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Life Through Dance

Bending the Rules

By Elizabeth Dickinson

There are apparently four main rules of auditory competence in dancing (or understanding how to move to the music). If you’d like to learn them, please ask a teacher.

The fifth rule is bending all the others for expression and effect, as opposed to breaking the rules because you don’t know there are any. Some people dance from the latter place. As a teacher in a group lesson once said, “Some people dance using the music as background.”

And they still experience a lot of joy. However, I would argue that you experience more joy when you become more educated. Dancing out of time to the music eventually becomes the somatic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

In a similar vein, Picasso’s early paintings were traditional and representational (equivalent to a box step, albeit a beautiful one) before he created the styles he’s now celebrated for. However, Picasso learned how to create realistic art before he threw out the rules to create his own unique styles.

While there is the occasional solitary genius who produces art without knowing or obeying rules, the vast majority of us need to follow a progression from the basic rules to the more advanced. Knowledge of the basic rules can provide a foundation for later individual creativity.

Knowing the rules becomes even more essential if we’re engaged in a collaborative art or sport where successful engagement with our partner or team relies on a shared understanding of what needs to happen.

I always look forward to bending the rules for expression and effect, to finding those places where movement can be held and savored, where contrasts between light and shadow and slow and quick create depth and emotion and delight. But hopefully they will be built on a foundation of knowing where I am in an eight-bar phrase so I can consciously take advantage of musical structure to support what I’m trying to create.

You may feel discouraged by the yawning cavern between the way you’d like to dance and the way you are dancing (with all those pesky rules you never knew existed). To misquote Henry David Thoreau, “If you imagine (dancing in) castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”