Draw My Life: Dance, Gaga and Learning to Be
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Written by Nadia Halim

Edited by  Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Parth Chhabra

Sound edited by Kara Schechtman

Illustrated by Anton Zhou

Video produced by  Jarrett Ross


I struggle to find more ways to lengthen the distance between the base of my neck and the base of my tailbone. Stretching my arms above my head, I allow my shoulders to tickle my ears, imagining each single vertebrae of my spine regenerating, making me ten feet tall. Growing in only one direction bores me though, and I start finding the space between my back ribs expand, like a balloon borrowing air from my lungs. A soft voice begins counting down from ten. I open up my armpits wide like they are singing an operatic anthem, and my scapula bend closer to one another, nearly kissing.

“Drop.”

I release all my effort with loose bones as my eyelids flutter open, finding other faces of other bodies as they relax. The teacher with the soft voice smiles as she reminds us we can still let go of effort while recognizing the particularities of our bodies. Even in stillness, my muscles remembered being in control—my arms stretching and my spine growing. Physical memory builds my understanding of my body as multiple parts, flawed yet specific.

A stranger once told me that “the everyday can be celebrated in the awareness of small precisions.” I have always feared the monotony of a life in routine motion, that the ritual of my training would dull moments of wonder and override my curiosity.

From its rigid pedagogy to its impenetrable hierarchies of tradition, much of dance is ritualistic. Following one line of training means falling into its prescribed routine. For me, this routine began with mornings at the ballet barre, willing my hips to open beyond their natural turnout and my feet to bend beyond their inflexible arch. My body woke up by pulling my stomach to my spine and hoping yesterday’s dinner wouldn’t show. With legs strained straight through pointed toes and arms delegated to eight exact positions, I imagined myself shooting silk out my fingers and toes only to be stuck within this web. Afternoons were spent exaggerating the most concave parts of me, fitting myself into uncomfortable angles and contracted contours of Martha Graham’s vision for presenting the controlled ferocity of a virtuosic body. The beauty of this movement I understood, but the execution felt foreign to touch. In class, my flesh was not my flesh; it was a vehicle. I didn’t know yet how to feel liberated within constraint.

I knew the limits of my body. As a woman of small stature, with biscuit feet and short legs and boobs and double-jointed elbows and thick thighs, my ritual was to continually remind myself to contain and obey. I learned to contain the parts of me which colored outside the thin lines, strapped and sucked in to uniform leotards and tights. I stood in angles that made my legs look straight, held my chest to appear longer. I knew exactly how to present the most appealing version of myself.

I learned to leave my agency at the door and enter the vacuum of the studio, where only ambition existed.

Moving to New York, the awareness of my smallness only became more acute. Weaving through dense masses in constricting subway cars or packed elevators, my body grew accustomed to tensing in reaction to other bodies, always on guard and wary of those larger and more confident than mine. In grid-like lecture halls, where bodies fit in to patterned arrangements that prioritized visibility over comfort, I felt both lost in the crowd and isolated as the object of hundreds of eyes’ gaze. I could quickly shift from observer to observed with little say. I held this anxiety of being seen in my chest, in the palms of my hands, in the crook of my neck, in the joints of my jaw.

“What is it like,” the teacher exhales softly, “to feel your bones melting inside you and letting that lava ignite new life within your flesh?” I allow my muscles to decompress, letting the magma stirring inside to break through layers of sediment and rock and spill into the flow of my veins. My arms float over this riverbed of molten lava, creating smooth bends and curves at their will. Lava pools in my clavicles and at the fronts of my hip bones, seeping downward as I expand the parts of me that usually relish in their concave form. “Can you feel where you start to harden? When you become lava, can you take pleasure in the effort?”

Intensifying the attention to these seemingly obverse sensations of pleasure and effort is one way to internalize Gaga, a discipline of movement developed by Ohad Naharin, the house choreographer for the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. Rather than imposing an ideal for how the body should move through space, either through a specific technique or aesthetic, Gaga allows the individual mover to tap into their natural inclinations. Gaga is an exercise of fantasy—of how to juggle your own disparate movement desires—and presents challenges in the form of games, questions, metaphors, and ideas. How can you let your pelvis slide on an ice rink? Can you shake your aura until your heat turns it blazing red? The instructor gives a series of layered tasks rooted in abstract language, so that there is no right or wrong, only the experience of sensation. To a dancer, these parameters are an invitation to research your habits, limitations, and thresholds of restraint.

I was first introduced to Gaga as a high school senior in Houston, Texas, when a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company taught a week-long workshop to the upperclassman dancers. At first, her abstract directions—for example: to move like spaghetti in boiling water while imagining ants crawling down my spine—confused me. There was no precedent or standard to compare myself to, no exercise I had practiced for years to perfect. Effort was obstinately divorced from pleasure, allowing one to take the moral high ground and the other to be debased, coexistence seemingly impossible. My frustration showed itself in my furrowed brows and hot cheeks. I was always looking around to see if I was doing things right. Without singling me out, the teacher locked eyes with me in class and said aloud to the class, “Don’t worry about looking good, worry about letting things feel good in your own body. Be gentle with yourself so that you can learn to be gentle with other bodies.”

When I decided to honor my body, I let the sensations of ego, embarrassment, and insecurity appear and stay for as a long as it was necessary, and to slide off when it was their time. I understood my body’s limitations and allowed its malleability and squishy flesh to just be. Celebrating the everyday small precisions meant recognizing how my body wakes up different every day, and accepting the stiff joints and quiet aches. I learned to love the way my body relaxes when touched just behind the neck, to love knowing how my best friend’s stomach clenches when she is nervous. I learned to love how my jaw loosens when I remember to breathe deeply, and the sound of other bodies breathing around me. I learned to love how my womanly flesh bounces when I run, to love the softness of dropping into another body when partnering. I learned to be gentle when I dissociate from my moving body, to acknowledge that, sometimes, love means giving myself space or time. I learned to love without fear of reciprocation, or at least to try, and to honor the complexity of knowing someone else. I learned to love loudly, to love bottomlessly.

“Keep shaking, like you want to shake hard enough to shake the flesh off your bones. Faster, wilder, for ten, nine…” Like clockwork, the class collectively counts down in slow, steady rhythm. The teacher, having other plans, starts counting in halves, fourths, and eighths, elongating time. How do you keep your engine fired up so close to the release? This was our new layered task. At zero, she asked us, strewn across the floor in tired, heaving clumps, “Did you save yourself because you thought you were halfway there? Sometimes you might not get those last moments, so why save yourself?”

The most rewarding part of studying dance at Barnard has been acquiring the awareness of how my body leaves traces in the world. As a senior, I have been thinking a lot about recognizing moments as last moments and trying to tap into that sense of inhibition at any time, being present and open to uncertainty. I think about moving forward while honoring the traces of my past selves. Knowing that my actions have molded the institutions I inhabit, the neighborhoods I tread, and the people I meet has helped me validate where I want to continue creating dents and fissures and explosions after I leave.

I found a community of generous acceptance and unwavering support among the family here. But I know I won’t always love the spaces of my future self. With the work, I know I won’t always love the choreographer’s process and I will often feel stuck in my own creative blocks. There will be days when I don’t even love the exertion of thrashing my body around. On these days, my body will feel like a blurred fog, and I will be disenchanted with knowing it too specifically. I will want to be someone else, I will want to shed my skin and move unfamiliar bones. But when I am in Gaga, I am reminded that disenchantment makes way for more exploration, knowing what does and does not excite you, and chasing that excitement fully. The moments of ecstasy seem farther between the more you find yourself moving. But the worth of those moments, I now know precisely.

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