran Kirmser
Self-published
212 pp.

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