Dance Writing and Killing Butterflies

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing about dance performances lately. And I feel kind of guilty.

A dance is alive. It’s made up of infinitesimal moments of movement with emotional flavors which occupy a space not necessarily beyond words, but between words, in the range of deeply specific experiences that our linguistic boxes forget to catch. It’s alive because people make it and people do it and people watch it and people are never the same from moment to moment. It’s alive because sometimes dancers fall and sometimes they don’t. It’s alive because it’s fleeting, morphing, dying before you. It’s alive because, at least on some level, people usually don’t really know what it means (even in super literal narratives, all the dancing in between the narrative landmarks is up for interpretation). This way, it can mean everything at same time, or a strange mix of things, or whatever you at that moment need it to mean, and you don’t have to describe any of it.

And then there’s words. Words are definite and limited and discreet. At best, they can hint at the essence of an experience. At worst, they reduce it. Words can be vague (and I like this kind), but we usually (at least in the case of performance papers) try to make them clear, so that their meaning is stable and universal. This makes words immortal. It also makes them dead. A clearly worded sentence will still be there tomorrow, telling you the same thing it did yesterday.

When I was in second grade, someone from a museum came to my class to talk about butterflies. I loved butterflies. I loved trying to catch the ones that fluttered around my back yard in the spring. And I never succeeded.

But this lady brought in some glass frames with pinned down dead butterflies. She pointed out colors and talked about species, but all I could think about was the fact that they were dead. She said that they had saved the butterflies so that we could learn about and understand them more. She said that they wouldn’t have lived long anyway.

But they were still killed and pinned down. Their flurry of movement was reduced to a single static moment, forever. I could catch them now, but that was no fun.

And that’s how I feel when I write about dance performances. A one-time experience is pinned down so that it lasts, but isn’t really the same. Intangible moments are reduced to a crude linguistic approximation. I write down one interpretation and kill the rest.

I still like writing about dance. There are advantages to killing butterflies. You can look at their colors up close and point out their patterns. You can discover and classify the range of types. You can introduce them to people who don’t have butterflies in their yard or those who never thought to go outside and look. But lets not forget the violence that’s involved.


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