The video components of this essay were choreographed, mixed and edited by Adolfo Aranjuez. Camera, staging and location by Chloe Brien.
Patience may be a virtue but it’s one I wasn’t born with. Even when it’s my own choreography, I worry that my execution is off—that I’m moving too quickly, not letting each shape consolidate, each pathway settle.
When I was starting out, I’d notice others in the studio dancing ‘late’. They’d move ‘behind’ the beat and it bothered me, killed the synchronic effect I’d expected of dancing in groups. But then I’d watch the videos I’d recorded—phone popped on selfie mode on the floor—and, in tandem with the music, it would be me who looked off. Beats aren’t just the 1, 2, 3 and 4 but the spaces in between. The crack of a snare reverberates until it crumbles into silence. A cymbal crash, a trumpet blare sforzandoes open and then shut. A dancer’s movement, in turn, must reflect not just the trigger of a note or beat but its crest and its return to rest. A dancer must wait, avoiding the temptation to anticipate a movement. A sound must initiate the motion. Tension—like shared magnet polarities between clasping hands, like kicking in water—must elongate the shape.
Following some preliminary consultations, Dr M., a psychiatrist, concluded in 2014 that I’d been wrestling with the following conditions: bipolar-II, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, generalised anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, subthreshold borderline personality disorder. He suggested that, since the majority of my issues would be exacerbated by the extreme states of bipolar, I should take a mood stabiliser to cap the ‘amplitude’ of my swings. Dr J., a psychologist I started seeing several months later, agreed with the need for chemical intervention but believed I would benefit more significantly from modifications to my patterns of thought.
Dr J. and I engaged two forms of psychotherapy. The first, and more familiar, was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), premised on the reformulation of root concepts and ethics to alter the courses of action that would follow. The second, and more unique to my particular illness cocktail, was dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), a medicalised approach to Zen-like mindfulness that encourages patients to listen to an inner voice of sorts.
DBT sounded like a load of crock, but I was willing to have a crack at it. The gist was this: when faced with a threatening situation, a sufferer is likely to vacillate between hyper-rationalisation (‘reasonable mind’) and hyper-emotionality (‘emotional mind’); in seeking to resolve the situation quickly, the person will opt for either mode wholesale. ‘But you can’t just whisk it away,’ Dr J. explained. ‘You need to sit with the unpleasant emotion—to let it flow through you—until your “wise mind” emerges.’
Sitting with an emotion requires saintly amounts of patience. It requires a commitment to sticking out the present moment, along with an enormous level of discomfort tolerance and humility. These were things I just did not have.
There was a time when I awkwardly kept my hands away from my body—a dance teacher once teased me for moving as if I had a bodily forcefield. Yet dance is a tactile activity. I make contact not just with myself but with the floor, with the air, with others to ground myself in the moment and in the space. A dancer’s body is an instrument and with it we invoke geometry and line and likeness. The body is both signifier and signified. But a dance isn’t just comprised of bits of choreography; it must also connect them. Once a gesture is initiated, it must travel from origin to endpoint, creating a pathway that, at each step, contains myriad possibilities for meaning. Mechanical motion becomes symbolical; potential energy becomes kinetic.
Even the simplest of physical actions involves several parts of the brain. As neuroscientists Steven Brown, Michael J. Martinez and Lawrence M. Parsons discovered during their now-historic 2006 study, it all begins in the premotor cortex, which—in response to environmental information received elsewhere in the brain—coordinates the right set of movements. From there, the primary motor cortex takes over, sending neural signals through the spinal cord and on to the relevant muscles. While all this is happening, additional stimuli are analysed by the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which, by way of the thalamus, give guidance to the premotor cortex so it can fine-tune in-process actions.
