Intrigued by the opportunity to learn a new dance language (Gaga), I braved the heat last Saturday and took the subway and a bus to Parkdale Library. Just before two o’clock, three volunteers in Luminato festival T-shirts guarded the staircase leading to the program room below and checked off names from a list of 60 registered participants.
This was a very special program, for members of the renowned Batsheva Dance Company were coming all the way from Israel to share the Gaga technique with Toronto. I felt privileged to be on the list, and I seriously heeded the warning in the “What’s On at the Library” brochure that latecomers would not be admitted.
After my name was ticked and my wrist stamped, I went down to the program room. Grooved wooden dividers had been pushed back to create the largest possible amount of space. From the maps and educational posters on the wall, I guessed that the space was usually devoted to homework clubs and other less zany pursuits than Gaga dance.
Due to some problems with traffic, the Gaga dancers were about ten minutes late. This gave me plenty of time to observe my fellow participants. Eagerly gathered for guided movement, most of us lined the edges of the room, but four movers put themselves out on the floor. One made a starfish shape, sprawling comfortably in lavender socks, her form not confined by the large white square tiles of the floor. Another person executed a series of energetic stretches while a nearby lady rolled from side to side on her back. A middle-aged man in shorts walked slowly across the room in a straight line, rising up on his toes at regular intervals.
I appreciated the diversity of age, gender, ethnicity, dance ability, hipster status, and body size in the group. As a tall 43-year-old woman with some robust heft to her, I was initially worried that I’d be an elephant among dancing gazelles. I had even considered bailing out earlier in the day, but I am so glad I didn’t!
Among the gathering, I noticed a lot of Lululemon clothing and yoga-straight backs, feather earrings and scarf-blouses, gym bags and marathon souvenir T-shirts. Also present were jeans and ballet slippers, water bottles and bike helmets, rainbow socks and pedicured toes.
It seems that if you leave dancers in a room with nothing to do, they will automatically start stretching. They will twirl their ankles, perform unbidden leg-lifts, and engage in hip and shoulder stretches. Some made expansive limb movements, swinging their arms and legs like elegant pendulums. Unsure as to what might be required of them in the next hour, they decided to prepare all parts of their bodies for possible engagement. Accepting their wisdom, I sat on the floor and stretched forward, wishing I could touch my forehead to my knees like the guy next to me.
Some of the limber folks in attendance had come on their own like me, but others had arrived in pre-formed social clumps. They chattered easily about experimental theatre, Phillip Glass, and Rufus Wainwright. A young guy with long hair tied up in a bun told his friends that he had been a rock climber before he was a dancer. It was also cool to see the participants who seemed to have taken a risk to be there, the ones who looked a little awkward and possessed no dance-specific accessories.
When Rachael Osborne, our dance facilitator arrived at 2:10 p.m., she asked us if this was the class for dancers or non-dancers. Somebody assured her it was for the latter, and she laughed and said, “But I see a lot of dancers here!”
I liked how Rachael launched right into the program without preliminary talk. She invited us to spread throughout the room and begin to sense the way that gravity was affecting our bodies. She encouraged us to increase our awareness of how our bodies exist in space, the distance between our arms, the temperature of the air on our skin, how our clothes feel where they touch us, the way our bones stack upon each other, and the feeling of our flesh both outside and in.
“Think about the inside our your bodies. We often don’t know what’s going on in there. Imagine channels and highways flowing throughout you, sending important information. Picture the energy, heat, and juices flowing through these channels. Keep these highways open.” Later, she also exhorted, “Keep the box of your chest open so that it’s no longer a separate ribcage box disconnected from the surrounding flesh.”
As a group, we experimented with the sensation of our flesh and bones floating in water and then in the thicker liquid atmosphere of honey. “Don’t be a victim of gravity. It ages us.” We followed Rachael’s example as she demonstrated port de bras. I loved it when she asked us to imagine our entire outstretched wingspan as being one long rope, not two separate right/left binary limbs.
“Your spine, let it flow like seaweed. We also call it the ‘snake of the spine’ in Gaga.” Rachael reminded us that our neck is an extension of our spine and that our head is also composed of flesh and goo. (My inner Midwestern Puritan grew a little squeamish at the juicy way she kept repeating the word flesh).
As the hour flew by, we pulled the rope of our arms across the spine, articulated our shoulders and arms with palms up and palms down, challenged our hips with figure eights, walked with a groove, and cultivated a quake in our pelvises that translated into full body quakes. The quake that begin in the core quickly began to shake legs, torsos, shoulders, arms, hands, and heads.
Sixty people grooving and quaking around the room is a wonderful sight, and I’m so grateful I got to be part of it. Thank you Rachael, Parkdale Library, and Luminato for this revelatory experience!