The Tyranny of Music

(And One Dancer’s Liberation From It)

“How is it that I never noticed the tyranny of music!?!”

The realization that music was a tyrannical master hit my dancing body square in the chest the first time I was invited to explore “dance” WITHOUT it.

WITH music, my body willingly & joyfully enslaves itself to the surrounding rhythm, timbre and tone. When strings play my body-heart predictably flies or mourns. When drums play, my legs sink and my hips pulsate. When a trumpet plays, I swirl into the center of the sound like a snake called to its master’s flute. When melody ripples and lyrics bob up and down just so within their intended current, I dutifully immerse myself into the resulting emotional stream.

But to dance WITHOUT music: what a revelation!

I dove in. And each time I returned to the riverbed of this music-less dance*, I discovered an inner dancer eager to explore its own rhythm, timbre and tone. It flowed in a capricious current that longed –not to be danced in siloed spurts to fill out someone else’s score, not to be sliced into words and delivered from a proverbial couch– but to inhabit itself fully in 3D, to splash and crash, trickle and gush, diving and leaping within its own unpredictable rhythm & flow. This dance(r) longed to be felt completely, to be seen and known not only from the inside out, but also from the outside in. And to be seen and known from both directions without labels like pretty or ugly, weird or boring or wonderful.

So I kept on swimming in the current of my inner dance (quieting the labels as best as I could) and learned to follow the impulses hatching in real time. I learned to be brave in embodying the under-the-surface terrain, dancing it into being without an external musical master controlling the score. I discovered that unlike any dance floor I had ever danced on before, this one could hold ALL of my dances in real time:

  • the dance of a woman lying in exquisite repose,
  • the dance of a woman screaming with her fists in the air,
  • the dance of a folded up woman with criss-crossed limbs flailing pell mell on the floor,
  • the dance of a woman rolled up into a rug,
  • the dance of a woman writing a long emphatic letter in the air with her index finger as her pen,
  • the dance of a woman running & leaping in ever widening circles, faster and faster, until she falls down flat in a heap.

All the while, from the banks of what at times appeared to be an irrational, anarchic and seemingly-deeply-unhinged flow, a staid & steadying force (a witness!) sat upright and still, eyes wide open. Perched like a lifeguard (and tangentially charged with holding the safety whistle), this witness’s primary task was to track everything that transpired: the external movements of the dancers diving (often with their eyes closed) into their own murky and mysterious waters as well as the internal movements of the witness’s own physical, psychological & emotional ebb and flow.

From this privileged & holy vantage point I saw an arm reach up with its fingers outstretched as if it longed for the ripe peach on a too high branch. I saw tears drip off of a chin onto the hardwood floor and I saw another dancer’s hand on the floor smearing the tears like paint. I heard high pitched exclamations while knees dropped to the floor, as if a lost child had just been found. I watched hips thrust wildly in the air (for what? for who?) while nearby, at the heart of a body that otherwise could have been dead, a chest gently rose and fell, rose and fell.

I tracked all these dances alongside my inner dances, noting the ones that drew me in, that bored me, that repulsed me, that made me laugh. I began to notice that what lived in my own breath and meandering thoughts was relational. When the dancer danced, what danced in me? As my inner dance projected its swirl onto the outer dance in its own never ending stream, who was the true initiator in the relational flow? The witness or the witnessed? The experience or the experiencer? What of all this might be relevant (vital?) for me to acknowledge as I watched, sensed and navigated the currents flowing before me (as well as the internal & external currents of my “real” life)?

Over time, I began to know that the witness was always witnessing itself (inside and outside), responding to itself, bored with itself, in awe of itself.

Jumping back into the river again, I found other bodies (my body?). A hand gently reached out for mine and I held it just tightly enough to convey that I wanted it to stay. Moving slowly backwards, my hind quarters met another set of hind quarters in surprise: a sacred pause of acknowledgement followed by an almost imperceptible invitation (whose?) to sway into the curves of the other, gaining speed, dropping low into the gyrations of the hips until abruptly (who first?) we walked away. Sound vibrations from across the room met my inner drums translating into recognition that this was a song for the dying so I joined the singers’ song from afar, adding my voice to the unexpected communal release. Rolling slowly over onto my back, I let my head lollop onto a neighboring belly, let it rise and fall gently with the comforting rhythm of our one breath.

When the bell rang, I stood on the banks of it all: I found my journal and wrote the phrases alive in my heart while scribbling images from the inside out. I grabbed a large piece of white paper and drew sweeping movement with markers and crayons and oil pastels, filling the spaces in between with tiny black ballpoint words to remember (and/or to forget). I cut up strips of notepaper and rolled the pieces into tiny little balls and blew them towards each other and then away. I manically pulled and twisted clay into shapes that just minutes before had been inhabited or felt or seen.

When the bell rang again, I (we) gathered up what had been moved and witnessed and created in our individual & collective stream. I (we) wove all of our grasses and shells and stones together into the finest of riparian tapestries, made of momentary color and heart, gestures and sound. Lifting it up, we celebrated, then let it dissolve into the air that we breathed. I smashed the clay back into its source, recycled the paper, swept the movements up into a dust bin and discarded them whole. There was no need to hold onto any of it; there was an endless supply of this kind of thread.

In all this, week after week, year after year, I learned to deeply trust the ever-shifting currents of my own inner dancer. On a floor that could allow all of me– small and big, loud and quiet, fast and still, together and apart– I steadily expanded my capacity to say “yes” with my whole body while honing discernment regarding safety & boundaries & restraint. The more I dove into this inner dance– the one without the “tyranny of music”– the more it became my true north for everything else: of how I met myself, how I met the other, how I cared for all my inner and outer parts, my inner and outer selves.

And ho! On this simple empty-full tyrant-less dance floor, dancing week after week to what seemed like a disorganized patternless chaotic score, an enduring freedom of “being” began to emerge. A freedom of being that was not content to stay in the riverbed but started to spill over into the marshes and forests and fields of my everyday life.

There, here, now, the inner dancer sometimes moves in its full wild-river glory and sometimes it meets the everyday dams and jetties of long held (ancient?) fears & betrayal. Is it really OK to be seen as I am? Is this inner score enough as it is? Can I trust this current to carry me home?

“Yes!” my inner dancer proclaims loudly, with vigor and verve. “Let me move freely through you, everywhere, in everything! Let me dance with you as an intimate partner. For life! ‘Til death do us part, and maybe not even then!”

“Yes!” I reply in every breath that I remember.

And yup…

…for whatever it’s worth, my inner dancer and I? We still make time (willingly & joyfully & gratefully) to dance in the company of that most tyrannical (and beloved) of masters: music! 💚🎵💚
*Often referred to as “authentic movement” or “contemplative dance”, I offer my heartfelt thanks to Michelle LeBrun for introducing me to the basic form as well as deep gratitude to my wise & wonder-full teacher Alton Wasson for significantly shaping my exploration of it. I currently facilitate a variation of this music-less dance form called “Embody Freedom Practice” which emphasizes connection & contact as well as deep nature-play. A new series open to both beginner and more experienced movers begins October 18th at Gather Farm in Johnston, RI:

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