Why Watching Modern Dance is So Hard (lecture notes)

Why watching Modern Dance is So Hard

10 Hot Tips for Finding Pleasure in the Form

The hinge. It’s one of the quintessential moves of the jazz and modern dance vernaculars. Dancers who have worked with this bad boy remember it in their quadriceps, particularly the fusiform (or spindle-like) Rectus Femoris and its rising from two tendons: one from the anterior inferior iliac spine; and the other from a groove above the rim of the acetabulum. The two unite and spread into an aponeurosis that stretches downward from which muscles fibers arise and insert into the patella.


What a long tether of remembering that muscle holds for anyone who has dipped their knees forward in supplication as their body rises up and back into the unknown.

For you who have never found yourself in this expression of the back place high diagonal, you are surely missing out. There is a longing to the action, an unrequited yearning that is locked in the body, Shakespearean or Dante-esque in its desire for Up whilst going Down, for Forward whilst careening Back. I think of a mountain climber, rope-bound on a sheet of ice 12 stories in the air, reaching back for her pick in order to move one. Step. Higher. Or the Virgin, pelvis sliding down down down to the arranged marriage-pyre of a bed, as her heart moves up and back towards the window where, beneath it, her poor, unsuitable lover stands whispering love songs into the dark. The hinge.


  1. a movable joint or mechanism on which a door, gate, or lid swings as it opens and closes, or that connects linked objects.
  1. n hinge a joint that holds two parts together so that one can swing relative to the other
  2. n hinge a circumstance upon which subsequent events depend “his absence is the hinge of our plan”

In dance-speak, there are many hinges and many ways “How To Hinge”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzn3sbfcyjY (19:18)


This description, from Jenny Daizell and dance Spirit Magazine, is particularly spectacular:

Posted on October 15, 2010 by Jenny Dalzell

Dance Spirit

You see it everywhere in contemporary and modern choreography. It’s the “wow” step that takes you from standing to the floor with just a simple bend of the knees: the hinge.

The hinge’s roots date back to the 1930s when Lester Horton began to establish his approach to modern dance. He created six exercises (Hinge Studies) focused on the step. Today, the Horton tradition is carried by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Ailey was Horton’s student). “If you watch Ailey’s Revelations, you can see at least two of the studies,” says Ana Marie Forsythe, co-director of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program at The Ailey School in NYC. DS consulted Forsythe to bring you a complete guide to the hinge.

Start Small
Combing some other dance how-to sites I found a lot of tips and even more warnings. You gotta love where there are this many warnings to go with a move:

Tips and Warnings

  • Tip: Start out doing a hinge from your knees. Dancers that incorporate hinge moves in their dancing will start from the kneeling position and rise to their feet.
  • Tip: Never try to do a hinge alone, as you could hurt yourself.—thank god you guys are here, I’ll be safe
  • Tip: Maintain your alignment as you lean back as far as your quadriceps allow. The angle to which you can tilt depends on the length of your quadriceps; don’t compromise alignment for a deeper hinge.
  • Tip: After you’re comfortable with a kneeling hinge, you’re ready to try it from a standing position.
  • Tip: Begin in parallel with your feet hip-width apart and arms at your sides. Engage your abdominal muscles and elongate your neck so that your head pulls away from the end of your spine. Press your knees forward over your toes—your body will lean back to compensate for the weight shift.
  • Tip: Use your stomach and inner thigh muscles to hold your torso in a straight line.
  • Tip: Check your body position in a mirror.
  • Tip: Although you’re descending, use your abs to lift your torso upward in opposition
  • Tip: Keep your head in the same position it was in while you were standing.
  • Tip: Practice at the barre to help maintain proper alignment.—I did this and the bartender thought I was nuts
  • Tip: Imagine an airplane landing. It glides forward, hovering above the ground, descending incrementally. 
  • Tip: Once you’ve descended as far as possible, engage your glutes, and, on a breath, lift the torso forward.
  • Tip: Windmill your arms to gain momentum so you can step through on one foot.

When performed correctly, the hinge is a dazzling feat of strength.


Warning: Don’t arch your back. This places a huge amount of stress on your lumbar vertebrae—a recipe for injury. To avoid arching, engage your abs throughout the entire hinge.


Warning: Don’t drop your abs or let your pelvis sink. Make sure you lengthen the torso.


Warning: Don’t initiate the hinge with a relevé. When done properly, your heels will lift slightly as you descend.

Warning: Don’t stay on releveBut you can’t complete a full hinge if you begin in high relevé—it’s impossible!

