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March 8, 2013

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

In case I failed to mention it earlier, I'm taking the beginning blues dancing ExCo this spring. My reasons to do so are rather numerous, but I'll list some of the most important ones here:

  • I go to many kinds of dance events at Oberlin, blues being the most consistent favorite of mine, in no small part because of the music involved and the overall vibe of the room.
  • I am very scared of dancing. I feel like one of the better ways to overcome that fear is in a dance class with other beginners, in a community I trust pretty deeply. I need ways to start to confront my challenges in productive learning environments, and an ExCo is a great way to do that. (Heck, that's how I got started with circus arts and look where that got me.)
  • I want to become more comfortable with moving my body.
  • While the blues dancing ExCo is very much about moving more intentionally, it's also about connecting more closely with others. (This, I'm discovering, is not one of my top reasons for taking the class, not because I dislike making connections with others, but I feel that connecting with myself first will make the former more appealing.)
  • I am always looking for new ways to listen. (Lucky me. I'm a follow. The main role of a follow is to listen.)
  • The beginning blues ExCo is taught by my delightful brother Ben and a dear friend of mine, Shane. They are wonderful humans and they are stellar at making the learning environment of our class accessible and open to creativity, critique, and exploration. (Let me tell you, as an fellow ExCo instructor, this is no easy task. Our duo of instructors rock!)

The class is nearing midterms (next week! Where has the time gone?), and in light of the past week — a week filled with emotion, energy, and conversation surrounding identity, acceptance, discourse, and learning — we all came to class on Thursday with the air around us feeling a bit different.

Many ExCos and group meetings at Oberlin begin with check-ins, a good way to more clearly assess what's going on in the lives of the other folks you'll be spending the next few hours focusing with, in addition to reminding each other about names and preferred pronouns. (In case you didn't know, I like check-ins. A lot.)

This week, Ben and Shane encouraged us to talk about whatever we wanted to during our check-in, and offering the prompt to think about places we found the class to be working or lacking, including but not limited to comfort and understanding in our class community, how this class can more seamlessly include some of the big human things we on campus have been thinking about particularly in the last few weeks (things like social and historical context of dance, specifically blues dance, and class/power/sexual dynamics related to partner dance), and suggestions on how we, this seemingly random cross-section of campus, as a sect of the Oberlin community, can express ourselves and connect with each other.

(I'm gonna throw in a little side note in here: I've been tackling the recent campus events from about 97 different angles, at work, at home, with my coworkers, fellow Obies near and far, but few of which involve open discussion in a room full of students. I can only speak for myself, but this check-in opportunity was a really good thing for me, and I applaud Ben and Shane — both in class and now immortalized in writing — for facilitating a space that is inviting of the whole of the Oberlin community.)

Following our check-ins every week, we do what Shane likes to call "an embarrassing group activity," the point of which is not to embarrass ourselves, but rather, to get us warmed up and a bit more comfortable with ourselves and our bodies before the scheduled lesson for the day. Dance, especially beginning dance, is really really awkward, and you WILL embarrass yourself (as will everyone else, to be sure) because many dance moves are relatively unnatural moves for our bodies. The point of the activity is an attempt to better group participation with that which will equalize all of us with silliness and awkwardness (how perfectly Oberlin, no?) and get our heads into a more central learning space through a targeted group activity.

(One day you should ask me about group focus activities and ice breakers for circus. One of my favorite things ever.)

Week one we danced like penguins. Week two we did something like slow motion tag while embodying different words. Last week we broke into groups, danced to different kinds of music, made up partner dance moves, then taught them to our classmates.

This week, though, we did something a little different. When Shane said, "Today's embarrassing activity is hugging," there were nervous but relieved giggles from all over the room. Hugs. I don't know about you, but the idea and execution of a hug is kinda awkward. Where do arms go? Where is my face? Do I smell okay? How long is too long to hold someone? Yep. Embarrassing group activity, this is.

Before you begin overthinking, this wasn't just a feel-good group hug sort of thing, it was a study in one of the moves we'd learned the week before: close embrace, which is a specific position for partner blues dance. Of course, this move has its own awkwardness because all those things I mentioned above with how we hug one another happen to be amplified because you're also moving around and supposedly leading/following in and out moves from a hug. Ahhh.

The way the hugging activity worked was all the leads stood, eyes closed, spaced around the room. Follows then wandered around the room, hugging each lead, attempting to make a connection by leading/exchanging breaths for a few moments, then moving on to the next lead. After 5 minutes or so, leads and follows switched roles and the hugging recommenced.

(Just to let y'all know: this was not a required activity, rather, it was suggested. Blues is about comfort, not about forcing things. If all this hugging stuff isn't up your alley, that's okay. As far as I could tell, though, everyone participated in the activity yesterday.)

Something kinda cool happened during this activity. Like I said above, blues dance (well, I suppose most partner and/or social dances, but I can only really speak to the context of blues) is in part about human connection. The hugging part was all well and good — sorta fun, sorta awkward — but what happened after was actually more astonishing. The energy in the room was overall changed. There was an aura of calm. More smiles. There was an openness to talk more deeply, but also a comfort with silence. There was a different feeling of give-and-take between follows and leads than there was in previous classes. Just because of the hugs? Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, this activity made me think a lot more about community energy and group exchanges. This is not to say that hugs will fix or gloss over our problems, but what I found after the simple activity at the beginning of class was a more in-tune community of listeners. As was mentioned in our very first class, the role of follows is to listen and react. Even if our preferred role is that of a lead, I believe there is huge value in role-reversal so that leads know what it feels like to react (and vice versa, for follows to know what it takes to make a decision and execute it in an understandable and amenable way to those they are leading).

Just gonna put it out there: power dynamics. They're a mind trip, on both sides of the equation.

I'll extend the metaphor of the give-and-take of dancing just a little bit more, back to the world I'm currently inhabiting. As someone who is just beginning (and I suspect, someone who is quite knowledgeable), learning to lead means learning to make decisions based on what is in one's head, but it is also based on external cues, like music, the person you're dancing with, and the space you're in. Learning to follow means learning to listen, hard, not just to those around you, but to yourself while you're in the process of listening. (I know that reads strangely. I can't think of a better way to explain it. Listening to yourself listening is meta as all get out, but the idea here is that personal reflection = key.)

So. Back to dance. I'm beginning to get my role as a follow a little more solidly every time I move a bit more with someone, but by no means would I consider myself an expert listener (yet), both on and off the dance floor. But I'm aware that it's a major part of my role, one that always can stand to be improved and can make big sweeping steps (or tiny micro-blues tiptoes) through more and more exercise.

(Hey. Hey readers. You can probably tell, through this post and others, I'm wary of a lot of things, mostly because I have no idea what I'm supposed to do while learning something new and the idea of messing up is, in reality, really quite scary. I'm trying to be better at being more open and more introspective. Talk to me, here or in person. My thoughts can't just live in my head, they don't do a lot of good there.)

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