Today marked my first day back at school after a wonderful, and very necessary, summer break. And as I find myself once again slipping into the student perspective (curiosity, anxiety, insights, doubts…), I find myself reflecting on all the wonderful workshop opportunities and dancing the summer months afforded me. I’ve seen dancers push their boundaries, take risks and try hard at the many challenges presented to them. I’ve often observed how students seem to progressively try harder and harder, all in the effort to get it right. And today, from my reinvigorated student perspective, I question how strategies for learning are explicitly and implicitly taught. What has become clear to me however is how metaphorical language primes the student’s approach: ‘trying hard to get it right’ is a loaded metaphor that links hardness with trying and getting with accomplishment. ‘Trying hard to get it right’ implies a sense of solidity and acquisition; both limited understandings of how to navigate the flow of learning. So in honour of this month’s back to school theme, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective for learning: try less to integrate more.
Flow 1: flap ball change
Trying less is something I discovered in tap class as a teenager: the faster and more intricate the material, the more relaxed I needed to be. ‘Trying hard’ became trying less, or rather, I became aware of efficient effort. Born in the spaces of trying less was a sense of letting go; letting go into an interstitial intelligence, into a sense of context and flow. This is something my bodily-self understood well before my mind–a familiar theme for dancers everywhere I suspect. And now, when I ask students to downgrade their effort to 60% or 70%, something new emerges that wasn’t there the moment before. A shift occurs. Navigating difficulty becomes less ‘hard,’ and navigating the flow of experience becomes about equilibrium, not about anxious acquisition. What may at first glance look and sound like tap dancing–dynamic footwork and rhythms–from an insider’s perspective becomes the confluence of multiple rivers of efficient effort; trying less to integrate more.
Flow 2: tapping into flow
“Relax” was Jackie’s refrain to me during our boxing sessions a few years back. The irony was never lost on me. In my effort to bob, weave and jab/cross/hook, I was indeed trying hard. So much so that my shoulders were up around my ears and my muscles tense with anticipation of action. So much so that my reflexes were already clenched in trying hard, no longer available to the subtle impulses around me. “Relax” was the mantra. Ah yes, down go the shoulders, my weight settles back into the ground, my breath deepens, my awareness widens, my reflexes quicken. This is like tap! My sensing self makes the experiential link before my mind does. Boxing is like tap! It seems I’m constantly learning to tap in/into new contexts.
I recognize how sensory familiarity arises between tap and boxing, how familiarity arises while choreographing, and how familiarity arises in my relationships. As my shoulders rise in moments of disagreement, and my thoughts tense with clenched anticipation of defense, I try to remember to relax: down go the shoulders, my weight (physical, emotional, psychological) settles into the ground, my breath deepens, awareness widens, and my reflexes are ready to respond anew. Discoveries happen in the letting go. As a student of boxing I re-member and renew my teenage insights while tapping: try less, unclench, let go of your grip on getting ‘it,’ because ‘it’ IS flow.
Flow 3: birthday lessons on letting go
What I continue to spiral back to is the flow of learning, and how fundamental to learning is a willingness to let go. It’s that way with dance, with love, with life. I wrote the following excerpt on my birthday this year, while sitting on the footbridge at the south end of Spadina Street overlooking the water. I brought my journal along not knowing what would surface when pencil met paper. And now, reading it again, I’m struck with the scope of how fluid learning is: it stretches across time, weaves stories in its wake, reminds me to be available and open handed in the flow of the moment. I should mention that my grandfather loved ducks and his birthday was also in May.
May 23rd, 2017. Toronto, On.
Ducks swim by and I think of my grandpère
Memories surface ~ of beaches, of woodworking, of
Anthems sung in French, of hospital dances to “My Girl,”
Of shared birthday parties and shared smiles.
Shall we share another birthday grandpère? A toast
To ducks and how they will always tether me to you, to
Great loves and losses, to softening our defenses, to
Letting go and the love that rushes in. Je t’aime.
I reread these words and my shoulders soften, my breath deepens, my weight settles. In addition to love, what also rushes in is a sense of appreciation; how simple acts of availability lead to lessons I will never find seated behind a desk. Watching the ducks swim that day was an education in easeful integration. Trying less to integrate more doesn’t mean to give up effort, rather, simply to allow effort to be responsive, not defensive. Easier said than done I realize. But if I remember 60% of the time, I’m cool with that.
To any student reading this, be critical of what kind of ‘trying’ will serve you best and choose your own adverb–what a wonderfully agentive course that would be!
With the broadest interpretation of the phrase, happy back to school! If you feel your shoulders begin to tense, or your jaw begin to clench, try a little soft shoe tap dance and remember to let go a little…something useful is waiting to rush in.
Have a moving week,