I turn to Graham and Ailey to show us how a hinge carries inherent drama and is more than just an athletic feat:

Errand into the Maze: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieMO1Z0UhGQ

Sinner Man, SYTYCD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMlq4zDo2us

Now what, you may be asking yourselves, does a hinge have to do with the topic of this talk, “Why Watching Modern Dance is So Hard? 10 Hot Tips for finding Pleasure in the form.” Watching Alvin Ailey is certainly not that hard on anyone. Patience, in the typical modern dance way, I am running in circles, taking my time to get to my point.

Ok, let’s just start there. Why, in god’s name, does every modern dance piece need to run in so many circles? I have prepared for you a brief and non-exhaustive running montage to illustrate the point we all already know:




The challenge is that there is a lot of dance out there, some of it poorly funded, some of it Guggenheim funded, sometimes well-rehearsed and sometimes un-rehearsed, and some that is just plain bad. Bad bad bad. But how do we discern the bad from the weird, the cutting-edge, the revolutionary? Folks thought Graham was bad—until folks thought she wasn’t. Was it she who changed that much or was it them? We have to ask ourselves, in order to get to the good stuff, is it bad dance that is standing in our way or is it bad viewership that has shut us down before the dance has a chance to get at us? Have we locked our moveable mental joint so that we cannot fling open our gate, let in the moment, and try to connect our minds and our muscle memory to what is before us? Is the dance hard to watch or are we hardly watching? Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a TON of dance out there that is just bad, but even that can get easier to watch—and you might just find pleasure in it by the end.

This next passage I would like to share comes from one of my favorite books about art and looking. If you exchange dance or choreography for art and painting in Winterson’s prose, one finds similar parallels between Winterson’s experience with confronting visual art as we might encounter with dance. Now sure, you can walk out of a theatre, but not so easily as closing a book to bad poetry or moving on to the next painting in a gallery—dance requires time spent. But in these incredible collections of essays from “Art Objects,” Winterson talks about both the noun of Art Objects and the verb, that Art objects—to being bound, categorized, tied up in a bow. It is this objection with regard to dance that I believe stymies dance audiences. Why isn’t this dance making sense TO ME? Why isn’t this dance fulfilling my ideal of beauty? I wonder this too, especially when I see bad dance danced to Arvo Part or Bach and have to close my eyes so as not to ruin another piece of art that I have comfortably in-corporated into my understanding and organization of myself in response to art.

Winterson calls us out. And because she calls herself out as well, I don’t cross my arms at her chiding.


Jeanette Winterson ART OBJECTS Essays on ecstasy and effrontery, Jonathan Cape, London, 1995 pp 3-21


I was in Amsterdam one snowy Christmas when the weather had turned the canals into oblongs of ice. I was wandering happy, alone, playing the flaneur, when I passed a little gallery and in the moment of passing saw a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on.

The quality of the draughtsmanship, the brush strokes in thin oils, had a Renaissance beauty, but the fearful and compelling thing about the picture was its modernity. Here was a figure without a context, in its own context, a haunted woman in blue robes pulling a huge moon face through a subterranean waterway.

What was I to do, standing hesitant, my heart flooded away?

I fled across the road and into a bookshop. There I would be safe, surrounded by things I understood, unchallenged, except by my own discipline. Books I know, endlessly, intimately. Their power over me is profound, but I do know them. I confess that until that day I had not much interest in the visual arts, although I realise now, that my lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others. I knew nothing about painting and so I got very little from it. I had never given a picture my full attention even for one hour.

What was I to do?

I had intended to leave Amsterdam the next day. I changed my plans, and sleeping fitfully, rising early, queued to get into the Rijksmuseum, into the Van Gogh Museum, spending every afternoon at any private galleries I could find, and every evening, reading, reading, reading. My turmoil of mind was such that I could only find a kind of peace by attempting to determine the size of the problem. My problem. The paintings were perfectly at ease. I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog‑dumb. The usual response of ‘This painting has nothing to say to me’ had become ‘I have nothing to say to this painting’. And I desperately wanted to speak.

Long looking at paintings is equivalent. to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just paintings is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No‑one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.

We have to recognise that the language of art, all art, is not our mother- tongue.

‘I don’t understand this poem’

‘I never listen to classical music’ ‘I don’t like this picture’

are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant. This is not arrogance; of course they can absorb in a few moments, and without any effort, the sum of the artist and the art.

If the obvious direct emotional response is to have any meaning, the question ‘Do I like this?’ will have to be the opening question and not the final judgement. An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere. But here we come back to the first hurdle of art, and it is a high one; it shows us up.

Years ago, when I was living very briefly with a stockbroker who had a good cellar, I asked him how I could learn about wine.

‘Drink it’ he said.



First let’s start with what moves us.

Have you ever come unhinged at a dance moment?

