Monday, February 29, 2016

Moving People

           This week in Neuro Dance, we talked about different types of movements. Once upon a time, there was a man named Rudolf Laban who decided to study how people move. He separated movements based on three categories: weight, space, and time. Basically, some movements seem to weigh much more than others. A weary college student trudging underneath the weight of a heavy backpack looks far different from a little one skipping in the spring grass. (Oh, what a different fifteen years can make.) Movements also take up differing amounts of space depending on what the movement happens to be. Other tall people will know what I’m talking about: no matter how hard we try, we always end up bumping tables or hitting our head on things. Finally, some movements just last longer than others. As I’m typing these words right now, my fingers are moving fairly fast, but certain dance moves can take minutes to complete, depending on the skill of the dancer.
            Mr. pink-nosed Rudolf combined these different movement types into eight distinctive types of movement – their names are fairly self-explanatory – floating, wringing, pressing, gliding, dabbing, flicking, slashing, and punching. Under his framework of thinking about movements, any specific movement can be tied back to one of these eight. For instance, typing on my keyboard would be considered a dabbing movement. It’s quick (time), light (weight), and direct (space). Alternatively, I could get angry and start typing REALLY HARD on my keyboard. Then, I would be punching it. My movements would be direct, quick, and strong. The other movement types can be separated in similar ways.
            Another one of Laban’s ideas focused around the perspectives that we use to look at movements; we shouldn’t just look at the body as a whole, in other words. We often open and close different parts of our bodies depending on what we might be doing. For instance, when we sit down on the ground, we sometimes cross our legs. Other times we spread them out in front of us. Ruddy-faced Laban specifically talked about how people act in conversations. Often, you may see people close themselves off from a conversation by crossing their arms or legs. However, much more often, you’ll see someone open and close parts of their body simultaneously. For instance, someone might uncross their legs while sitting and fold their arms. Or, someone might cross their arms while standing but widen their stance. In this way, they’re still open to the conversation, just not as open as they could possibly be.
            Having watched (and been in) a fair number of conversations, I can say that most are of the half-open, half-closed variety. Even between two comfortable friends, one or both participants are usually closed to some extent, but this isn’t always the case. When two people are having a deep, engaging conversation, you feel it, even if you aren’t one of the participants. You see both of their open postures, you see the looks on their faces as they talk with each other, and you feel something deep in your stomach. It’s quite amazing.

            I’ve often felt there’s something hard-wired into us that lets us understand other humans, and I think this phenomenon is a fundamental part of it. I don’t think it’s simply learned behavior or just the mirror neurons in our limbic cortex (I mean, physically it is, but I still think there’s something more.) I think there are some deep connections in our brain that have been passed down through our genetic lineage. Some people ignore these connections, but everyone has them to a certain extent. It’s these connections that we strengthen by having or seeing these conversations. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Dancer's Words

        The words dancers use are fascinating. Each dancer has a different way of talking about their style, and each style has an entirely new language. Here are some examples: (Talking about tap dance.) “For some songs, we dance on top of the music. For others, we dance into the music.” “You have to find the beat and find your feet.” “It’s good just being in my shoes every day.” “Sometimes I get bored with what’s coming out of my feet.”
            (Ragamala –Indian –) “Our dances are mythology, scripture, a life-time of stories.” “You make words with your body.” “We’re always translating each other’s bodies. Watching. Trying to find meaning.” “Dance is poetry.” “Relationships don’t last. Dance does.” “It’s not just what the hands say. It’s what the entire body feels like. Where’re your shoulders? Are you smiling? What about your hips?” “It’s like writing a poem. The title is ‘Evening,’ and then you build on it. Explore it. Develop it in your mind.” “Everything is spoken in rhythms.”
            (Butoh – Japanese –) “Imagine a string going from the tip of your head to the bottom of your tailbone.” Imagine someone moving this string from side to side.” “Feel this movement flow throughout your body.” “Feel yourself relax into the movement. Move comfortably. Always move comfortably.” “Flow to where your body is most comfortable.” “You have to slip into your subconscious body. The body that observes everything.” “Qualia: it means quality of sense.” “There is an essence to life experiences. Something you learn even before your conscious mind recognizes it.” “Tap into everyone’s experience.” “I’m a midwife. (Laughs). I guide people so they find their own movement.”
            (Break-dancing) “Breaking is much less original than it used to be. When it started, everyone would only get a couple chances to watch each other, and then you would have to make it up on your own. You would make more mistakes, but you would fix them. By fixing them, the moves changed and became your own. Now, with YouTube, the moves are starting to look much more similar. You get an infinite number of tries to fix your mistakes exactly the way they did.” “I was always into moving freely as a kid. I never liked rules.” “This is what you do before you hit the floor. (Dances on her feet for a couple beats.)” “I like to think of these as sentences. Then, you put them together to make phrases.” “You keep practicing so you don’t get stuck. Getting stuck is the worst.”
            (General class discussion) “I want to build some scaffolding to climb around on. (While teaching basic dance steps.)” “Who did you take with?” “It’s good to have other forms of dance in your body.” “Feel the different beats move through your body.”

