Artistry versus Athleticism

While the constant desire and never-ending quest to improve is a mark of a great athlete, it is the ability to recognize, and glory in, the imperfections of the soul that is a mark of a true artist.

By Cassandra Valeria

“The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul. Isadora Duncan

Long eons past, in the far mists of earlier training days in classical ballet, I had the privilege of being one of the members of the company selected for a series of Masters Classes under the magnificent prima ballerina assoluta Maria Tallchief. Even at 65, she presented an amazing presence: simply walking into the room, standing at center, she exuded an intangible passion, the demonstration of a movement as basic as a port de bras became an achingly beautiful study in interpretive expression.

We spent a week on intense barre and floor work: sharper and faster battements, hip and knee angles in attitude, crisper fouettes, cleaner spine lines, variables in tilting of the head and the use of fingers to complete each movement and expression – no detail too small to be studied, improved and, most importantly, understood. Then, on the last day, she added what she felt was the final and most important component of dance:

Never forget that you are not just movement that is done to music. You are not just puppets performing great athletic feats that will amaze the audience. You must rise above technique – you must never forget it, it must be a very part of you – but you must transcend it. Your movement, the music (and yes, sometimes the lack of music,) even costume and makeup – these are details. They must be there, they must be part of each and every thing you do, but a grander jete, a higher elevation, a showier fouette – these are not dance. Dance is the soul, the baring, the opening, the giving of yourself to the world – its beauty and pain, its joy and despair, its totality of being.

Dance is Art: perhaps the most transient and ephemeral of the arts. And it is an art that includes the integral component of communication – a moving tapestry of images that captures the observer’s aesthetic and visceral sensibilities through physical and creative activity, subjective and emotive responses – most simply, a form of communication based on the visual language of the body’s movement to, and intrinsic involvement with, music. Dance is also easily classified under the epithet of sport: a definition that encompasses competition, physical endurance, training, coordination, practice and strict discipline. Not only does Ballroom Dance, Dancesport, Exhibition, Theatrical, Cabaret – any moniker one chooses to label our particular segment of the dance world – encompass all the aforementioned characteristics; our art/sport expects us to be adjudicated with multiple couples all dancing different choreographies and stylistic interpretations.

Finding the perfect balance between two such diametric opposites is the ultimate achievement marking a dancer’s talent, training, discernment and sensitivity. In defense of the dancers of today, and before what some readers may perceive as a diatribe is presented here, I must add the caveat that as Dancesport has evolved in the last century, an outstanding degree of athleticism has become a requisite, even vital, portion of its presentation. Dancers today are expected to be faster and stronger, display more agility and precision, be better rehearsed, and in better physical condition than those at any time in the history of our industry. Also the difficulty of comparison, given the combination of necessary time constraints and variables in legitimate diversity of stylistic approaches, placed like a burdensome mantle on the shoulders of adjudicators in this era, is enormous. To cull a field down to the top six couples, where said couples all exhibit such truly amazing physical form, is a exacting effort.

Competitive Ballroom Dance — Dancesport — has set itself apart from all other forms of dance by its very nature of competition. Classical Ballet, Modern, Lyrical, Jazz, Tap, Flamenco, et al are invariably performance based forms, although exceptions do occur. True, dancers “compete” for a place in each casting within a company or by audition and performance record, but the end result is a performance, a ceremonial exhibition before an audience, not a judging panel (though critics can be more scathing, and far less polite, than any critiques offered by our adjudicators). These dancers, although exceptional athletes in their own right, tend to be more concerned with the artistic quality of their performance. This essay does not intend to denigrate in any way those components of sport and athleticism that are essential constituents of Ballroom Dance; it will, however, focus on the necessity of expressing artistry to our industry, the loss of which is a loss to ourselves and the world that watches us.

The dancer who transcends the ordinary cannot be defined merely by speed, agility, strength and a “great body”. The history of dance is studded with nonpareils, each of whom was not necessarily the fastest or physically strongest, but rather possessed something special, a singularity that connected with their audience, compelling viewers to not only watch them, but become keenly involved with performance and performer. These dancers embody an innate emotion, an ineffable, even poetic quality which can best be described as artistry; it is this unique combination of intrinsic, sharply honed athleticism in pursuit artistic nuance that is the mark of the virtuoso. Again, I will never forget Ms. Tallchief telling us that after the premiere of Firebird: “It was the finest applause I’ve ever received – because there was no applause. The audience sat, still caught in Balanchine’s vision and my world, for the most wonderful, breathless moments before the first cry of ‘Brava’ and the ovation began.” And THAT enraptured moment encapsulates the Art that is Dance. But the perception of artistry involves, by its very nature, a purely subjective and often a highly charged emotional response, and is, at best, objectively indefinable. This essay serves only to explore the author’s own personal opinions and feelings.

Dance is bigger than the physical body. When you extend your arm, it doesn’t stop at the end of your fingers, because you’re dancing bigger than that; you’re dancing spirit. Judith Jamison

Dance is a form of communication, a way of telling a story, of making tangible an emotion and creating the gestalt that is a seamless oneness with the music through movement and expression – an expression that involves not only the face but every part of the body. In the case of partnership dance it is more: in reaction to, and interaction with, one’s partner; it becomes a celebration of two bodies moving as one, as an integrated whole of this articulation. Every movement a dancer makes serves to develop and enhance that story and it is the dancer’s job, and joy, to use each bodily nuance of which they are capable show the audience exactly what story they are telling, captivate their awareness and affection, and involve them intellectually and empathetically in the tale they’re creating.

As a wise mentor once said, “There are four basic emotions: Happy, Sad, Mad and Glad.” The artistic dancer finds and explores those basic emotions and a multitude of levels, in a woven complexity of differential variations with every movement. The highly trained athlete can be so well rehearsed and in such amazing physical condition that one can dance one routine, exactly the same, with exactly the same hand position, facial expression, body action and performance quality whether in prime health, or suffering emotional upheaval. This, however an amazing feat of personal strength and impeccable muscle memory, can tend to become robotic, emotionally empty and over trained, resulting in a performance, however impressive, that may leave the watcher awed, but cold and uninspired.

Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable. Margot Fonteyn

Should it not be possible to dance the movements of the exact same routine differently each time? Cannot a dancer free him or herself from the rote sufficiently to listen to and express the music with which they are called to perform — be it the voice of the singer, the base rhythm, the lyrics? Cannot a dancer involve themselves and their partner to express their own emotions and reactions to each other? A rumba needs not always bear the stereotypical characterization of a couple “in love” each and every time it is danced, for love is a complex of emotions, not merely a narrowly channeled moment of sensuality, but fights and tears, joy and heartbreak. Cannot a dancer use each new execution to show the emotion they feel in their heart, to express their soul? The dance should be more than a performance; it should a consummation, a portrayal of living as well as a presentation of technical prowess. This transcendent ability can only come from the performer’s willingness to bare their soul, to unmask their own feelings and expose their emotions — in other words, using the hard learned skills of maintaining the highest physical performance, while surmounting on an emotional plane the very engineering that makes such elevation possible.

Dance is the hidden language of the soul. The body is your instrument in dance, but your art is outside that creature, the body. Martha Graham

Emotion is the presence, the aura, the weltanschauung that encompasses the dance and the dancer. Consider the many great dancers who take command of a floor, a stage, merely by stepping onto it. Self confidence, that inner assurance, plays its part, certainly, but those dancers radiate the totality of their own desire to be there and the ineffable joy they take from their actions. For such dancers as these, the act of performance, the spice of competing, is not merely a means to rewards of brightly colored cheeks, standing ovations, tossed bouquets, pretty baubles placed around one’s neck, and lavish, congratulatory reviews – though there can be no denying the heady exhilaration that those awards bring. It is an escape from the mundane, an ecstatic flight of freedom in defiance of a restrictive world into an ethereal, expansive universe of exploration and enjoyment. It is a fortuitous adventure, a miraculous liberty to close out the world’s evils while engaging its auspices to become as one with the music, taking inspiration from not only their own heart, but the percipience of their partner, in that highly charged, electrifying connection that is the indefinable synergy only dancers can dream of experiencing. The Art of Ballroom Dance is this partnership, this melding of two individuals into one whole – the ultimate act of emotional surrender and trust – far more than the mundane elements (no matter how exhaustive such a base may be) of rehearsal, practice and drilling of steps, tricks, and choreography.

I have no desire to prove anything by dancing. I have never used it as an outlet or a means of expressing anything but myself. I just dance. Fred Astaire

Dancesport is the perpetual pas de deux – a sublime partnership between two individuals creating a unified whole built on indication and response, trust and cooperation, the eternal yin and yang of the relationship between a man and woman. And the key note is partnership: not about two individuals dancing side by side without looking, touching, or the slightest regard for each other’s existence: absent of even the barest emotive communication as she poses while he performs several bars of exciting feats of intricate syncopation or he stands there, arms spread, chest swelled, while she displays her flexibility with hyper extended developes or four bar long splits. Any trained dancer can learn a routine (so can a performing bear) and perform it if they are well enough rehearsed. But a couple that can merge their respective strengths, marry the technical prowess of the athletic training, the understanding of theory and awareness of the physics within the partnership has the freedom, and the responsibility, to seek a higher plane of expression, forging an intensity, a sympathetic vibration that uses, feeds off of, and positively reinforces each others passion to generate, even without phenomenal speed and countless tricks, an almost voyeuristic look into the artist’s heart and the couple’s dynamic.

To add to the complexity of the situation, each dance of Ballroom’s competitive repertoire is more than mere mechanical movement, for each encompasses an attitude, expresses a mood, interprets a feeling and emotion. Despite the obvious disparity between Standard’s gown and tails formality and Latin’s unrestrained freedom, the emotive and artistic similarities are striking: Waltz and Rumba are Love – whether its lyrical flight or earthy seduction, while masculine mastery dominates Paso and Tango – whether an arrogant matador playing before the coup de grace or crafty hunter stalking his prey. Foxtrot flirts, as does Cha Cha, intricately interweaving strength of movement with delicate point and counterpoint flourishes, while Quickstep and Jive fly the soul in kick-up-the-heels joie de vivre. And their very diversity unite Viennese and Samba – each a representation of their cultural heritage, whether the torch lit streets of Carnival or glittering ballrooms of ages past. Each dance actualizes its own world; its own microcosm of human existence, and within it, each couple personifies a glowing mote of expression that is the hope and striving, heartbreak and fear, love and hate that is the condition of humankind – a moment, however exhilarating, but a Spirit Eternal. Perhaps Alvin Ailey said it best: “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.”

To err is human and perfection, while laudable, is the gulf that separates mere mortals from the Seraphim. The small world that is Dancesport is rife with diverse perfectionists (and pundits on perfectionism), a highly laudable state. However, this author is not one, and, frankly, is far too human (not to mention far too prone to error) to seek so unobtainable a grail. While the constant desire and never-ending quest to improve is a mark of a great athlete, it is the ability to recognize, and glory in, the imperfections of the soul that is a mark of a true artist. And it is in the conscientious and carefully executed melding of artiste and athlete that the faculty and flair, the scintillating brilliance that is the Art of Dance, can be found.

To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking. Agnes de Mille

Cassandra Valeria

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