Small Dances: a starting place

Aug 27, 2018

You can always dance. Once a dancer, always a dancer. Just sometimes it doesn't look quite the same. You can also still dance if you were never allowed to start; it isn't too late.

Maybe you can move only some part(s) of your body. Maybe you can move your whole body, but slowly, or for short periods, or only in certain environments (like your bed). Maybe movement is possible but painful. This post is for you - and anyone else who needs it. 

(But none of this is the be-all and end-all. If it doesn't work, don't do it. If something else works better that I didn't cover, that's valid, go for it!)

So how do we dance when we mostly can't move? 

The good news is you're still moving - some part of you moves, by nature of being alive. The question is how to engage with what you're able to move in a way that feels intentional and aesthetic: ie, in a way that is dance. (I'm not going to split the "what counts as 'dance'" hair any finer than that. You get to choose for you.)


Some part or parts of your body still move, even if it isn't as much or in the same way as you might have been used to. It might not be the same parts of your body that you're used to using to "dance", either. Which parts of your body can you move right now? Try not to judge how the part moves - whether it's good or bad, or interesting/substantial/normal enough. Just look for motion. Some possible examples:

• a finger or fingers

• mouth and jaw

• ribcage

• both feet from the ankle

• eyes

• individual muscle groups

• spine/core body, no limbs

Once you've found a part or parts you can move, even if only a little, start exploring how they can move. Do they turn? Get bigger or smaller? Open or close? Shake? Stretch? Travel through space? What is your personal "normal" way of using that body part? Can you find a less usual way too? Does it ever move by itself, automatically?

Wherever you are, your body exists in an environment. What is your relationship to your particular environment? What are the boundaries of your movement, and your environment? How big is the space you move in? Where are its edges, what are its properties?

Maybe your movement is constrained to or enabled by a particular environment (bed, bath full of water, nest of pillows). What does your environment offer you (eg. bed, smooth soft plane, sheets of fabric; bath, buoyancy, grab bars maybe; pillows, modular malleable space; etc)? Thinking also about the constraints of fatigue, how can your environment help you - such as by supporting your movement, or offering places to rest between movements? What ways can your environment help you move - reclining or rocking chairs, splints and mobility aids, cushions, lifts, wind from a fan, etc? Does gravity move your body? Do you resist it?

If you're not sure how to answer these questions: try them out with your body, and see what happens! All of that exploration begins to build you a vocabulary - that is, movement you can dance with and choreograph from. I'll put some additional choreography-building exercises at the bottom of this post.


The answers to this can be highly variable and personal, but here's what I've found to guide me and encourage me.

1) It's intentional. I am moving my body for the purpose of dancing, rather than for some other reason. (You can make a dance out of almost anything, this way: taking a drink, shifting your weight.) 

2) With my intention is some kind of plan, even if the plan is to improvise, or to let the body's natural movements happen - breathing, tremors, blinking. I am making deliberate choices.

3) One of those choices is how the dance could be seen. Phone cameras are an awesome tool here; you can literally choose how your dance get seen by controlling the lens. Thinking about how the dance is (or would be) perceived by someone else gives you an extra avenue of artistic intention. A dance made with a single finger will read very differently in a video zoomed in on the hand so that the finger is larger than the frame, moving in and out of sight, versus a video showing your whole body sitting in a chair, one tiny part moving. If all is stillness and only the finger moves, it is captivating - but then what happens if, say, the chair is a rocking chair? Then your finger is moving in a counterpoint. Or - what happens if I use time-lapse or slowed footage? I can change the duration and dynamics of my work as well. Making choices about how I am seen means that I am performing, if I choose to be; even if the audience is hypothetical only, or myself-later-on. (It can be very powerful to have a record of dances made on bad days as well as good.)

4) Optionally, all the elements available to larger-scale dance performance can be brought into play: music/sound/silence, costume (what does that finger dance look like with a line of eyeliner down the side? do I want to do my spine-arch dance wrapped up in a blue blanket or a green one?), light (maybe my mouth dance has a flashlight under my chin like a horror story, or maybe I'm up at 2am, a streetlight reflecting in the bath), setting, text and speech, etc. I can craft my performance in many dimensions.


Moving your body with intention and making choices about how others experience it can be really powerful on a personal level. It can be a good way of reconnecting with a body that has antagonized you. It provides a creative outlet, and a way to engage with difficult days. If you record your dances, they can be a testament to your experience.

They're also still dance. So they are valuable as contributions to the world of dance! Sometimes they are building blocks for later choreography. Sometimes they are the choreography, whether or not they're ever repeated. I believe they're an important piece of the disabled aesthetic in dance, as a way of making work uniquely ours, suiting our own needs and aesthetics.

