“Atavism is a term rooted in evolutionary study, referring to instances when an organism possesses traits closer to a more remote ancestor rather than its own parents,” Merriam-Webster explains. “That sense dates to the early part of the nineteenth century.”
Someone once said that dance is our most atavistic artistic expression. We all want to do it. We are shy about dancing in public for fear of judgment. We all do it when alone.
But the drums of Africa, and those of the Celts, the Scots, the Inuits, the Iroquois Federation, Charlie Watts, Buddy Rich, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Grohl reach deep.
After a few drinks, or whatever, screw it! It’s a fascinatin’ rhythm, and cannot be denied.
For this girl, sturdy ramparts were erected by near ancestors to fight the rhythm. The method floated most often was the phrase, “That’s not lady-like.” At five, I had no idea what the hell that meant.
My teenage cousin squealed in the dark, and clutched her knees to her chest as she rocked on her bum on the carpet in her parents’ living room while the entire family watched, mouths agape, staring at Elvis Presley gyrate those hips in black and white right there on the Ed Sullivan Show. Lois was lost in a paroxysm of something I would not truly understand for many seasons. I was beginning to get the gist of it, however. Auntie Beatrice’s scowl and beady eyes told me that whatever Lois was doing, it was not ladylike. How interesting, I thought. Make a note.
The urge to move is primal. I marveled when a pediatrician pointed out that my two-month-old daughter was trying to sit up (that’s what all that fist-shaking and kicking is about). A horse won’t rear if you keep it going forward. An eggshell cracks because the chick inside beats on it.
We allow the toddler to toddle and crawl and climb and scoot (try and stop ’em!) but in good time we begin to systemize movement. Get in line! Walk quietly in the hallway! Stay in your seat! Keep your hands to yourself! No running!
It’s no wonder that free speech isn’t enough. If it were, songs like “Born to Be Wild” would never have attained anthem status. We are born to feel free, feel our bodies move, and to enjoy it.
Dancers know this. For the rest of us, fitness — the connection of body to impulse, against gravity, smoothly moving organs and limbs — is a concept so often out of reach. We’ve been organized right out of it. We traded our birthright for a stamp of approval.
And now we are fat and soft and dyspeptic. We have forgotten that “Our biological rhythms are the symphony of the cosmos, music embedded deep within us to which we dance, even when we can’t name the tune,” quoth Deepak Chopra. Are these prompts for fitness for those of us who dislike gym smells and all that jiggling when running in public? Maybe so.
I am both fascinated by dancers, and self-conscious in their presence. When I spoke with professional dancers and choreographers Cori Marquis and Deborah Lohse of LMNO3, a dance company they formed with Donnell Oakley, they assured me that my reaction was common. Traditionally, what is on stage does not represent our reality. We don’t see ourselves up there.
That is true. Dancers are thin, limber, beautiful and able to do crazy leg lifts. We are not. I am not. We are tight on the dance floor, sober eyes glancing nervously this way and that, no matter how often the DJ spins Uptown Funk. But LMNO3 hope to open up the matter to a frank and refreshing point of view.
“One of our pieces of choreography prominently features snacking,” Deborah says.
“One stipulation,” says Cori, “is that all the snacks must be beige. Pizza. A fried chicken wing. A doughnut.”
“If we are going to be honest and transparent, I am snacking right now,” confesses Deborah.
I am relaxing already.
Neither woman is comfortable signing on to my assertion that dancers are born that way. Born to glide and leap, in sync with music, beautifully. Both assert that anyone can dance.
“Well, yes,” I reply. “But who wants to watch?”
Both assure me that, again, my prejudices are rooted in fears that hail from the Fifties, from whence I came.
“People want to see people living in the world,” Cori states. “More and more companies feature dancers that are inclusive.”
Surely some measure of physical preparation comes along with that. And yes, it does. But happily so, and not so as to adhere to some image of an ideal.
LMNO3 creates contemporary, eccentric, lively, surprising, innovative work. Cori, Deborah, and Donnell, possess a deep respect for the human condition and are inspired to honor it in their work.
“The physical stuff allows us to express ourselves as storytellers,” says Cori.
“We choose to come from an abundance mentality,” says Deborah. “What we do is not like the all-or-nothing focus one encounters at conservatories.”
How does fitness fit in? Cori’s week involves dance class (contemporary, modern, ballet, alternatively) yoga and Pilates. For Deborah, it’s ballet class, elliptical, yoga and rock climbing.
“Yes. It’s a full body workout,” says Deborah.
How fortuitous. LMNO3 comes upstate to workshop new pieces. They give us dance, and we provide the rocks.
The women work with a variety of communities, including people with special needs.
Deborah maintains a relationship with New York City Ballet as a teaching artist. She works in the New York City schools nurturing participants interested in the process of creating choreography, and in the history and life at The New York City Ballet.
When they leave New York City to workshop new pieces, they come to The Lumberyard in Catskill. It’s new. The grand opening was in late 2018.
The Lumberyard aspires to service the film and television industry as well as dance. It has a qualified sound stage and lots and lots of space. At present, its Young Performers Program offers outreach to middle schoolers who wish to learn stagecraft and dance. Also, it sponsors a program for incarcerated youth called Fresh Start.
At the grand opening, Savion Glover performed for the incarcerated youth. His performance was stunning. Mere words were inadequate to describe the reaction of the inmates.
The Lumberyard also offers very important residency programs that afford artists living quarters, technical support, and space in which to develop new work. The Lumberyard presents complete new work to the public. This allows the creators to work out the rough edges before mounting the work in larger, more competitive metropolitan arenas.
In addition to the very serious mission of growing art in a world growing less hospitable to it, The Lumberyard offers itself for more quotidian purposes, like as a wedding venue. I see this as full circle. What is a wedding (after the preacher or rabbi finishes that gig) but an occasion to celebrate life? “L’chaim,” sings Tevya. And what is dance but a celebration of the art that mirrors the life that wants to burst out of all of us, free style or waltz, jitterbug or boogalo, hiphop or pas de bouree, tango or tap. Be honest now.
You got the feelin’ as sure as you’re born. Git up. Get on up.