Souls that Leap, Souls that Rest
Bisbee, Arizona glows in early November. The walnut leaves have turned yellow, and the copper hills catch the light once the sun reaches the valley of sky overhead. There is a good feeling in this town, the kind that fosters kindness and creativity. The floating ghosts of old miners and old hippies have done well to keep those things flowing amidst the inevitable decay that happens when “progress” comes to a halt.
I arrive on All Hallow’s Eve. There’s a raging party down in the Gulch, I’m sure. But I tuck quietly for the night into little downstairs apartment I rent from a retired art teacher and her husband far from the ghouls. Something about this time of year begs for rest.
In the morning, I drive to Double Adobe Elementary, a small school 20 miles east of Bisbee and less than 15 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. This is my third year at this school. The students know me and are delighted to see me. We work in the “old school,” with its big, wide, open, wooden floor—perfect for dancing.
I do the favorite warm-up activities—the name game, the famous six treasures, some yoga. I remember quickly how easy it is to please them.
The school unit is the “Roaring ’20s” and my plan is to teach dances of that era—Charleston, Black Bottom, the Shimmy. Beforehand, I spend a good amount of time on YouTube researching the dances and can see so clearly how the movement has its origins in West African dance, which I have studied for years. (Here’s a great YouTube video of the Charleston.) My mind goes quickly to Eno Washington, the teacher who first introduced me to West African rhythms more than a decade ago. I recall a class he once taught in which he traced the long history of black American social dances. Moving through the steps, he showed how one dance gave birth to the next, and how all of them had their roots in Africa. Eno is one of the most expressive dancers I know. He was ill during many of those years, infected with HIV, but somehow he’d get himself to the studio to teach us, and the drums would revive him, send him careening across the floor, rolling, leaping, flying.
As fate would have it, I run into Eno at a dance performance the weekend before my teaching begins. Given that I only ever see him once or twice a year now, this is rather remarkable. Or perhaps the spirits are simply conspiring. It is always a delight to see him. He has aged–his hair and beard are white now, and he does not stand to greet me. He is too frail. I sit beside him and talk to him about my teaching plan. I remind him of his smooth moves. I thank him for passing on his knowledge so many years ago. It continues to inspire, I assure him. I’m wishing he’ll get up and do a quick shim-sham for old times’ sake, but I can see he’s content to sit for the evening. In my memory, I pull up a clear vision of his capstone move, the one he always pulled out during performances—a high-flying dive roll across the stage! The memory pleases me, as always.
As I kiss Eno goodbye, I wonder, as I always do, if I will see him again.
I show the students old footage of the Charleston and the Black Bottom on YouTube, along with some more modern clips of traditional West African dances. We talk about how the slaves kept their rhythms inside them and how, in time, those movements evolved into social dances that so often inspired popular dance crazes in mainstream America. The Charleston, for instance, is believed to have been danced by African Americans living on an island of the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. It was danced often in the early 1900s in black communities, but didn’t become popular in mainstream America until 1923 in the Broadway musical “Runnin’ with the Wild.”
We talk about why the “Roaring ’20s” were named that, how after World War I people were ready for joy. Women gained new freedom, cut their hair, shortened their skirts or put on pants, and began to sow their oats. People had things to celebrate. The dance reflected that.
I teach the older students the basic steps of the Charleston and then a sampling of steps from a celebratory West African rhythm called “Kuku,” from Guinea. They follow along pretty well, but after two days of that, one of them asks, politely, “Miss Kimi? Are we going to get to make up our own dances like we did last time?”
This is a meaningful moment. It’s the kind of question those of us who teach art in any form celebrate. Of course mimicking and learning someone else’s steps is a useful, perhaps necessary, way to understand rhythm and technique. But if we merely copy all the time, we miss out on the deeper kind of experimentation that is essential to the creative process.