But they've also made appearances in "mainstream" dance. Minimalism is a tool of its own - that example of the finger dance in a still chair in a wide frame is one example. I remember dances I have seen where there was either abundant stillness, which drew attention to tiny movements, or abundant repetitive, synced movement, which drew attention to stillness or discrepancies, and both felt very exciting to watch. 

Postmodern dance spent a lot of time on "what even IS a dance, really," but often in pretentious and rather ableist ways (a topic for another time). Making small dances in pain or illness by necessity digs into an element of that core question, and claims it and owns it, without getting entangled in the elite bullshit, and with the real lived experience of how much the small things matter. That is (I can't help myself here) huge.

And in contemporary dance in general, techniques like this are often used as foundations for particular styles of movement - undulation of the spine in for example Gaga, the sleeping-awake position-shifting of Eiko & Koma, breath-based contraction and release in Graham. (Don't worry if these names aren't familiar to you! You don't need to know them to dance.) Your practice is no less valid. We are learning from and building on the body in the same ways. We are part of this history.


Here are some video samples to get the juices flowing. They aren't all necessarily made in this small-dances fashion, but some are, and all contain some element(s) that can help spark this practice in some way, or open avenues for exploration. I'll give some of my observations, and questions you could consider.

First a few of hands: Yvonne Rainer: "Hand Movie" - black and white, silent, made while she was in a hospital and confined to bed; shot by another dancer, friend of hers. From 1966, this is the earliest example I have of someone doing just this, but I suspect the idea has cropped up over time, well before video. (I hadn't heard of this particular instance when I started my own experiments.) Pina Bausch: "Leaozinho" - none of these movements are large, but the way they travel around the body and play makes them feel like they move so much more than they do. I particularly like the way the hands assist each other and facilitate other movements (like the face). Consider also the impact of the suit. 'Hoover Hand Movie" - note choices here: tight zoom, black and white, silence, fleeting instances of familiar/meaningful hand shapes, signs, and gestures. Dytto "Feminine Fingers" Finger tutting is a thing of its own, which I don't know much about - but in addition to her hand movements here, notice the role that her face and eyes play. She is very deliberate in her choices about when she looks to camera, her hands, or away; when she smiles and not; etc. The choices are small things, but the impact is big.

Beyond hands: Marc Brew, "For Now, I am" (trailer) - Marc is a disabled dancer and choreographer, and this solo work takes place on the floor (instead of in his chair) with a bedsheet. The choice constrains him in some ways, and makes him vulnerable, and the result is exquisite. Martha Graham, "Lamentation" - see how the fabric helps hold and move her body, and the ways its tension amplifies the tension and effort in her body. (1943) Eiko and Koma, "Husk" - the best example I can find right now for their work, which uses a lot of natural-body motion, muscle tension, stillness, and natural environment. See where effort is shown or amplified instead of disguised. See also how the leaves create movement themselves. (1997) Dudley Williams in "I Wanna Be Ready" from Alvin Ailey's Revelations - this solo uses an awe-inspiring amount of core strength! It's on this list because it's a subtle, stationary floor solo that makes great use of tension and struggle, rising and sinking vertically instead of traveling. Look at the ways extension and contraction move the body in whole or part and the role they play in the emotional tone. (1986 - I've seen more recent recordings that have higher video quality, but as far as I'm concerned none of them hold a candle to the sincerity and focus of Williams' performance.) Heather Hansen, "Emptied Gestures" - movement is amplified by the charcoal. She is shown here moving her whole body, contained in place on the paper. I'm interested in the possibilities of this using isolated pieces, restricted movement, and smaller scales, with the same idea of creating a visible relic of the movement or otherwise letting the movement shape the environment instead of the other way around. AND, see what happens as multiple instances begin to populate the frame - much more movement is created, while still using only her one body in its paper place. There's room for patterns and ensemble while still dancing solo. "Small Dances" - my own work :) This piece got its start from making small dances with this method, and I tried to retain the closed-in, fully-focused feeling of movement-in-pain in the finished piece. 


A lot of choreographic creation techniques, and of course improvisation techniques, can be adapted to suit small dances! Here are a few ideas to get your started. Some are actual exercises, some are guiding questions, and many are jumping-off points for improvisation. Improvisation can be an end in itself, or it can be a way to explore new movement ideas and pick elements to save for future choreography. 

If something you do surprises you, remember it. It means there's new ground to explore. Consider also setting a timer for yourself when you improvise, to help give you structure and keep you focused. You may also want to record with video, writing, or other means.

If something causes you (additional) pain, it's your choice whether you want to do it anymore/again or if you want to stop or change it. If something takes a great effort, it is your choice whether you want to do it anymore/again or you want to stop or reduce the movement. You don't have to do anything that hurts you or exhausts you. But neither do you have to avoid it, if you so choose.

