Religion & Culture | The healing power of dance
"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine complaining of being disheartened, dispirited or depressed, they would ask one of (these) questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet terrific silence?"
- Gabrielle Roth
I have always felt that dance exteriorises one's inner landscape. As an experiential art it ignites every sense in opposite and complementary ways: explosive, subtle, loud and tranquil, iridescent and dull, fiery and watery, and so much more comes to mind.
Dance is, in essence, yin and yang in motion.
Over the summer I attended a number of dance workshops, including a weeklong class: (experiencing technique/support, precision and presence) taught by Jennifer Nugent.
The class was more of a laboratory, and for an untrained individual, like myself, it proved overly challenging. Unbowed, I gleaned as much as possible.
I was impressed with the flair, energy and dedication of the dancers. But more so with the pedagogy and technical skills of Nugent.
In observing, and listening to, Nugent one realises that she is more than a dancer and choreographer. She's a teacher and philosopher.
There and then I was convinced that she could be influential in my work as a therapist, author and cultural critic. Weeks after the gruelling workshop, I spent a brief time with Nugent. We exchanged ideas, stories and grappled with concepts surrounding dance, the arts, culture and life.
Neither lithe nor tall, Nugent is not your typical dancer. But success in the arts demands a lot more than appearance. When I enquired about her life as a professional dancer Nugent immediately harked back to her childhood, her pursuit of dance and acrobatics, her industry and dedication.
With the support of her mother and training from a slew of pioneers in the field of contact improvisation (CI), jazz, modern and contemporary dance, Nugent's stock soared, having danced with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, David Dorfman Dance.
Her choreography and duet collaborations with Paul Matteson have been presented throughout the United States.
Very much the iconoclast, Nugent explained her less than orthodox approach to her craft. "I tend to bend the traditional ideas on technique," she said.
She believes that these ideas have only been available for "some" and not all. "I think a large part of the dance world works to thwart these traditional chains and encourage expression and self-acceptance," she adds.
"I would like to make these practices reachable, accessible, and relatable to all. I wonder if I am practising and growing in front of my students, my audience, my family, if this could be a way to continue opening, and coming into relation with, so many different ideas, people, situations, myself, and the world?"
On pedagogy, she offers, "I share with my students what's going on in me at the moment; I share my practice, my rehearsals. I want them to find their own way and not pattern my style. I challenge them towards that end."
This is Nugent's politic, her unique form of activism. Her work, though, is ever evolving. She admits that much.
"Artistically, I want to tackle where the hierarchy lives inside of my class or even how I present my work. I am actively pursuing the understanding of relation in terms of whiteness and blackness in my processes and research.
"I work to be vulnerable and exposed, always open to questioning and sometimes feeling a little burned in the process."
Nugent has always had a perceptive mind, willing to transfer this attribute into creating a new, unmistakable form of artistry.
On the question of the cultural appropriation in dance, in particular African dance expression, she pauses to collect her thoughts, and in almost hagiographic language she speaks of its organic, authentic movements and its affinity to nature, to the cosmos, to life itself.
For Nugent, the existential value of African dance commands more than respect; near reverence comes to mind.
While some dancers view African dance as a just another genre of dance, not unlike contemporary or modern dance, Nugent goes a step further, identifying the strong influence of Africa in all of the well-known genres in the western world.
She has long pondered on this subject but has never expressed it openly until now.
As an unwavering advocate of dance as a form of therapy, her embrace of consciousness studies, movement meditation and yoga shouldn't come as a surprise.
She cements her 'therapeutic' argument by recalling a revelatory experience:
"There was one occasion that I felt agitated and unfocused before a class I was about to teach."
If only for a moment she doubted her ability to motivate, to enlighten those present. But her apprehension was ephemeral. When she returned home that evening she described feelings of warmth and compassion.
Dance, she argues, is healing, helping to unearth, feel and understand emotions. "There is something about pushing yourself to the limit," she explains, referring to 'durational scores' or tirelessly moving through a phase, practising a movement that can be mentally and emotionally rewarding.
Fittingly, she concludes: "Dance is transformative."
A mere moment spent with Nugent proves the long-held belief that there is an artist in everyone. Within us - our birthright - is the desire to create, to perform, to showcase a talent or skill, to truly break the chains that bind us.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: