Guest Notes by Joanna Rotkin: What is "real" dancing?

Class. photo by J. Akiyama, 2015

Class. photo by J. Akiyama, 2015

(I invited Joanna to offer a guest note for the studio.  She posts some pretty dang brilliant notions on a regular basis and at the end of this one, you can find her contact info so that you can receive them regularly.  Seek her out. Joanna's work and her presence on this planet mean a lot to me and many others. This summer, after the tragic loss of a friend and generous soul, Carl Lindberg, I put my grief and confusion to action and offered Joanna a "Carlitos Summer Space Grant."  I just wrote Jo a note, inviting her to use FloorSpace throughout the summer for free. No strings attached, just an offering from one artist to another. For me, Carl is generosity, passion, creativity, heart, soul, animal, teacher, artist.  I know that when Joanna steps into the studio, she brings all of these things, even if what she needs to do when she arrives is take a nap. Dance on, y'all! julie)

A long long time ago (isn’t that the first line to a famous song?),

I got invited to teach dance in a one room schoolhouse in Cortez, CO.

It was like pulling teeth.

After each class, the smallest child there would ask, “But when are going to do some real dancing?”

And all the others would chime in, “Yes, when? We want to do real dancing.”

Each time this happened — which was every day, multiple times a day — I would say, in my calm and soothing teacher voice:

“This is real dancing. It is just different than what you are used to. Try to have an open mind about what we are exploring together in our dancing.”

And then this very small child would cross her arms over her chest, scowl at me, and say:

“No. This is not real dancing. I know what real dancing is, and this isn’t it.”

I would look around the room and see 15 little faces scowling back at me.

We went back and forth like this for awhile, all of us getting more and more frustrated, until I finally had the insight to ask what they meant by “real” dancing.

The smallest child immediately jumped up, grabbed the hands of her classmates, and they all started skipping in a circle with huge smiles on their faces.

“Oh!  You mean, “REEL” dancing!”

“Yes!” She bellowed.

We spend the last few days of my time there skipping in different formations while holding hands.

I stopped pulling teeth, and instead, relaxed into what was naturally emerging.

So what is “real” dancing anyway?

This scenario happened many years ago, but I still get asked this question all the time.

I also get told to change the name of what I am doing to movement instead of dance.

And since I’m a Taurus, I’m not changing the name, no matter how many times you ask.

I’ll keep pulling teeth on this one.

Because what I am doing – what we are doing – is real dancing.

No, I don’t emphasize big leaps or spins, though if that happens, YAY for big leaps and spins.

No, I don’t emphasize quick and complicated footwork, but if that happens, YAY for quick and complicated footwork.

No, I don’t emphasize flourishes and high kicks, but if that happens, YAY for flourishes and high kicks.

And no, I don’t emphasize making a pretty line.


I don’t care for pretty lines…sorry.


I was on a dance excursion awhile back, and the photographer working with us kept yelling, “Extension ladies! Extend Please! Extend! Let me see a pretty line. “

Things did not end well.

I have a long history of training in ballet and modern dance, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

I’m grateful for the hours I spent pliéing, barrel turning, and tour jetíng.

But my questions now, my curiosities now, my interests now, after all those years of training are:

  • Where does the impulse to move come from?
  • How does it settle in my body?
  • How does it arrange itself in space and in relationship to others?
  • What sort of movement/stillness/sound is bubbling up inside me that is beyond form?
  • What sort of movement/stillness/sound is bubbling up inside me that is inherent in form?
  • What impulse/instinct/urge/inclination/sensibility is driving the dance?
  • Is it the 1st or the 10th impulse that I act on? Is it the 2nd or the 700th?
  • How do I listen and what I am listening to?
  • How is my dancing connected to the larger world, outside of the dance studio?

To me, this is real dancing.

Living, breathing, and bona fide dancing.

Your dance mission for the week is to notice which impulses you move from.

Let me break it down a bit more:

Lie down.

Feel your body making contact with the earth.

Notice your breath.

Notice if there is a desire to move.

Notice if there is a desire to be still.

Notice if there is a desire to make sound.

Notice when you feel an impulse – to be still, to move, to make sound – and then notice if you follow that impulse or if you let it float on by.

Notice again when you feel an impulse – to be still, to move, to make sound – and then notice if you follow that impulse or if you let that one float on by.

Now, just see what happens.

Let the noticing soften.

Let your attention to your impulses soften, and give yourself permission to step into the dance, whatever kind of dance it is, that is already there, just waiting for you to begin.

Here is some music to get you started:

On another note:

My last free dance class of the season is happening on Saturday, August 22nd from 10-12pm at The Boulder Circus Center.

Will I see you there?

I hope so!

With Warmth and Jivey Vibes,
Joanna and the Agitators
sweetly agitating/persistently upending

To register for the fall session that is starting in a just a few weeks, click on the link below.  There is paypal button about halfway down the page where you can sign-up for the amount of classes that work for you.