• Improvisation often uses "scores" - guidance, in words or pictures. They can be very literal (eg moving up and down again, turning over), more descriptive (eg curly, staccato), or totally abstract (turquoise, peanut butter, childhood). Stuck? Flip to a random page in a book, or a random open browser tab, and use the first interesting word or phrase your eyes stick to. Try to move in a way that matches the word(s).

• Improvisation scores can also be transposed situations (then usually called "tasks"), like Marc Brew's "cleaning the capsicum", where dancers pretend they are inside a huge bell pepper and need to clean out the seeds. What other activities could you recreate in a new way? If you're stuck, a to-do list or bucket list or "top 10 things to do in/at/with ____" lists might be good starting places. It's ok to be a bit silly.

• Pairs of qualities can be helpful in finding range: up/down, front/back, left/right, tense/relax, stretch/contract, rising/falling, linear/curved. Focus on one pair, and see how many ways you can move between the two qualities.

• Stillness and motion are another pair. Beyond moving and stopping, if you are able to move something other than your eyes, try: when you are still, close your eyes or soften your focus; when you are in motion, open your eyes or look outward. Then after a while, swap, so that when you are moving your eyes are closed and you open them when you become still. See what changes about your perception and your movement.

• If you have pain or tension in your body, move toward it - follow it, physically, if that means moving through space, touching it, tensing toward it, or curling around it. Try also moving away from it - by turning your body, traveling, relaxing the area, moving touch elsewhere, etc. What is it like to move into and away from your pain?

• If you can move your eyes and at least one other body part, construct a duet. Let the body part move, and the eyes follow that body part. Always let the body part be the initiator; the eyes must wait, not guess ahead. After a while, switch, and see if the body part can follow the gaze of the eyes.

• You can also set up duets between other body parts, or between the body and the physical environment, the body and light/shadow, or any other entity you like (including people or pets, if they're willing)! An easy way to start a duet is with call and response: one person or part moves, then the other makes an answering motion, then the first answers, like a conversation. If your duet partner is inanimate (eg a bedsheet, or the light), you'll want to look for movements that you can make on your turn that cause some kind of change in your partner (the sheet falls, the light casts a shadow) that you can then respond to in turn. Consider elements of your environment that can cause change in YOU, too.

• We are always in relationship to the ground or a similar surface. What parts of you touch the surface and what parts touch air? (Also fun to do in a bath!) Can you change which parts touch what? Can something unusual touch the surface, like the underside of your chin? Can something unusual touch the air, like the space between your toes?

• Breathing: so many exercises take breathing for granted, but it is one of the most profound movements we do. Pay attention (if you do not already) to the way your own body breathes. Can you change anything about your breathing - the speed, the fullness? How does your breath affect other parts of your body? Does it move other areas? Can you breathe more into certain parts - maybe your right side, or your belly? What if you try to breathe into something unusual, like your kneecaps?

• If you have a particularly mobile body part available to you, like a hand or maybe a foot, let it explore the rest of your body. How much of you can you touch? Does it make you shift positions?

• How can your body make sounds?

• Accumulations: pick a movement you like and can do. Do it. Then see what movement could come next. Do movement 1 again, then movement 2, then find an option for 3. Do 1-2-3, and look for 4. Etc.

Those are a few of my favorites. Sometimes I will just do an exercise for the sake of moving, not for remembering or performing - that's fine. They can also be good warm-ups for other things. If I'm seeking to make choreography, I will do a few exercises, or the same exercise several times, and remember points that are interesting, surprising, or satisfying. Once I have a few of those, I'll start assembling them into sequences. Sometimes I will film exercises and only later watch the film to choose favorite parts from several days' experiments. It's up to you.

Here's what some first forays might look like- - four exercises, wholly improvised, not planned in advance. 1) Exploration, just seeing what's available. 2) Feet and surfaces - playing with my feet on my wall (on some art). 3) An accumulation, improvised until it got hard to remember on the fly, then repeated with different dynamics. 4) A "shifting" score - moving whenever I became uncomfortable but otherwise still - sped up to 8x speed (20 minutes condensed down to just over 2; I like the longer version, actually). For this video, I wanted the result to feel relaxed/informal, personal, and honest, so I made the following choices: to be in my most supportive environment, a pillow nest; to wear my back brace which helps me breathe but no other splints, and plain stretchy clothes under; to leave my chipped and beat-up nail polish in place; to take my glasses off but leave them beside me; to mostly keep my eyes closed; to film on a brightly sunny day and turn my back to the light. 

I hope this post has been helpful! If you have questions, or want to share something you make, leave a comment! 

Happy dancing <3

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