Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bring the house down.

"Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre document what remains of a once-great city."

Puritans Drool

I've been ranting a lot lately. Last week, it was conglomeration of dance mixed with the Puritans, sexuality and dudes that hit on me, because I'm a dancer. The result was this paper I wrote for my Aesthetics and Criticism class. Ta-da:

         As a kid, there was a certain type of sexy thrill I would get when looking through the dictionary for naughty words.  What really happened was I would flip through the ‘S’ section of the dictionary till I hit the word ‘sex’, and, with pulses racing, immediately slam the book without actually reading anything.  This was the same story with any anatomy books from my mother’s nursing school days.  I would get right up to the edge of actually understanding the something about the body, I’d freak out, then I’d feel bad about it for the rest of my 12 year old existence, hoping nobody saw and nobody told my mom.  What is it about the body that makes people flinch when having it right in front of their faces?  This aversion has bled directly into my chosen art form: dance.  After I was more immersed in the world of dance, I was able to forget my earlier repulsion/fascination of my human-ness, and embrace it through my work with dance.  But to those who aren’t as lucky as I, the aversion carries on, and the body, sexuality, and dance are lumped together on the old-timey wanted poster.  ‘These things are threatening.  These things are alien. These things are wanted dead or… well, would we have to touch those things to kill them off?  Then no…. just ignore them.’ This is the general view of anything we do not understand.
           Why is dance threatening? Dance, to those uninvolved in the art form, is surrounded by a cloak of “What the hell was that?” and peppered generously with stigma.  There is a fear that all God-fearing, red-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool-American laymen (or women) have of the body, of dance, and of using the body to dance.  This often leads to questions such as “You’re in school for dance? What are you going to do with that?”  The question sounds innocent enough, but there behind the question seethes an excess of judgment.  Of course after this initial question come the peanut gallery types with more questions/statements: “You’re in school for dance, huh? That sounds… fun”, or (my favorite) “You’re a dancer? Are you… ah… flexible?”  Yes, I am a dancer, no I will not immediately have sex with you, just because I’m A. flexible, B. going to school for dance basically is pole dancing for loose change, or C. a ginormous floozy, because you KNOW that dancer’s aren’t smart enough to: get a real degree/understand that your BMW was given to you by your daddy/not end all their sentences like question (I call it valley-girl inflection disease). Plus, you lost your virginity to your high school cheerleader girlfriend… great story, guy.  I’ll jump off my soapbox now, but when you think back to all the comments, all the snap judgments, and every single joke and innuendo thrown at you because you are a dancer, you’ll see that this happens, not just because you live on fraternity row, but because of the history behind America’s view of the body, sexuality, and dance.
         I have a pet theory that I often pull out at social gatherings and perform party tricks with, which I use to explain the short sightedness of Americans in regards to art and, most specifically, dance.  Ah, the noble and brave Puritans (I love their buckled shoes and ability to communicate with Squanto about how to best plant corn.  No wait, that was the Pilgrims. Now my ancestors from the Mayflower are rolling in their graves.)  These severe and austere people founded this country as a way to escape religious persecution.   President Howard Taft best expressed the dark side of this noble grasp at freedom when he stated, “The Puritans came to this country to establish freedom of their religion, not the freedom of anybody else's religion."  The Puritans were a modest and hardworking people, who hated everything fun, especially anything that had to do with body that wasn’t specifically mentioned in the Bible.  The founder of Puritan ethics, John Calvin, prohibited a great many very frivolous and very fun amusements such as smiling and laughing (am I exaggerating? Yes and no. According to some stories I fell upon in my research a man was imprisoned for smiling during a baptism), and first among them was dancing.  Sex researcher Aileen Goodson, Ph.D, stated that the Puritans were a religion that “considered the human body as inherently impure and depraved” and that they "had neither the time nor the inclination for frivolity. Their body guilt and shame became the law of the land, and this law was even more extreme in the United States than overseas."  Galatians 5:21 says “those engaging in "revel-lings" shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Apparently, these people took themselves very seriously.  Any slip into frivolity was a step away from God. George H. Smith specified: "Throughout its history, Christianity has been steadfastly not only anti-pleasure but pro-suffering… The puritan era was simply an extreme manifestation of what amounts to a deep-seated suspicion of pleasure of any sort. While sexual pleasures were the chief source of condemnation, the pleasure inhibition in Christianity was generalized to relate to many other areas."
           The American spirit and mindset is rooted in the Puritan ideals and ethics.  Yes, being American means we are a hard working, independent and egalitarian, but it also means that we are scared to death of the body and it’s capabilities.  The body has had to overcome a great deal to be loved, and as far as I can see, we still have a far way to go.  There is no separating ourselves from our bodies, no living as a brain in a glass jar on a shelf.  Because it is it imperfect, and because it is natural and unconquered, we continue to loathe the ‘natural man’. Dance as an art form is also natural and unconquered, but most of all misunderstood, thus loathed because we don’t understand it perfectly.  Maybe it’s not simply loathed, but it is misunderstood, even looked down on:  “You’re a dance major? Oh, what are you going to do with that?”  We don’t understand dance because we haven’t yet had time enough away from the roots of our Puritan ancestry to spend time loving it, seeing it, or experiencing it.  And so the dance continues to loom in the dark, threatening passersby.  I for one am all about getting it more out into the sunshine for some fresh air.  After that, let’s flip through the dictionary, see those naughty words, and stop flinching.  No one is going to tell your mom.