            It’s was fascinating to move in each of these different dance forms, but it was even more interesting to listen to how each of these expert dancers talked their trade. Each dance style really was unique. Each tapped into a different human flow, and each style probably looks at the world in a slightly different way. Some are more focused on raw flow. Others on the perfection of perfect movement. Still others on rebelliousness and never hitting the floor in the exact same way. And yet, their brains all probably look almost the exact same.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Butoh and Time

        This week in Neuro Dance, our guest lecturer was a man who specialized in Butoh dance, a very unique style of Japanese dance that focuses around removing the dancer’s inhibitions. In order to actually dance Butoh, you must slip past the conscious control of your body and let something other than yourself take control. Or, at least, that’s the way it feels once you fall into the trance of the dance. Your body is moving beyond your control. You’re fully aware of everything happening; you can take back control if you want to. But, if you do, you won’t be able to move the way you are. Your conscious mind simply can’t control your entire body, but, with practice, your unconscious mind can learn to.
A lot of really interesting things are probably happening in the brain of a Butoh dancer. Professional Butoh dancers are probably able to turn off their motor inhibitors at will, or, maybe, their motor inhibitors have been permanently shut off. One thing I noticed while watching the dancer’s body was that it never stopped moving. Even when he was listening intently and apparently still, there was a little tick of his finger or a twitch of his toe, and, when he was talking, his entire body talked with him. Most people will move their hands when they’re speaking, but his entire body moved. A couple times, I saw his toes add a finer shade of meaning to his words. His toes! That’s not supposed to be possible, but he did it effortlessly. It was as though no one had ever told him not to talk with his toes, so he just did it. As easy as breathing.
            Dring his talk, he also talked about the ways we raise our children. Most parents will unconsciously control the way their child’s movement develops. They’ll guide their child to a very simple way of standing up – you can watch almost anyone stand up and you’ll know which way I’m talking about – but that might not necessarily be the most natural way for the child’s body to stand up. As we all know, all of our bodies are different, and what works best for one of us – or even the majority of us – might not work for all of us.
A similar idea can be found in one of our readings, “How The Brain Perceives Time,” by Laura Sanders. Unsurprisingly, all of our brains process time slightly differently. For example, the average person’s brain perceives each event within about 200 milliseconds to have occurred simultaneously. In someone with schizophrenia, the same window can be anywhere from 300 to 400 seconds, and temporally similar events can often seem separate. “People with schizophrenia ‘describe their world as a movie that’s segmented and they have to reconstruct the meaning of that movie, because time is not continuous for them (Sanders 8).’”

The piece also talked about the groups of neurons that seem to be responsible for marking time. Specifically, a team of neuroscientists studied the cells in rats’ striatum, a part of the brain that is deep in the center of the brain, roughly above where the spinal cord enters. They found that separate groups of neurons in the striatum fired in a set sequence when the rat was counting time. When the length of time increased, the order the groups of neurons fired in stayed the same, and the amount of time each group was active increased. This suggests that, “the neurons are encoding relative time, not absolute time (Sanders 6),” which makes sense. Presumably, there are other mechanisms in the brain that measure absolute time (or, at least, can roughly keep track of time as it passes.) Personally, I could tell you roughly what time it was if I’d looked at a clock in the past hour or two, but I start guessing if it’s been longer than that. I’ve also noticed that my brain measures time far differently based on what I happen to be doing. For me, reading time-dilation feels much different than homework problem-solving time-dilation, but I’m still reasonably accurate if I try to guess what time it is. However, if I’m writing or deeply asleep, I completely lose all sense of time.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dancing Stories

          Classical dance in India is storytelling. The body becomes words. Phrases. Entire books of movement. Compared to some forms of western dance, it’s much more complex. Much more nuanced. A professional Indian dancer uses her entire body. Her eyebrows move. Her face shines. She becomes her role, as naturally as any actress on stage. Western dance seems rough in comparison. Rude. Occasionally lewd.
            The meters in Indian music are much more fluid than their Western counterparts too. Instead of breaking rhythms into bars of 3 and 4, Indian music breaks into 3, 4, 7, and 9, and the rhythms vary much more throughout a musical piece. A Western song might start in 4/4, move to 3/4 for twenty measures, and then move back to 4/4, but Indian songs don’t seem to know those particular shackles. Like the dancer’s themselves, the music flows effortlessly to and from every measured beat, creating much different music.
Indian music opened my eyes to the idea that dancing could actually tell stories. For a long time, I’ve had the idea that movement is the purest form of expression, but could it actually tell stories? Haven’t stories always been the realm of word-smiths? How could you tell a story with your body, anyway? I could write a story about someone’s body or write a story on someone’s body, but bodies telling stories? It just didn’t make any sense. Then, the Indian dancer came to our class, and my eyes were opened. She used her entire body to show her emotions, thus creating them in her audience.  Then, she used those emotions to tell a story the same way any writer would. It was magic.
            I was particularly fascinated by the way music and choreography was described in the piece we read for Neuro Dance this week, “Time.” One of the most interesting ideas brought up was the idea that stillness could be an integral part of dancing. In a very literal way, stillness in dancing is the same as silence in a conversation or in a play. As the piece describes it, “Stillness is not inaction. It is a waiting, with a sense of ongoingness. A hesitation, a caught breath, is a moment arrived at, held precious, and left.” It’s not used very often, either in choreography or playwriting (and, of course, it’s impossible in a book without putting in a blank page), but it happens almost all the time in the real world. Every conversation will have some silence, and, often, those silences can tell you more than any thousand words. “Could I join you guys?” (Silence)
“She seems like such a bitch.” (Silence)
“Could you please pass the salt? (Silence. Stillness.)

It seems as though most people follow that ancient adage, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,’ which really means that silence isn’t golden after all.