An Experience in Movement Observation

This is a short bit I wrote in 2009 about my observations of a Sunday night at Toronto's Dovercourt House. The writing was published in MergeMagazine in 2010.

The moment I walk in, I am swallowed by the mass of dancing bodies - a hundred couples, each one embracing a space in the room with fast, smooth movement patterns. I blink, and their collective motion suddenly turns sharp and percussive, dictated by a change in the music. It seems the very purpose of their dance is to churn the hot thick air inside and around them. I am in the middle of the Sunday night Salsa social at Toronto’s Dovercourt House.

After a few minutes, one particular dancer captures my attention. The riffs and accents of the music seem to pulsate directly out of his joints, particularly his hips, knees and shoulders. He shifts his weight quickly from one side of the body to another, simultaneously juggling the beats down and up his spine. From head to toes, he is playing the music with his body as if the entire salsa band is hidden inside. The movement alternates between steady weight shifts and improvised sets of fast footwork and turn patterns, all in direct connection with the sounds of the piano or the congas. At times, his very bones seem to be making the distinct “tiki tum tiki ta” of the percussion section. There is a sense of bounce in his step, as if all joints of his lower half were made of loose springs generously smothered in grease. No part of his pelvis is tense and it slides freely, like a central part of a perfectly tuned and oiled musical instrument. Suddenly, the pelvis drops down and the spine undulates, chest extends forward as the shoulders roll backwards, and finally the head cuts the stream of motion with a sharp movement forward and immediately back on top of the spine. His partner slides around him in intricate patterns of weight shifts and turns while keeping a narrow and grounded stance. Her pelvis and torso exchange rhythmic patterns like two experienced drummers; the spine spirals and undulates. Her motion flows in sync with his direction and timing. The two of them carve easily through the spaces between other couples as if through honey butter until their dance arrives at stillness as the song descends to silence.

I exit the room and move upstairs to the Tango social. As I enter another ballroom, I am in yet another world; about ten couples are moving slowly in the counter-clockwise direction on the outskirts of the dance floor. Unhurried, they take steady strides, leaders facing mostly forward and followers backwards, in the direction of circular flow. Each step seems to sink the weight of the bodies down through the floor while caressing the surface with a shuffling and pivoting action of the feet. Their relationship in the space seems balanced at all times, as if they were moving on the flat slippery surface of an iceberg top, careful not to tip it over in one direction or another. Each couple shares a point of contact: most through the front of their ribs, some cheek to forehead, and a few only through the embrace of the arms.

One couple gives the impression of having become a new species altogether, sharing a rib cage and four legs. The unity of their upper bodies remains intact, while each leg moves in a pattern of its own. Suddenly, time and space seem to sharpen in one moment, as the woman brushes her heel back and away from the floor, slicing the air like a blade, marking a quick accent in the music. Now, her leg swings forward and up, only to get caught around the hip of her partner. He shifts his pelvis directly backwards, takes a step back onto a bent leg, and the couple lunges backwards momentarily with his and her weight centred over his supporting leg. Then, without breaking the connection in the chest, they return to a shared centre on the vertical axis. He spirals his upper body slightly and gently leans forward. She responds by twisting her pelvis and pivoting her supporting foot before she extends her leg back and slowly shifts her weight. One step after the other, they start weaving figure eight patterns on the floor and merge with the collective flow of movement in the room.

Hours pass and I find myself unable to take my eyes away from this infinitely slow hurricane. It has sucked me into its center and I suspend somewhere between motion and stillness.

For more of my writing for Merge.zine, see Dance Reviews for Femmes du Feu and Alias Dance Project

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