I’ve never had that nightmare where I’m standing on stage naked, paralyzed in the footlights and the audience’s howling laughter. I was born and eventually bred to be a performer, and a big, open stage has always felt like home. But I wasn’t brought up to improvise. I was brought up to plan, to weigh everything from my produce to my decisions carefully. Whether it was in dance class or in algebra, I was taught to follow the steps very, very closely. No one ever suggested that I play with them, or God forbid, make them up completely as I went along.
And yet, here I am. Again. Standing naked in front of an audience, but with all my clothes on.
“Can we do something in 7?” I ask Kevin, with an uncertain smile. He throws his head back, slaps the battered but reliable piano cover he’s just opened, and pirouettes to face his bandmates. “I love this girl,” he laughs. Unusual time signatures, I know, are his trademark, a playful but serious challenge he makes to himself and the musicians in his trio. Almost all arrangements in 7/8, 5/4, sometimes even 3/4 are hard to play, hard to follow, and even harder to improvise in. They’re like shooting baskets with one hand behind your back, or attending mass in Latin. This is why so many jazz musicians choose them, and why so many tap dancers avoid them. It’s also why I’ve grown to love them, even if I haven’t come to fully understand them yet.
“`Summertime’,” I say to the band, half suggestion, half directive. It’s one of my tunes, although other tap dancers have started trying to claim it for themselves lately. “I make you no promises,” I warn Kevin and the others, equal parts light-hearted and serious. “I might get lost.”
I might get lost. I might fall down. I might make a mess.
“I’ll bring you in,” I call over my shoulder. I set the tempo, and after dancing an 8 bar intro, I signal the band with a nod of my head and a couple of riffs in the direction of the piano, which Kevin has knowingly pivoted to face the dance floor. He’s already smiling his kid-at-the-beach grin and his eyes are locked on the rhythmic ideas that are inside me, somewhere beyond my face, beyond my feet, beyond words. Jorge is perched on his cajón, leaning forward like he’s waiting for a race to begin, but drumming sparingly so that his rhythms leave enough space to complement mine. The bass player is new to me. His back is nearly touching the wall of this storefront music venue so that I can hardly see him, but I can hear that he’s taking it all in and holding it all down.
The first chorus feels like flight. I start grounded, sure of my footing and friendly with the gravity that’s keeping me here. And then someone or something removes the blocks under the wheels and pulls back on the yoke, and I’m lifted off the wood floor, first slowly and then all at once. As the four of us go higher, the sounds of the crowd on the ground get farther and farther away, and then they’re gone. And it’s just us, riding the velocity of this insistent groove that propels us forward because of the missing eighth beat in every measure. Kevin’s massaging the keys and inviting me in to the roomy melody; I’m accepting with a metallic trill from my toe taps and then making overtures of my own with a deep heel flam. Jorge follows us, repeating my phrases in the low, wooden register of his cajón. The bass’s steady groove ties us all together like a set of sturdy leather straps. It’s like we’re inside each other’s heads. And we keep climbing.
And then I lose it. I lose the 1. I won’t be able to shape the piece at all if I can’t find it, won’t know when to change the tempo, how to trade bars with Jorge, even when to end. I’ll be left behind in mid-air, choking in the musicians’ exhaust. That is, if I don’t send them spiraling down to earth prematurely. I’ve lost the downbeat. And found the mess.
The old me would have panicked, would have gasped and flailed in a blur of arms and legs and metal and sixteenth notes, waiting for the oxygen mask and the rescue crew. But instead I slow down my steps to listen, and then I grapevine my way over to Kevin, “I’m lost. Can we go into 4?” I whisper. 4/4 time is Western musicians’ universal home base. With no hint of disappointment, Kevin holds up four fingers to the other musicians, and at the top of the next phrase, we’re back together, seamlessly. We haven’t gained any altitude, but we haven’t lost any either.
The new time signature turns out to be an opening. Kevin starts to improvise a gorgeous, almost pop melody that feels like it was inside me all along, not in my head, but in that deep part of my chest where the beat lives. We’ve found our target altitude, and we cruise. The mess, it turns out, was the most necessary part of the piece.
My whole body is hypnotized by the melody and is dancing its bidding. My feet start moving in ways I didn’t know were possible. Steps I’ve drilled unsuccessfully in the studio for hours suddenly trip off my toes with no effort at all. My normally stubborn left foot does a wing it’s never been able to do before. Technique has become an indispensible tool for a higher purpose. My brain doesn’t feel a part of the equation at all. I’m not thinking about riffs or rhythms, about masterpieces or messes. I’m not thinking at all. In this moment, I am most and least in control, most unaware of the world around me and most connected to it.
When I’ve finished, I notice some of the other dancers smiling to themselves, remembering their own moments of connection, shaking their heads from side to side in the way that usually means “no” but sometimes means “I know.” Some of my students glance sideways at me, searching my face and my feet for clues. I want to reach over and hand them the keys, but I don’t know how, don’t have anything else to give them beyond what I’ve just put on the floor.
In the weeks and months that follow, this desire returns to me again and again as I work with students, the ones to whom I teach dance and the ones I mentor as researchers in my not-so-secret double life. And then one night, I’m perusing TED talks online, those inspiring 15-minute presentations by accomplished people from every field imaginable. There I stumble upon the language I’ve been looking for, in the words of the German psychologist and one-time student of Carl Jung, Mihály Csíkszentmihalyi. I first encountered Csíkszentmihalyi’s work on creativity as an undergraduate psychology major and I was fascinated. But in the decade that has followed, my artistic and research pursuits have grown further apart. I’ve forgotten about Csíkszentmihalyi’s major contribution to psychology – the concept of “flow” – but I’ve been experiencing it.
