I teach in a converted colonial convent that was completed in 1765. This building houses the National School of Fine Arts in San Miguel, Mexico. The dance studio has vaulted ceilings, large windows looking out into a fountain filled vast courtyard, and a forgiving silky dance floor that measures its age in centuries.
One day almost two decades ago in this majestic building a student rolled into one of the full-length mirrors and it shattered. A falling shard sliced her calf. As you can imagine this was a class stopper. The next week someone warming up in the same spot of the room tweaked his knee. A week later yet another person was injured, this time breaking a toe while simply walking across the same spot on the floor.
These three experiences so close together made me recall other incidents in this same location. In the geography of this particular studio, it appeared that this spot was NOT a good place to dance. We began to pile our backpacks and clothing in this area to keep ourselves safe.
This observation set in motion my inquiry into how geographies of dance studios and the layout of a space, both visible and invisible, support and undermine our investigation and teaching of contact improvisation.
Walking into a new dance studio I see a large space with a wide-open floor. Yet I know that every space has invisible lines of demarcation that divide the floor. These lines will help shepherd the incoming dancers to particular locations.
There are regions where people go to remain hidden, areas where they go to be seen, and places that welcome interaction with others. As noted before, some studios have specific spots where injuries are more likely to occur. Dance studios have hidden geographies that affect our work.
If there is a seating area, or windows where people can see in, there will likely be a moat right in front where fewer people dance. Next to this is often an area for the more extroverted dancers; farthest away from the viewing area will be places to be less visible, and also more intimate.
A dance studio with mirrors will have a similar psychological geography. Teachers of traditional dance forms will often place themselves in front of the mirrors (or the sound system). This becomes the “front” of the room. The skilled students gather next and the back is where you go to not be seen. To upend this layout I usually begin class by teaching from the side of the room opposite the “front”.
If there are several people watching a class and a moat begins to grow in front of them, I might ask that they space themselves around the room to lessen the feeling of dancing with spectators.
There are locations in a room where emotion can be expressed and held with greater ease and safety. This is often in the place farthest from the moat where people go to not be seen. I hold my check-in circles here to take advantage of the support that we receive from the room itself.
It is imperative for me to notice those parts of the geography where my eyes or body don’t naturally go. This way I can end up being aware of, and teach to, everyone in the room.
The geography of the dance studio is like the geography of the body; we have places we won’t look to, places to hide, and body parts that like to show off and seek our attention and the attention of others. By becoming aware of and getting into all the parts of the studio, by making it less one-sided and discovering its sphericality, our awareness can open and the same can occur in the bodies dancing in the room.