(P.S. I sourced my historical info and quotes from this Humanism Site, by Joseph C. Sommer.)

Friday, February 3, 2012


In school we get asked a couple billion questions. This was one of them. As you can see, sometimes I get bored in school:

‘What is the purpose of suffering?  Is art transformative or palliative in the face of suffering?’
            Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”  I believe that being alive and undergoing suffering are two pretty close bed-fellows, but lose the big trophy when it comes to 3rd grade “Twin Day” (I remember this if you do).  The two, life and suffering,  just aren’t synonymous.  I personally believe that I was not born to only and mainly suffer.   I do not live my life as if this time alive is just a gigantic Band-Aid that I have to slowly and painstakingly remove.  I certainly do not plan on dying in any sufferable way, most certainly not in anguish (not that I can tell the future, only that I do not think plans on dying whilst suffering, or in any particular way for that matter… unless, of course, they’re part of a suicide cult, special friends with Dr. Kevorkian, or seriously need to think about changing the pathway of their downward spiral).  For me, life was created to find joy, and to take my scraps, bumps, and bruises, maybe not happily, but at least with the knowledge that suffering was put in my way for a reason: to help me recognize joy.
I know that I was born to really live my life. Live, as in live-live, the type of living I have felt when running out-of-control-fast down a hill, when I am on stage performing for the up-turned faces of a enraptured audience, when I am breathing in deep the cold air that ices my nose as I glide up the ski lift, and when I have whole-heartedly fallen in love (every single g.d. time I’ve done it).  To me, suffering is an afterthought.  It is something I have endured, but am not at the moment involved with on a large scale.  Unless I am currently wrapped up in the throes of suffering (feeling: agony, torment, torture, pain, or distress in any way that would lead to A.  sighing with gusto, B. intensive and angst-ridden journal writing, C. about a billion used Kleenex acting like my new, thought slightly sticky, carpet, D. worst case scenario: full emotional breakdown requiring healthy amount of medication and an unhealthy dosage of chocolate), I take suffering in stride, thinking of it only in passing, like an old friend who’s last name escapes me.  But I know that it is there, and when I next experience something hard I know that I can choose how it will affect me.  The author Chuck Palahniuk said it best: “I just don't want to die without a few scars.”  To me, Palhnuik has recognized the need to go through the refinery fires, to be burnt and ruined, only to come out of it changed into what you hope is a wiser, smarter, and more understanding individual.  Will your scars, your suffering, refine you and shine you into a more beautiful person, and help you recognize true joy and life, or will suffering it take its toll and drag you down to its murky depths to chain you in your personal hell?
In the face of suffering, is art transformative or palliative?  Do I create art in the wake of my suffering to change the emotion or do I do this to calm me?  Or does the very viewing, listening, and/or overall partaking of art change or salve my emotion?  I have had a few experiences when I have been listening to music, and there it is, right on the tip of my eardrums, a song, a verse, a chord that will rip through me and define the exact emotion that I am feeling at that moment.  In those instances I have felt relief, as if now I know for certain that some has felt what I feel, like someone out there knows. I feel this validation, I can savor it and more clearly define it through that song, and in a way it helps me feel better.  These instances are a lucky few, and I am bound to treasure them and remember them, but I can and do find it in similar ways through my overall partaking of the arts, though perhaps to a lessened degree.  Seeing other’s renditions of emotions, in particular the more deep and passionate emotions, helps me make connections to others, and round out my overall understanding of human nature.  Art is both transformative and palliative. Whether you are creating art or surrounding yourself with art, it has the capacity to both soothe you, and change you.  The emotion, whether it is sorrow or other, can be morphed by the aesthetic experience, shedding light where light was dim, and throw shades over the parts you don’t need any longer.  A human needs art to understand the depth of other’s humanity, to more clearly define their knowledge of human emotion.  You need art to humanize yourself.


But really... he was.