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So You Think You Can Dance Write?

An investigation of the writing of characters engaged in the physical act of dancing for an extended period of time in poetry and fiction by Nathaniel G. Moore

How does a writer choreograph the movement of letters within the flow and syntax of a sentence? How could a choreographer translate these glyphic movements from the page to the stage? Think about the meter (scansion) of a line, and how this rhythm could translate into the rhythm of movement. How can a choreographer look at the flow of a sentence for its linguistic visual or sonic material rather than (or in addition to) its semantic content?
a. rawlings (“Mark My Words: Text and Movement,” forthcoming essay in ActionYes)

We join the circle of couples and the Dance Dominatrix smacks us lightly on the ass with her riding crop. We blush furiously and introduce ourselves to the other dancers, most in jeans and sweatshirts, male and female alike, wearing practical shoes, unlike our girly ones, primed for accident. We don’t tell them we’re from St. John’s, for fear of summoning the disdain, often dormant in the hearts of older Newfoundlanders around the bay, for those young things from Sin City who don’t have a clue how to dance right. We tell them we’re from Toronto. They love us and our adorable insistence on dancing with each other, even though set dances are in man-woman pairs. This is a strictly hetero activity, but the old folks are willing to smile upon us cute little dykey Mainlanders with our cute little dykey Mainland ways, so different from theirs. Delith is the man, even though she’s shorter than me and wearing a frillier dress. We Strip the Willow, Dance To Our Partners, Thread the Needle and Spin Till We Drop. Our faces are slick and dripping. Our wet bodies stick together as we spin around so fast the floor comes with us. The accordion is loud, almost punk-rock. Mark would be digging it, although he’d never admit it. Trad music is for losers, he says. Case closed.
— from Skin Room by Sara Tilley

A few years ago, for an extended period of time, I had a collaborative artistic relationship with Toronto-based artist Geoffrey Pugen. We worked on a couple of Bravo!Facts together, one of which I co-wrote and one of which I performed and wrote the voice over for. (This short film, Fictional Dance Party, appears in the early parts of Wrong Bar, and the voice over is also in the novel verbatim. The novel's cover features Toronto dancer Andrya Duff.)

For many of these projects, we had to incorporate something called a “dance component” into the narrative and build tension and do a lot of script rewrites and cut-aways to legs in the air and posturing. Our last collaboration, Sahara Sahara, involved vigilante girls attempting to subvert the then-hot gas war crisis. We got a grant to blow up a car from the NFB. I did a lot of the cold calling to inquire about equipment we would need down the road for this to happen. (I ended up not being on set for the shoot as I was furiously working on some line breaks for a poetry manuscript for Jason Camlot, my editor at the time.)

The experience of having one’s script edited versus writing a page that winds up in a novel are fundamentally different; with script edits, the actors can suddenly be performing something other than you had originally intended. The consequence is visual. It’s a startling and engrossing experience.

In Wrong Bar, the action culminates at a dance party gone to hell. I wanted to do my best to describe how these people appeared both to the reader and the protagonist and to each other. How do you write the dance? 

Dancespeak is something that choreographers come up with much the same way poets write about their manuscripts during grant-feeding season. One can’t help but notice the similarities of tone in a description of a dance and a poetry copy blurb.

The choreography is a movement regime based on yoga, palates, aerobics, and dance, melded into a new form of exercise. Portraying the perfect workout, being presented by beautiful and sexy dancers. The sequences are continuous, ranging in dynamic from militant and cardiovascular to flowing with emphasis on the breath. The nature of the movement goes from robotic and external, to internal and spiritual. The dancers execute the sequences in tight unison, entranced by the experience of doing Aerobia.
Alison Denham for Aerobia (2005, directed by Geoffrey Pugen)

My investigation’s focus here is on the actual moments of dance that characters experience in a poem or fiction piece and how the author deals with these scenes. Do you skip ahead until the dancing is over? The song ends? Do you just indicate that time has passed and the dancing is over? That the characters are now in a cab, in bed, vomiting outside the club or in the washroom?

Sara Tilley, author of Skin Room, says that the difficulties of writing characters who are dancing are evident from the get-go:

Dance is, by its nature, a non-verbal thing. To try and describe people dancing is difficult, and to try and convey the sensations of dance on the page is, one might think, impossible to do accurately. I suppose that when I write about dance I try and describe what it feels like from the inside out, so it's less about accurately describing what dance looks like, as trying to get to what it feels like. What does it feel like to marry yourself to music and allow the body to move? It is one of the simplest and yet the most vulnerable actions that we allow ourselves in public space.

Tilley points out that she no stranger to writing about the act of dancing. There are dance sequences in both of her previous novel and the manuscript she is currently working on. “I guess I am attracted to the energy surrounding social dancing, the tension between everyday life and 'dance life,' where there is the possibility to transform oneself, and to feel part of a larger community simply because you are linked by music. Have I written about dance well? That is for others to judge!”

When asked about dance in her poetry collection, Croak, Book Thug editor, novelist, poet and teacher Jenny Samprisi says,

There is something both disturbing and appealing about the spectacle of a character physically directed in language. In Croak, the Frogirls are, in a way, humiliated through dance; that is, if we're defining humiliation here as a loss of agency, while being simultaneously exposed. The dance scenes in the book are usually dictated by the Narrators who are directing the action using non-human antecedents such as cartoons, animals and puppets. The dancers are asked to dance as “other” which is mostly awkward. So, dance in the book is vulnerable. It’s yet another way for the character to fail to perform as expected. The primary point of failure being the potential to fail in language, in the ownership or recovery of voice, but I think that applies to the body as well, so, enter the dance.

Montreal’s Daniel Allen Cox, whose forthcoming novel Basement of Wolves is due in April, says the dual trajectories of a piece of writing correlates with our experience as humans or characters in the act of dancing. “There are always at least two stories in a piece of writing. They can tell different truths. So too with dancing. The face can contradict what the arms are saying, and it adds meaning. There is no difference between writing and dancing. It is all balance.”

Cox ends our short conversation with a citation from The Muppets Take Manhattan: “‘Hey, I tell you what is. Big city, hmm? Live, work, huh? But not city only. Only peoples. Peoples is peoples. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is peoples, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, peoples is peoples. Okay?'”
Something to consider for sure. So perhaps somewhere down the road, the publishing sect can get on the dance trend bandwagon. We could have an anthology of the best dance writing in fiction and poetry in Canada; best dance scene in a short story; best dance poem; seminars and workshops on how to improve your lacklustre dance scene in your novel, taught, of course, by both authors and dance instructors; industry experts willing to take the time to nurture and shape writers’ vulnerable dance scenes into something beyond the quotidian language one would think to use for such a moment: (shake, writhe, twist, contort, grind, etc.).

Writing dance scenes is time consuming and difficult because you have to describe the physical movements while getting inside the character's head as well. And what happens when the song changes? The best thing to do, I think, would be to shoot some iPhone video of a night out dancing and try to sit down and write a few minutes of said footage, preferably in between song changes.

So until my masters program in dance literature opens up, I wish you good luck in the writing of dance in your next poem or short story. And I’ll see you all in the spring when my column returns.

Bonus: The King of Pop in dance rehearsal.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a Toronto area man and author. His next book is The Chelsea Papers, a nautical, erotic, romantic thriller about looking for love in all the wrong species. Follow him on Twitter @NathanielGMoore