For dancers, there’s even more to this cyclical feedback process. A specialised part of the cerebellum, the anterior vermis, communicates with the spinal cord to keep up with rhythmic stimuli—an internal metronome. The medial geniculate nucleus allows for ‘unconscious entrainment’: the biological propensity to sync with an existing beat (as when we mindlessly tap our feet). The precuneus—an area of the parietal lobe—maintains a mental ‘map’ of the body’s position in space.
Interestingly, their study also found that the complex movements of dance activate the unnamed right-hemisphere counterpart to the left-hemisphere Broca’s area, which is responsible for verbal language articulation. Given the right hemisphere’s role in creativity and experimentation, it seems fitting that the homologue to Broca’s area oversees forms of expression like dancing that offset the linear, logic-based language of words.
Songs I dance to often cite the idea of ‘feeling oneself’, and that holds true for me in more than a literal sense. Of course, these days, I’m no longer a stranger to palm on face, or palm on chest, or head against limb against limb—but dance is, in the crudest terms, a performance. When dancing, I inhabit personas that refract both sound and story; I play masc, prance femme, portray romance or revolt or rage as the context calls for. Intention (much like its homonym ‘in tension’) informs each movement’s genesis and articulation. And, with each new channel to a ‘me’ that clearly always existed within, I feel more myself than before.
In 1975, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posited the concept of ‘flow’: a state of hyperfocus marked by increased productivity; reduced self-consciousness, inhibition and comprehension of time; and a feeling of fulfilment. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he lays out the conditions that give rise to such ‘autotelic’ (from the Greek auto, ‘self’, and telos, ‘goal’) flow events: The activity must be sufficiently disconnected from mundane, everyday reality. The activity must be enjoyable. The activity must have clear objectives and offer immediate feedback. And, most importantly, the activity must pose an adequate challenge to the person engaging in it, with that person, in turn, needing a comparable level of skill to complete the task.
This type of absorption has a longstanding relationship with the practice of dance. Researcher Evan Jones identifies dance’s origins in ancient tribal rites that allow for the sensation of transcendence, the trance-like state both placing the dancer within the cocoon of ritual and propelling them outwards to tap into something ‘greater’. Transcendent flow also typifies the act of dancing today (a widespread phenomenon among individual dancers, according to academics Kate Heffernan and Stewart Ollis). Whether by the barre, on the street or in a nightclub, dance is, as philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone outlines in The Phenomenology of Dance, ‘a perpetually moving form’ characterised by ‘spatial unity and temporal continuity’. She contends further: ‘The dancer does not exist apart from the form which she is creating and presenting […] In sustaining an illusion of force, the dancer transcends the material reality of her body: she becomes the source of the illusion.’
Paralleling increases in my own aptitude, I’ve found myself more easily able to enter the flow state. Now, whenever I dance, I am simultaneously more in my body than I ever have been and frequently outside of myself, my consciousness seemingly slipping from the clutches of conventional space-time. It is, perhaps, the most Zen a person with an overactive brain can hope to achieve.
I enjoy choreography most when it renders musicality: when motion mirrors irregular tempo, melodic flourish, rhythmic syncopation. I get a brain buzz each time there’s a counter-beat, a staccato pulse, a double-triplet wedged in a 4/4 time signature. I find myself involuntarily making vocalisations mimicking the music’s syntax—my Broca’s area possibly wanting ‘in’ while its right-hemisphere homologue does its thing. Dancing to musicality calls for cleanliness of the most sophisticated sort—a dancer must perfect isolations and locks; oozes and hits; changes to the plane of movement; angles, turns, and portrayals of acceleration and weight. And choreographing to it necessitates real listening, an attunement to which dynamics and transitions to transmute into kinetic form. Heavy bass turns the torso into lead; tinkly synths, into chiffon bobbing in the wind. My natural genres—urban and lyrical—may lack the sprawling vocab of ballet, but this does not mean their lexicons are any less balletic.