According to the research Csíkszentmihalyi has conducted with artists, athletes, academics, and others, flow is the phenomenon of feeling singularly focused and completely immersed in an experience, to the point that the self and the rest of the world temporarily cease to exist and all that remains is the work or feat they’ve accomplished. The people he has interviewed describe remarkably similar feelings and mind states when they’re in flow, saying that the performance or the action feels like it’s happening without or even in spite of them. Athletes and dancers describe realizing only after leaving the stage or the field that they’re bleeding. Many of these people use phrases like “in the zone,” “in the groove,” or to borrow a phrase from jazz, “in the pocket.” But so many of them have used the word flow or the imagery of being carried along by a river that Csíkszentmihalyi has adopted it.
Flow was not a concept any of my teachers ever taught when I was a kid, or as far as I could tell, ever thought about. Like so many others I’ve seen around the country, my dance teachers focused, very explicitly, on control. “You must CONTROOOLLLLLL that leg,” ballet instructors would drone as we students labored at the barre, using the word as if it were the most essential quality of a dancer. Indeed, control is important, insofar as it refers to the mastery of skills and the ability to use them effectively. But it isn’t enough. As artists, or as researchers, or as any other people striving to do something meaningful, we have something higher to reach for.
When I signed up for the only tap class my college had to offer, I had a vague sense that I was looking for a more creative, more authentic experience than the ones I’d been having in my suburban dance studio, but I didn’t know what it was. I certainly didn’t expect it to involve improvisation. But I quickly discovered that I had been in a naïve love affair with an art form I didn’t really understand. My sharp-footed and even sharper-witted tap professor not only knew rhythm tap’s history, she had lived it. With her hilarious, often off-color stories, she taught me about how the old masters created and then stole one another’s steps, practicing on street corners and in the back rooms of dance halls. And with her insistence that we learn a repertoire of standard jazz tunes and improvise to them – one dancer a time, right down the line, in every class – she showed me the form’s roots, its lifeblood. I learned that early tap, like the jazz music with which it grew up, borrowed from older traditions from places like Africa and Ireland and then used improvisation to add its own ever-changing spin by ensuring that every night, every performance, every moment was different from the previous, and different from the audience’s expectations. I discovered how the dance had influenced the music. I learned, for example, that Baby Laurence (who I had never heard of) had laid claim to the invention of bebop through the rhythms he’d create on the spot with the band, and that some of the great drummers of the era, even those who could have taken sole credit like Max Roach, gladly shared that credit with him.
I tried improvising, at first because my teacher gave me no choice. And then I kept trying, because she had shown me that the art form gave me no choice. I had come to understand that improv is non-negotiable in rhythm tap. Discovering this was like finding the daredevil side of a lover that I hadn’t seen at first, a side that thrilled but terrified me, because of its capacity to highlight my own cautiousness and inadequacy. I wasn’t a terrible improviser, but I wasn’t good, either. Never a risk-taker, my improv was uninteresting and unimpressive. In the years after college, I’d show up to dance with the local tap jam’s house band once a month, with a song or two in my head, a few favorite steps in my pocket, and a wave of nausea in my stomach. I’d try to control the encounter by picking the perfect spot during the jam to solo with the musicians, late enough into the evening that I’d be warmed up, early enough that I wouldn’t have witnessed the intimidating tricks and flash moves of the guys who had been improvising, at pickup basketball games and on first dates, since they were kids. I’d stride up to the band, pretending to be self-assured, waltz through my tune with total awareness of every part of my body and every note of the music, and then shuffle away with an undefined but certain dissatisfaction. “Pretty,” the other dancers would tell me when I sat back down. Pretty is a compliment in most places, but not here, not among tap dancers, not to me.
After the fact, I would have long conversations with my mentors about these experiences. They dropped hints here and there that stuck with me like those parables from children’s stories that continue to influence you long after you’ve forgotten the details of the story. There was the hilarious but hell-bent dancer who taught me the fine art of bullshit and gave me the novel permission to “Make a mess!” while I danced with him in his studio. There was the 74-year old diva whose book told me to “Always take risks.” And there was the frequent reminder from an unlikely but simpatico collaborator, written in his email signature and down his left arm in black ink: “The only way to be different is to be yourself.” These people never described flow in words, but they did with their bodies, so clearly that even before I felt flow for myself, I could hear it, see it, almost touch it.
And one day, at a tap jam just like the dozens I’d attended before, I did touch it. After years of searching for the route, and walking alongside it, I was on it. I had lost myself in the music, and found everything.
Now when I work with my students, I stress the paradox of control. “Whether you’re doing cramp rolls or counterpoint, the only way to create what you really want is to understand what it is, work on it, and then let go of it,” I tell them. It’s not an easy lesson. And when my students stare at me with that baffled look I used to give my teachers, and they wonder aloud if they’ll ever get there, I ask myself: Is the experience of flow necessary? Yes, is my unequivocal answer. The first time I felt flow was like the day I got my first pair of glasses and suddenly realized I hadn’t been able to see.
I still get nervous almost every time I improvise in front of an audience, and in the moments before I dance, the nakedness still feels risky at best. Sometimes I even wonder in that moment, “Why do I do this every month?” But I do, and then it ends, far too quickly. Afterwards, I sit in the audience with some of my students, in my car on the way home, in my office with a graduate student the next day, and I wonder just the opposite: “Why don’t I do this every day? Why don’t we all?” But having experienced flow doesn’t guarantee it will happen again; it’s only that, when I lose myself, all the rest falls away.
Photo by ohhhbetty