Saturday, November 12, 2011

What is Self-Expression?

I have been chewing over a conversation I had with a friend of mine for a couple of years. We were talking about our daughters' dance experiences. Her daughter was learning modern dance, and mine was learning classical ballet. She spoke rhapsodicaly about Alexa, her daughter's dance teacher, who rarely had dance concerts but worked on bringing out the movement artistry in her students, having them learn how to create their own artistry and expression through their bodies.

"Ballet is so much about, you know, the makeup and the costumes, and a particular way to hold your body. But Alexa is a real artist."


I was troubled by this for a long time. Where does personal expression come in when you only repeat the steps of a centuries-old dance? Where, for that matter, does it come in when you are learning to play the violin, so that you can merely repeat the music Bach or Mozart or Beethoven created? That was their self-expression. Where is mine?

I'll tell you why I think my friend had only half the story. Ballet is the result of centuries of the human's desire for the beauty of movement of the body. The turn-out of the foot is not required of modern dance, but in ballet it is critical. So a dancer is not just following rules. She is mastering something that has the history of movement in its steps, it's leaps, its expression, its interpretation of music.

Why is it beautiful to dance up on your toes? Well, not all of us find it to be beautiful. I would not denigrate the feelings of those who are not attracted to it. I am; I find it awe-inspiring. I had thought for years that dancers went up on their toes because of the beauty of the line of leg and foot, but just recently a dancer told me that its more than that. A dancer suffers through the pain of being en pointe because of the freedom of movement it gives her. It has, very simply, less friction. You can fly en pointe where you cannot on demi-pointe.

So is self-expression real only when it comes directly from the mind and the body of the artist? Is it possible to express oneself through music or dance when it is not of your creation? A beautifully-executed pirouette is much the same from dancer to dancer. But each dancer who performs it is doing something beautiful. It's worth doing them over and over and over until you don't wobble and fall or end with your feet in the wrong place, because when it's done right, the dancer feels beautiful. But has she expressed herself? Or simply imitated others?

Does a musician have to be a composer in order to be an artist? Does he have to interpret Beethoven in his own way in order to be said to be expressing himself, without reference to Beethoven's intentions for the music? One would not mimic John Coltrane's solos and be thought to be a jazz artist; when you play Night in Tunisia, your solo is your own. So is an artist more able to express herself playing be-bop than playing second trombone in an orchestra?

These are deep questions and it is not my intent here to answer them. In fact, the answer can be summed up with, "You know, whatever floats your boat is OK with me."

Don't discount the merits of the self-expression that comes from an art form that has taken centuries to create, and represents the cumulative artistry of thousands of people, countries, cultures. It is self-expression. It has taken an individual's dedication, work, pain and love to create, add to it one's own heart and love, and is moved on to the next person, and to the artists of the future.


  1. I'd be interested in knowing how you reconcile the - what appear to me to be - contrary notions of pursuing a passion to the exclusion of all else and the need for basic skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic. I'd also like to read what you think about young people who have no passion for much of anything. And finally, about those who believe that their self-expression permits no limitation (such as grammar) and is valuable simply because it's theirs.

  2. First of all, people constantly ask me about kids "pursuing passion to the exclusion of all else" but this misses the fine point of what I'm saying. In my piece about Bowen, I talk about establishing a system of mutual respect and trust. Once trust has been established, students will be much more willing to learn what adults think is important, but by that time, they'll be learners, and will pursue a course of learning that is most beneficial to them and their lives, who they are. I have never ever mastered the times tables and all math I've learned flies out the window when I'm at my craft-show booth trying to work out Maine's 5% tax (easy, right?)

    And yet when I did Marat/Sade in college, I would have studied everything you handed me about the French Revolution, because I was ignited, energized by the play. If it had been Breaking the Code, about Alan Turing, I would probably have had the drive to learn about code-breaking! That is my passion, and my entry-point for learning.

    What you ask about kids who don't have a passion is interesting and fair. I have several friends whose kids fall into that category. In another previous post, I talk about passion as a process, not a thing. It is the culture of paying attention to who kids are. Kids don't have to have a passion -- teachers have to simply let them know that who they are is important. Again, establishing respect and trust goes a long way.

    There is passion, and there is enjoyment. A kid with no passion certainly has stuff he enjoys. Working with other kids, maybe, or reading by himself? Learning and respecting enjoyment, passion, identity, is part of the process of establishing respect and trust.

    As to your last point, I don't really see that as a pervasive problem. Look at Ntozake Shange of the non-capitalization and writing in dialect -- doesn't eliminate its artistry. I'm sure Shange knows perfectly well how to write in correct English, but she's breaking the rules, just as e.e. cummings did. Perhaps the person who writes w/o grammar and spelling is trying to do/say something? Self-expression is self-expression and the rejection of it is the rejection of the student as an individual. If they are driven to do a certain kind of art and it doesn't jibe with the prevailing sense of what is "right" or "proper," then I say, that's as good a reason as any to keep doing it. ("Outsider art", remember?)

    And if a child wants to write poetry before he or she has mastered grammar and punctuation, that is not a reason for a teacher to reject what the student has created. Maybe teaching is the process of learning? Because that child is writing poetry in bad form does not mean that he or she will never learn good grammar. In fact, the having an interest in poetry means the student is that much more likely to develop an interest in grammar.

    Respect and trust is my point. Begin there and you have something to work with.

  3. Something else just occurred to me -- when I did Marat/Sade at Orono, the music was composed by music professor Don Stratton. I had been a music student but changed to drama, and played the violin in the small on-stage ensemble. At that time, if Don had done a seminar in composition, analyzing the music he had written for the show, it is very likely that I would have learned more about composition than when I'd been a music student. Ignition is a powerful thing.

  4. I agree with you about trust, but don't believe that a student trusting a teacher (and vice versa) necessarily leads to anything beyond the norm. I believe you are extrapolating your own personal, and your own kids', experiences beyond their logical boundaries.

    Public school teachers hope for good things to happen in classrooms, and work to make that to happen as best they can, but kids spend 17 hours on weekdays/24 hours on weekends away from school about ten months out of the year. No matter how much a student trusts me, s/he is still subject to many forces and influences that have nothing to do with me as a teacher.

  5. All kids are passionate about something, you are just not privy to it. As a matter of fact, there is an elementary law in physics that says school teachers are the last people to share your true passions with.

    School teacher seems to have a foundation of innate mistrust of kids and their passions. Which explains why she said Lisa's personal experience with her kids is beyond logical boundaries.

  6. Ballet is expressive, and modern dance often follows forms. (Black clothes, bare feet, depressing music, and so on). There is more than one way to get there, but it is critical that kids learn to spell, edit, and write properly. If kids (or adults) want to throw out the form, fine, but they have to know what they are doing or else they are just plain ignorant. Luckily, most kids can figure it out with a little help, and a lot of reading.

  7. Beautifully written