I first grew fond of Friedrich Nietzsche in year twelve, when his elegy for God in The Gay Science chimed with my newly avowed agnosticism. But I truly fell in love with this notorious philosopher at university, after I picked up Thus Spake Zarathustra at a secondhand bookshop and couldn’t put it down. To this day, a particular passage from that cryptic tome has stuck with me: ‘One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.’
This isn’t the only time Nietzsche has invoked dance in his writings; as dance scholar Kimerer L. LaMoth delineates in Nietzsche’s Dancers, dance imagery and allusions permeate his work—a fact that Nietzsche successors and scholars to date have tended to neglect. Her conclusion is simple but compelling: dance, for Nietzsche, ‘train[s] the senses in an opposite and complementary direction to that opened by the acts of reading and writing’. Whereas Western society—having inherited the demonisation of the body, the emotive and the erotic from Christianity—glorifies reason and the ‘pure’ mind/soul, Nietzschean dance (literally) embodies ‘the practice and the performance of creating life-affirming values and learning to love life’ in this corporeal realm.
There are specific things Nietzsche is remembered for, and his opposition to rationalist orthodoxy is one. Another is his empowering attitude to adversity and the creative expression that springs from it. His valorisation of ‘madness’ as a conduit for insight certainly salves my not-always-agreeable encounters with so-called abnormal psychology. And his championing of embodied, playful thinking is a reminder that cognitive, word-based frameworks for understanding the world—which form the core of my various illnesses (and which CBT itself is underpinned by)—aren’t all there is.
The interior universe of a mentally ill person is nothing short of chaotic—there are days when catastrophising thoughts cascade like torrents of a waterfall; when spurious rationales flit about like midges in spring; when perception is deadened and black, like electricity has been sapped away. The idea that, somehow, across time, a beloved thinker has mined wisdom from my turmoil offers me comfort.
When I took dancing seriously again in 2015, I’d just lost one of my best friends to mental illness; three months before that, my boyfriend of three years left me partly because my mental health had gotten out of hand. I felt a little unmoored at that point, and dance became my anchor.
After over a decade of neglect, though, my body needed conditioning, so I committed myself to training—a few hours twice a week, no exceptions. Little did I know the extent to which transformations in my physical state would align with mental ones. While dance is, indeed, about virtuosity of movement, it’s also about mastery of mindset, of the self. Yes, flow is driven by the desire to close the gap between challenge and proficiency, but, as Csikszentmihalyi stresses, self-concept is central to the schema: ‘It is not skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have.’
The cultivation of this self-affirming predisposition has, for me, been immensely reparative. Not only can I now activate my faculties for patience and presence to a less disgraceful degree, but I’ve also become substantially less averse to risk. There was a time when the prospect of failing to execute a double turn, or the possible pain from a not-quite-right floor roll, would cause me to hesitate and hesitate until anxiety would take hold and the moment would be lost. There was a time when running late would cause me to spiral into self-hatred, or a cancelled plan would summon all manner of abandonment worst-case-scenarios. But these days, failure and fear and difficulty—both in the studio and beyond it—are proverbial lake-water droplets on this swan’s back.
Yet another memorable Nietzsche gem is the Übermensch, usually translated to ‘superman’. But I prefer its alternative translation: ‘overman’, the man who has overcome himself. A dancer, asserts Sheets-Johnstone, ‘is always surpassing the instant as he surpasses himself toward his past’. Much like how patience is integral to the proper execution of choreography—to letting myself sit in the movement—psychological recovery can’t be rushed. In their own time, both become part of me, until I proceed with forward motion and breath expels them from my corporeal vessel. Each is a reminder that I am all too human, but also that within my chaos there is power.
Watch Adolfo's video in its entirety here.
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of film and media periodical Metro and, formerly, editor-in-chief of sexuality and gender magazine Archer. He is also a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. His nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Meanjin, Right Now, Screen Education, Cordite, Growing Up Queer in Australia and elsewhere. More publication, performance and appearance details at http://adolfoaranjuez.com