Thursday, April 18, 2024

WORD VIEW: The dance of life

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Dance is a song of the body. Either joy or pain. – Martha Graham.
Finely drawn limbs the colour of night,/ of Foreday Morning. Some song pours/ through her, every movement a dance/ only her body remembers./ Perhaps she caught some chords/ deep in her belly long ago:/ her first lover? Some siren-spirit/ from staring too long at the sea?
Some days her scarves, head-ties/ are almost matching, as if her music/ sleeps awhile; as if she moves,/ however slowly, back to a world/ where colour, shape and light/ coordinate./ But then it comes, her eyes turn/ inward, her body once again attentive/ to a rhythm honed in unknown places.
She journeys in half-light, basket on arm,/ to byways and hedges seared by drought./ There she seeks the lost, the abandoned:/ fragments crusted in mud, stained/ by mildew, twisted, cracked and torn.
Let her be; she gathers our discarded lives/ grief-tainted, grace-outworn.
Meanwhile some song pours through her,/ every movement a dance only/her body remembers.
A woman I see at times along the South Coast inspired the poem above. She is clearly of unsound mind, or what we commonly and so dismissively refer to as a “madwoman”.
It is the way she walks that first caught my eye. Not the uncoordinated movements we may expect, but a certain grace, a slight dance in the step as if moving to some song that only she can hear.
Martha Graham (1894-1991) was the famous American dancer credited with having ushered in the new era of modern dance. In her essay Athlete Of God, she says: “I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living.
“The instrument through which the dance speaks is also the instrument through which life is lived: the human body.
“It is the instrument by which all the primaries of experience are made manifest. It holds in its memory all matters of life and death and love.” – Wikipedia
I never see the “dancer” to whom I refer above without wondering about the circumstances of her life. What is her story? I did get close enough to her on one occasion but thought better of attempting any conversation. I wasn’t sure that she would be coherent. What would I say to her anyway? To tell the truth, I was afraid of what her reaction might be.
The link between women and insanity is a recurring theme in literature and is perhaps a reality that is as old as life itself. Some individuals may be genetically prone to mental illness and I am informed that certain kinds of brain injury and medications can induce mental illness.
But I think that women by nature, socialization and other factors may more easily become victims. Monthly mood swings, post-partum depression, domestic violence, failure in love and family relationships, loneliness, financial struggles and poverty are some of the factors that drive some women over the thin line.  
Perhaps there are a few things in the poem above that we may learn. While the woman in the poem may not be fully conscious of her song, we who are may choose to sing through some of our greatest hardships as many of our older womenfolk did. It has been proved that singing and laughing actually change body chemistry for the better.
In her sane moments, this woman tries to bring some beauty into her life. We can do the same, however simple our efforts, even if it’s just a few marigolds planted in the backyard.
The third and fourth stanzas contain very subtle suggestions of the woman’s saintliness. She attempts to create something out of the lives we have so carelessly thrown away; lives tainted by grief and lacking in grace. She is not deserving of our scorn or contempt.
The question of choice suggests that much of the choreography of our lives is left up to us.
Martha Graham makes a telling point: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
“And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
When all is said and done, I think it is for us to discover our passion and purpose, and to dance the best dance we can.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.

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