Recently I interviewed Mel Smith at the National Dance Forum about why she dances…she, in turn, sent me some questions to answer. These are my answers:
why do you dance?
Why wouldn’t I? I can’t imagine not dancing…it has just bubbled out of me—how I feel, images in my head, dreams about places and people and my relationship with them have always expressed themselves through my moving body. My hands sculpt the air; I paint with the brush of a leg; a melody runs up my spine; and snapshots develop on my face. From an insistent compulsion developed a persistent decision to always be involved in dance, to work at play. Dance was the vehicle for my speaking, commenting, imagining my life but also a way to come close to others. The relationships you develop in the dance studio are deep because they are deeply connected to breath and touch, to our most intimate states. If we could bring the whole world into the dance studio, into their own breathing and sensation, we could get on with living (generously) with each other.
what do you see in dance?
I see dance as a means to fully experience the world, our relationships and our imaginative, creative potential. When I dance I shake out all the places I have been—locations, scents, sensations, rhythms, words, desires, fears, actions, thoughts—and expand the sense of myself. Dance builds community. It tells stories, forges pathways for groups to move through the world together…to explain phenomena, to find food and shelter, to mate and reproduce, to sharpen our senses and stimulate euphoria, to consider things from other angles. It is both pleasure-giving and problem-solving.
how does “disability” or “different bodies” interest you in dance?
My feminist convictions have driven my dance away from the confining and misogynistic dance vocabularies (e.g. classical ballet, commercial jazz, ‘display’ dancing) where the dancer’s body is a (mostly) white, thin, young, fragile, subservient female. As I age, these same convictions continue to guide me toward strategies to open the frameworks and demographics of dance. The question of what is my dance now, as my body and needs change, as my skills and knowledge grow, also brings up the question of what dance can be for different bodies. What else can dance be and look like? It’s that different angle that dance can give us, to reconsider things, rework them, strategies for survival…better than that, strategies for living differently and deeply.
what has been your most memorable highlight in dance and why?
There have been a lot of memorable moments because I’ve been dancing for 50 years (30 of them “professionally”). As I write this I am in the middle of a ‘challenge’ to publish images of my artistic work over 5 days. The first day I felt a pressure, likening the “challenge” to a chain letter…a chore in its daily discipline and the need to implicate others. But in yesterday’s post I wrote: “This creative task has been really lovely…made me consider what rises to the surface of a thirty year dance career…and it is about people (not just choreographic product or CV building), the family you shared a studio/stage/street with…”
One of the moments I selected the last four days was, for sheer physical exhilaration and for public profile, riding the bamboo jib over the Yarra river in the outdoor Danceworks show “Vagabonds and High Flyers”. This was my last season with the company (left on a high, literally) and it also spoke of my particular contribution to the company—the push to get the company, and dance, out into the public arena, take it into other contexts and imagine other ways to dance (climb, abseil….) But mostly it is the connections I have made with people dancing….with the family of dancers that I have created with or the moments of connecting with an audience…a little boy letting me lift him above my head and swim him around Rundle mall, getting a group of strangers to jump up and down with me in a dark room in Edinburgh, surprising my dance class on Halloween by appearing in a skeleton costume after talking them through a “bones” visualization…
how does dance challenge you?
Perhaps in that generational way…where the same narrow perceptions of dance repeat themselves with each generation…as I continue to find myself (and now quote myself!) “hung between tutu and g-string”…where dance is turned into a competitive sport rather than a communicative exchange.
does costume affect or have anything to do with how you dance?
of course…costumes have featured in those memorable moments…animal suits, characters on stilts and in tap shoes, shedding coverings like skins, like eras… They make fun of our limits and celebrate the ridiculous…by becoming larger than life we equalize ourselves.