19 September, 2010

Contradance as cell biology (and other surprises)


Noon, after a packed Friday-night dance in Bangor. Under a perfect blue sky, three young musicians and i crossed the campus. We'd been hired for a private party gig in Littlefield Garden - the sort of thing callers refer to as a "one night stand", as opposed to a regular dance series. They are the most challenging kind of performance i do: you go into the gig with no idea how many dancers you'll have, their level of experience or openness to dance in general, the demands on your repertoire of dance calls (in an area where mine happens to be weak), and if equipment is provided, what its limitations will be. 

As such things go, it shouldn't have been surprising to find that the PA gear our celebrants rented did not include mic stands. Luckily, the Half Pieces - fiddler Minna, cellist Molly, and guitarist Calvin - were audible without amplification, which left the amplifier, and the drone and carbon emissions of an ultra-quiet generator hidden among the ornamental shrubs, to me. 

A rich ellipse of grass spread, mostly empty, beside the gazebo full of potluck food. The hosts and i were struggling to motivate attendees to dance - most reticent due to some self-presumed lack of grace, or perhaps the social awkwardness of an unfamiliar, gendered, partner-oriented activity - and i dredged for clever metaphors, ways to make this communal dance seem accessible and enjoyable. Around so many members of the biology faculty, the organizational similarities between contradance and cell biology came to mind. 

For starters, we have cytoplasm - the dance space, whether it's a polished swath of hardwood or the rough green grass that slows your swings and tickles your bare feet if you're lucky enough to be dancing barefoot. Along the cytoplasm's edge is a shifting, budding structure - the endoplasmic reticulum, the gazebo, the seats along the wall. Dancers bud from it like ribosomes, floating into the floor singly or in pairs. Band and caller are the nucleus, source of a rhythmic stream of mRNA - which organizes those human ribosomes into delightful patterns of motion. 

I was rather tickled to find that metaphor (and the fact that, with Molly's aid, i actually remembered freshman-year cell structure). Then, halfway through the circle dance "La Bastringue", the generator ran out of gas, and amplification failed. Solution: call from the center of the circle. Whatever distance lay between caller and dancers, whether psychic or spatial, had been obliterated. As they danced into the center and back it became a game of sorts; graduate students, researchers - even the Turkish engineers i play futbol with once a week - circled by with laughter and lost looks, one with a baby in his arm. 

One-night stand gigs are challenging, most of all when you have to pester folks into dancing in order to reach that critical mass, but - and especially in the case when threads of life converge in new and unexpected ways - profoundly rewarding. When the contradancing had drawn to a close, black sea tulum music wailed out of Haki's iPhone; Şefik and Alper led us in a traditional Turkish dance, a convergence i never would have anticipated. 

It was a lovely afternoon. Aside from the generator issue, par for the course of such events - and the çiğ köfte was çok lezzetli.