But I find that it is crucial to know that feeling of your heart vault cracking open at least once, through some experience of movement—even if heretofore you never thought of said movement as dance.
(demonstrate, the opening moment of Diversion, 1948, hand over heart, contract)

My 4-year old was dancing in the living room, Hippy boulder kid style, wearing my niece’s tank top like a dress since he’d peed through his shorts, and suddenly stopped. I asked, “Why’d you stop dancing?” He turned to me, 60 years of aleatory wisdom burning in the John Cage of his heart and said, “I am dancing.”

I believe that when we start to understand life and her movements around us a choreography and gesture as a certain kind of communicative performance, we can find so much more pleasure in this bizarro-world of modern dance.

  • Pursuing Odette, Feld, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zXW6_FUT50
  • Dance Theatre of Harlem: Firebird
  • Feld Ballet
  • Diversion of Angels
  • Deep Song
  • Carlotta—Limon
  • David Rouseve
  • Super Straight
  • Margie Gillis, Slipstream and Bloom
  • Sankai Juku
  • Zvi Gotheiner
  • The frug/All that Jazz
  • Cunningham
  • Minus 16
  • Cynthia Oliver
  • Michelle Ellsworth
  • Jasmin Verdimon




tr.v. un·hingedun·hing·ingun·hing·es

  1. To remove (a door, for example) from the hinges.
  2. To separate or disconnect: “Such military spending was completely unhinged from any justifiable operational requirement.” (James Carroll)
  3. To confuse or disrupt: an event that unhinged the marriage.
  4. To derange or unbalance: He was unhinged by his wife’s death.


Dance, modern or contemporary dance in particular, at its best is disruptive—whether “good” or “Bad” dance, and so much art in general, challenges us to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Imagine sitting with an ee cummings poem for 10 minutes let alone 90—what would that do to your patience and personal sense of syntax? Dance is just that, poetry with its own personal syntax, and that syntax is made up of gestures of the body—gestures that we have long known but forgotten, as the primacy of words takes over our culture.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely.

During the Age of Silence, people communicated more, not less. Basic survival demanded that the hands were almost never still, and so it was only during sleep (and sometimes not even then) that people were not saying something or other. No distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life. The labor of building a house, say, or preparing a meal was no less an expression than making the sign for I love you or I feel serious. When a hand was used to shield one’s face when frightened by a loud noise something was being said, and when fingers were used to pick up what someone else had dropped something was being said; and even when the hands were at rest, that, too, was saying something. Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen, because they didn’t go round with the illusion that they understood perfectly the things other people said, they were used to interrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly. Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I’ve always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me.”

“If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms – if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body – it’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less. It’s not that we’ve forgotten the language of gestures entirely. The habit of moving our hands while we speak is left over from it. Clapping, pointing, giving the thumbs-up, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it’s too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other’s bodies to make ourselves understood.”


Dance performance confuses our sense of time and place—stage time does not unfold in chronos time (man-time, chronological time), nor does it take place exactly in kairos time, god-time, momentary lapse that feels proprietary to decisive action. Modern dance that is working for you, though it has chronos time (meter, length –usually too long) and kairos time—out-of-time take action-ness, it lives in a third temporal realm that can serve as a bridge between the two.

one weaves memory with action, reflection with visceral response.

One of the biggest issues with watching dance is that people think they are “doing it wrong. ”

  • If when watching a dance they start to write a palimpsest over the work, imagining their own lives or lists or longings before them, spilling over and around the bodies, the running in circles, the lighting, the endless Philip Glass score. This is not wrong—give yourself a break, you are in conversation with the work, your life is not flashing before your eyes but pas-de-deuxing with texture, color, and muscle, nerve and bone. You are choreographing your imagination and your memory, one that wouldn’t play out that way before you if not for the endless running happening in circles on stage that sent you into the blue-grey of your own imagining.
  • The mistake comes in when you, upon leaving the theatre, instead of saying thank you, you say, “I was bored—what did that mean?” or “I was lost the whole time—why all the running?” That judgment of what the dance was supposed to do for you—the pretend need for an “Ah Ha!” moment is YOUR failing.
  • Dance is not tv. It is not necessarily meant to open, peak, and close with canned laughter in the chronos time that exists between 7:30 and 8pm. It needs to dissolve, it needs you to dissolve with it –not “solve” it.