Of course you can make up your own moves! I say. That has been my plan from the beginning. To learn the history and the basic steps and then morph it, change it, break free and create new dances with the same celebratory spirit. This is what the ‘20s are all about. This is what creative expression any old time is about.
So that is what we do. We work from concepts—freedom, happiness, celebration, captivity, slavery, bondage. The students work in duets and trios to create movements and string them together into phrases.
I hold such admiration for their willingness to play, to experiment, to express. It’s a willingness I worry they’ll lose in the future, once puberty sets in, and society starts sending them messages that moving the body is dangerous, or ugly, or stupid, or foolish. But for the moment, I stand and watch their joy.
I am particularly moved by the dancing of two special education students. One is a boy with Down’s syndrome I know from last year, now a first grader. I’ll call him Kevin. Another is a severely autistic girl in kindergarten I’ll call Kelly. What’s beautiful about the presence Kevin and Kelly is simply that—their presence. Dance time in the big room is perfect for them. Kevin follows along, grinning the whole time. He strays to roll across the floor on his own time or to hug and kiss the aide or his teacher. His classmates know him and are deeply tolerant of him. No one objects to being his partner. Kelly’s autism disorder is a little more serious. She cannot follow along in any visible way, but it’s clear her time in the big dance room is meaningful for her. Not because she’s learning anything about dance that I’m offering, but because she has time and space to run around and express her own self, which she does, freely and loudly. Here, again, her classmates are endlessly tolerant. While they stay (mostly) focused on my lead, they let her run and spin and cheer.
The aliveness that Kevin and Kelly express during the 30 minutes or hour they pass in the big dance room epitomizes what all of the students at this school express in the big dance room. The young ones delight in making shapes and crossing the floor. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders delight in the Charleston, or a wobbly version of it. And in the movements from Guinea. And especially in their own movements to express freedom. In any given moment of warm-up, or a particular group activity, or the time I give them to create their own movements, the room is humming with cheers, whirling limbs, fast footsteps, and laughter.
One afternoon with the 3rd and 4th graders, I finish the planned activity early. “Can we do the 6 treasures, Kimi?” They know this activity by heart. No need for explanation. I put on the music and call out the treasures. Ten whole minutes of pure joy, which you can view here.
But this joy of aliveness doesn’t only come out while running and screaming. It also comes during the gentle warm-up stretches. Or when the children are sitting still to watch each others’ dances. Or during “that one-minute nap thing.”
“The one-minute nap thing” is something I introduce on the first day, at the end of a loud and squirmy session with the kindergarteners. A strategy I use to calm them down.
“Lie still, close your eyes, and pretend your dead,” I say. “For one whole minute.”
Savasana. Corpse pose. The final pose of any good yoga practice. A way to integrate all the learning, and settle into silence and breath.
One whole minute of corpse pose. How about it, kindergartners? No way, you’re thinking.
But they do it! The kindergartners and the 1st and 2nd graders and the 3rd and 4th graders, too. They lie still for one whole minute with no murmurs and no giggles (well, almost none). And then they ask to do it again the next day. And the next. And the next.
I’m astonished by this. Is it the novelty of the nap? Do they just like pretending they’re dead? Or does it just feel good to lie still after so much movement, to integrate the learning and settle into silence and breath?
I do my own research. I lie down with them and close my eyes, let my bones sink into the floor, corpse like. Yes, I think. Silence and breath.
I lift my head to eye the clock and see all the little bodies lying still but for the rise and fall of their ribs and bellies. At rest.
It is hard to believe, here, now, with the echo of squeals and laughter still swirling above us, the breath giving move to our lungs, the blood coursing through our veins. But it will happen. Someday. Our hair will turn white and our bones will get brittle and we will prefer to sit still than to stand and to leap and to roll across the floor. And then we will go silent.
It will be okay. Because someone somewhere will remember that we once ran and leapt and spun and laughed, and fully expressed our aliveness in the great big dance room.
Our corpses will wriggle with the memory.