My friend recently gave me Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker, the collected New Yorker reviews of Arlene Croce. She was the magazine’s dance critic for three decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s. In discussing anything about her work, I think it is necessary to acknowledge that I disagree with much of her philosophy. Croce’s arguments and critiques are too conservative for my own taste, and her aesthetic too tied to ballet. But, on one very important point I wholeheartedly, unequivocally and personally align with Arlene. She writes in her introduction to the collection that one does not have to be a dancer to understand dance. She goes so far as to claim, “I am a dance illiterate. “ This is a shocking statement for any dance critic, and, having read her articles, it’s deeply and obviously false. “I have never formally studied dance,” she continues, “never taken a music lesson, never performed on any stage except as a youngster in school plays.” All interesting facts, given her career, but the following statement contains the contentious and valuable claim that drew me towards the Croce camp: “My career as a critic is proof that one can come to dance knowing nothing of how it is done and still understand it, or understand it well enough to spread the news.” Croce certainly does, at least intellectually, know the steps, the French terms, and puts greats emphasis on technical prowess in and of itself. Yet I believe that one can take her manifesto as a plea directed toward a larger “dance illiterate” audience. After all, the New Yorker is clearly not a dance magazine. Her 745 pages of writing on dance seem to scream the same point: “Why are we not paying attention to dance?”
I feel a similarly desperate commitment to the cause. If dance is basically nothing more than structured movement depicted through expressive bodies, shouldn’t it be one of the most accessible art forms? There is no reason that understanding of a dance piece should require technical knowledge. The same does not apply to painting or theater. One argument against my belief in the accessibility of dance could be that it is too distanced from narrative form. The sheer lack of words denies any easy point of access. The melody of a song may set the tone but the lyrics allow for a more concrete interpretation, novels and plays tell stories, even a poem, as oblique as it may be, can be picked apart and analyzed word by word. Dance, on the other hand, cannot be divided up into sentences. “Word” is a grossly inadequate metaphor for “step.”
But why does this matter? There are so many feelings, so many moments in life, so many relationships for which language falls short. The excitement you feel in tingling fingers, the fear that grows and then sinks in your stomach, the jolt that comes at the sight, mention, or approach of a certain person: these are universal experiences that should be expressed through movement. Some things better fit an art form bound to bodies than books.
When words fall short we resort to facial expressions, hugs, hits, kisses and slumps. Batted eyelashes, tears, sweat, tapping feet and fidgeting hands are movements we all know technically and understand emotionally. These may be distanced from a pirouette, but dance is not simply a string of steps with French names. It is an artistic representation of movement. Technique is a tool, not the end result. I don’t mean to make a plea for post-modern dance: I relish in dancerly rather than pedestrian movement. I believe that a truly gifted choreographer can depict a shared experience of our bodies and the way we use them, and can make an audience go beyond mere awe to a place of understanding and self-reflection. I’ve certainly seen it, and my hope is that my personal reaction to dance comes from an interest in and appreciation of the power of bodies and the way they move rather than a formal background in dance. An interest that we all, as seeing, feeling, walking beings, should share.