SO here come my hot tips, tips that will hopefully fill your basket with bread crumbs that will lead you further into the woods of what could be if you let a dance love into heart

  1. Sometime that means a cocktail-or a nice cup of chamomile tea. I’m not advocating that you get drunk, just that you let your guard down—sometimes that’s hard for us humans so if you need a beverage, please, by all means, a nice shiraz goes great with modern dance. I could do a whole wine pairing with different choreographers –perhaps that will be my next talk—“The Somatic Sommelier”—we’ll do a seeing and a tasting! Let’s make that happen. I’ll make sure Elizabeth Streb is last—her work goes beautifully with a good, strong Irish coffee.
  2. But if you don’t drink, or are too young, sometimes being tired helps—come a little sleepy, not tired but a little sleepy so you are not so guarded and can un-hinge your mind/heart/spirit, take the doors off, let the light in. Not so you fall asleep, but so you can fall awake into a new mis en scene where not everything makes sense—allow for dreamtime logic and the colors it brings to the for to make connections work their alchemy on your observations (Read “Monet refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/236810)
  3. Read more poetry. Period. Not the Neruda-brooding love sick kind –although I do love a good sonnet. But poetry that interrupts your logical brain and gets you into a good strong workout regime with metaphor and anti-metaphor, pluralism, interiority and exteriority, intertextuality, and other words that are made up to try to match sensation that has no words. Worry less, my friends about content, roll around in definition based on your own interaction with sound, form, color.
  4. For you left brain virgo types out there, try a different approach–Take notes—imagine you have to write three sentences about what you just saw—or speak them to another human at a cocktail party in the lobby of a theatre post-show. How would you describe the work physically—separate from how you FELT about it. How would you describe it metaphorically—connecting it to something you think you already have a handle on—like sea in winter or lost girl on the streets of Caluctta. And then finally, how would you evaluate it—either why you did or didn’t like it or what that one part when they ran around in circles taking off clothes while screaming meant. And, as I have my students do, can you let your cocktail partner know why you did or didn’t like it without saying “I did or didn’t like it”? Perhaps something along the way of, “the endless running lost its bite after the first 10 minutes. The spirals throughout the work were reminiscent of energetic time, but the development of actual time in the piece wasn’t supported by that running section juxtaposed with the solo for the man in the bunny suit.” Or some such something.
  5. Try to remember and physicalize (in a bathroom stall during halftime) one movement from the piece. Kinesthetic empathetic perception can be your friend.
  6. Watch one dancer—imagine her journey—imagine you are on it with him.
  7. Read some history—not just of the choreographer or of the piece itself, but of the cultural backdrop hanging around the work—why the work when the work? Context is key. if it’s an historic work, what is (if any) the relevance now-? How does this piece still work, or not work today
  8. What would Erika say about it? Imagine you are me—or someone else you might know better who loves talking forward and backward about a thing. I like to watch a piece as my friend Miche, a cutting-edge artists scientist who is smarter than I am and hangs with people who pay attention to the fashion of bangs. Or my son, ezra—what would he say—out loud in front of anyone who would listen?
  9. Watch the micro-dances around you. IN real life and in the theatre during a show, If you start getting lost in the thing presented, watch the watchers, even in silhouette, bring your self to the now—if you’re lucky, you’re in a deconstructed proscenium performance space and can see the person across form you. Watch that show unfolding in real-time and choreograph it into the experience, see how the color and timbre of the world around you changes when instead of saying, “I don’t like this,” or “this has nothing to do with me,” you say, “yes.” “Yes. I am here. We are all here. Out of luck, bad or good, duty, curiosity, or eve extra credit, we are all here let’s see what I can see. Even if that means closing your eyes and dreaming.
  10. And lastly, hot tip number 10—forget the other 9. Trust yourself. You’re here today, caring about want to care, you’re gonna do great. And the next time you see running, instead of rolling your eyes, you laugh that little laugh smirk, saved for insiders, and that latch on your heart will clank open, and you may just leave yourself ajar enough for a dance moment that will help you unhinge.


Dance video selections:

1:42 -1:52





















Dance, Painting, and Violin: Erika Randall Collaboration with Michiko Theurer

Erika Randall performed with painter/violinist Michiko Theurer on Nov. 7 (Nomad Playhouse, Boulder) and Nov. 8 (Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum & Cultural Center, Longmont).


“Recently, [Michiko Theurer] combined her two passions in a pair of well-received performances for the new BBF Education Series. Line/Color/Motion featured Bach and Debussy pieces—performed by Theurer and BBF Education Director and pianist Mina Gajic—choreography and dance by CU-Boulder dance professor Erika Randall and Theurer’s paintings.”

Story on CU Boulder website:  http://www.colorado.edu/music/about-us/news/finding-beauty-art-and-music

“J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) came from very different worlds and yet often shared a similar, dance-like sense of motion in their music. Line/Color/Motion explores their contrasting approaches to creating this sense of motion by comparing it with two different approaches to painting, one based on the development of line, and the other based on the juxtaposition of colors.”

Story on Boulder Bach Festival website: http://boulderbachfestival.org/tag/erika-randall/


CU Boulder post - Dance for Radio spooky_hands