Dance, Power, and the Body, Part II: Tools and Instruments

When I sat down to write that post about flamenco last week, I was mostly enchanted by the kind of body presentation going on in the video pieces I included in the post. I was exploring, at the time, a curiosity about how the dancers did what they did and what impression it made (in relative ignorance of the cultural norms and traditions governing the kind of dance in question). There was an expression of power in it that I wanted (and still want) to understand better.

As I’ve kept returning to it since then, I find myself now more and more interested in two different trains of thought related to the dance itself and to the specific video examples I had originally picked out. The first is a need to explore more closely the nature of the relationship between dancer and music in flamenco; I’ve got the beginning of an inclination to offer up flamenco as an interesting border case for certain kinds of approaches to defining what “music” is. The second, related to the first (both as stimulus and, oddly enough, as consequence), is a curiosity about the body itself as tool or instrument (especially in its interactions with other kinds of tool or instrument). I’m not sure where any of these thoughts will go, but I feel like finding out.
So: Let’s start with the second thought, and consider some instruments, in the form of another video. (After the cut…)

This really lovely short documentary film from The Australian Ballet features dancers talking about (and showing) how they tend to some of their most important tools — their feet and their pointe shoes. It’s a fascinating study — we get to watch the shoes themselves being broken down and put back together again (and watch the dancers do some of the preparatory work both on shoes and feet that might prevent the feet themselves from being broken down and needing to be put back together). Dancing en pointe is physically demanding and extraordinarily difficult to do well and safely, but it must never look demanding or extraordinarily difficult. To dance en pointe is to make something stressful look effortless. Unlike flamenco (with its elegant control used to express vivid, loud, and powerful movements), en pointe dance is light; where flamenco joins earth to sky explosively and electrically, en pointe style joins them delicately, almost tenuously. It is as if the dancer is trying to hang on to the ground a bit, rather than trying to let go of it or to push off from it. Only the tiniest piece of the foot touches the earth, flirting with gravity in light, feathery touches and smooth movement.

The shoes that make it possible to dance with so little touching the ground are an investment in time, money, and careful adjustment; they may cost $80 or more per pair (minimum — I gather that students can get cheaper shoes, but the average seems to run higher for really good ones), and professionals often have their shoes custom-made and fitted (and even then, they must adjust them). A shoe that does not fit or support properly is a gateway to injury, a risk of losing the dance, and can impede the effort-that-looks-effortless.

The foot itself also needs adjustment, tending, training. After all, an entire body’s weight is concentrated on so very little of it at any given time in this style of dance that the stress is immense. A foot requires care. It must be strengthened — and sometimes (as the dancers in the video point out) the repertoire and one’s own natural build can change what needs to be done in order to care for it properly. A dancer’s feet are, as the dancer says, like the worker’s hands — their callouses protect them, their joints expand and change to handle the stress of bearing the body and moving it. The beauty of a pointe dancer’s foot is in what it does (encased in its tortured and reshaped shoe), not in a “pleasing” shape.

The tool or instrument that is the foot-in-the-shoe is a curiosity in itself, taken as a part of a body used to express or to represent something in its choreographed movements. The kind of control manifested here is different from flamenco’s foot-in-shoe instrumentation (instrumentality?). In flamenco, as far as I can tell, the dancer is also actively contributing to the music itself (rhythmically speaking), both with feet and hands; the ballet dancer en pointe is dancing with or to the music, but is not actually making music…although this is a point that I think it might be interesting to reconsider.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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