07 September, 2011

Contra choreography: Simple physics versus conditioning


When i started writing "Soul Reversal", i didn't know what a becket-indecent formation would be; in fact, i don't think i've seen another becket-indecent dance. It began with the simple thought to combine a circle left > circle right progression (which i fell in love with thanks to Rick Mohr's dance "Night Sail") with a melt-into-waves. Having danced "Soul Reversal" at Pinewoods American week, i can safely say that if a dance flows intuitively enough, an odd starting formation will disappear into the background. Tricky end effects are far more formidable an enemy. And dancers, it seems, appreciate the juxtaposition of intuitive flow and unconventional choreography. 

But close on the heels of that feedback came the challenge of composing an auctioned-off dance to follow it. Now, i'm not one of those computer-programmer caller types whose mind can think in matrices, plug in discrete sequences, and solve a dance choreography problem in seconds flat. Instead, i painstakingly diagram, scribble, and erase for hours. The dry-erase board is my best friend. This approach isn't exactly efficient, but gradually i'm building an inner database of transitions between moves, and the process becomes simpler. 

Paying attention along the way has taught me a lot about how various moves interact, and dictate the sequence of a dance, leading me to believe there's a lot of unbroken ground yet to explore. By changing something simple - gents lead a move traditionally led by the ladies, or vice versa - new choreographic ground is opened up. However, this unbroken ground seems to have two distinct reasons for being unbroken: simple physics, and conditioning.

First, the case of biostatistics and simple physics. Why is "ladies roll the gents away" so rare? Because, quite honestly, it's terribly unsatisfying. The height/mass differences between average male and female Homo sapiens dictate that a male rolling a female away will generate more momentum than a female rolling a male. Physics doesn't change much from one type of dance venue to another, or from small rural events to dance weekends. 

In the other case, unbroken ground results from an absence of innovation, or perhaps an excess of conditioning to just one way of doing a move. An extreme example: anti-clockwise swings feel absolutely bizarre, and do not exist - yet there is no underlying mechanical reason*. We just do so much clockwise swinging. Because of the sheer volume of conditioning, to mirror the swing - thus allowing a segue from the circle right, and potentially alleviating overuse injury to the right knee - while entirely possible, would never catch on with dancers.

Other things, like the gents' chain, are not so far-fetched. Though more common than it once was, gents' chain is still rarely utilized. In my opinion, the courtesy turn does not suffer from the same limitations of physics that dictate who's rolling away who. Teaching a "reverse courtesy turn" is as simple as directing the gents to give ladies their right hands, and walk forward whilst the ladies back up. Reverse courtesy turn sounds odd to some people; granted. But it opens up some intriguing, and entirely doable new options for flow. I would bet there are some other such avenues to be explored.

*An afterthought. I can come up with one mechanical reason for clockwise swings: a prevalence of right-handedness may dictate that bearing ones' weight on the right side of the body is more comfortable for the majority of dancers. Testing this hypothesis would demand comparing the tolerance of anti-clockwise (mirrored) swings between right- and left-handed dancers.