The current season of So You Think You Can Dance is airing on television in Australia. It’s the home-grown version, not the US version telecast. I’m fascinated with the performance and artistry of physical movement that can be graceful, violent, articulate, mechanical, whimsical and profoundly intellectual.
I have two daughters who are enamoured with dance as a performing art, and my wife danced when she was younger. Many years ago, she stood in front of me, feet planted flat on the ground and proceeded to kick cleanly over my head. I’m approaching six feet tall and my wife is somewhat shorter. I vowed never to get on her bad side after that.
As a writer and creative type person I look for inspiration from a variety of sources. After watching a couple of episodes I saw parallels for writers.
1. Style in dance is genre in literature
The beginning of the series divided the dancers into their preferred style: ballet, jazz, contemporary and urban. They learned choreography in their style by an expert in the field. The dancers knew the talent and reputation of their teacher and sought to excel in the choreography they were taught.
For a writer the equivalent is immersing yourself in your preferred genre: literary, science fiction, western, romance, horror, speculative fiction, gothic. Learn from the masters of your field; absorb the lessons by reading and deconstructing their work.
2. Adaptability is essential (but know your strengths)
To whittle down the contestants, the dancers were then asked to perform in a style they were unfamiliar with. Ballet dancers had to learn an urban performance; jazz dancers had to learn a contemporary routine.
Some dancers adapted quickly to the new movements and techniques; others struggled. Yet they persevered. The results varied for each dancer; some excelled while others maintained a form of equilibrium, enough to get by but not enough to stand out from the pack.
As a writer, know your form, your technique, your movements. Then learn from another style. Adapt. But know your strengths. Learning from other genres will enhance your own writing and may even separate you from the pack and put you in front of it.
3. Discipline is Key
Part of the reality tv schtick is to give the viewer some background on individuals of note. The focus is on those who are endeavouring to succeed, but ultimately are shown their skills are wanting, and on those dancers who excel in their gifting.
And it is in these gifted individuals that you see due diligence and discipline in their practice and an innate sense of understanding about their chosen art form.
For a writer, as it is for a dancer, it is practice, practice, practice. I firmly suspect that practice for a writer and a dancer is two-fold: maintenance and improvement.
Practice for maintenance keeps you writing stories and producing work.
Practice for improvement means you’re seeking feedback on your work or taking classes, attending forums and conferences, to seek to understand your art form better and to produce better work.
4. Movement and rhythm is both graceful and violent
Every dance style has its form, repertoire, vocabulary and structure. Its manifestation in movement and rhythm is both graceful and violent. I don’t mean violence in an aggressive, physical act but the ability to portray emotion through face, body, limbs and the overall form of the dancer.
Vocabulary for the writer is the raw material to capture the emotion of the scene and engage the reader with its visceral description of beauty or horror.
A colleague described the language of “Lolita” as exquisitely beautiful while the content became darker and offensive.
Learn to utilise the movement and rhythm of language to create grace and violence.
5. Stories are interpreted through different forms
Ask a ballet dancer, a jazz dancer, a contemporary dancer and an urban dancer to perform a love story and the interpretation will vary, based on the lexicon of the specific dance style. I love contemporary dancing for its narrative capabilities, but what can I learn from the narrative in ballet? Or jazz? Or urban?
Learn to tell stories in a different form. Learn to tell a narrative from another angle.
6. Show your work, and know when to hide it
The show is built around showing the progression and development of each dancer as they learn new routines, often in styles they are not conversant with. I like seeing the growth of the dancer as artist when they are open to learning, stepping into an arena they are unfamiliar with and untrained in. Yet the psychology of dance, the mental framework of adaptability and learning allows them to rise above it.
As the viewer, I get to see the falls and stacks during rehearsal, and so appreciate the performance knowing the effort they have sustained to make it look effortless.
Sometimes as writers we are too quick to show off a new piece of work, not allowing it to settle before another round of edits or sent to a trusted beta reader.
Snippets on blogs is a good way of keeping readers hooked prior to a new release, or showing them works in progress. Know when to show your working; make it shiny and new and fresh and of a high standard.
Don’t rush it.
Now if you’ll excuse me I hear a lively tune; I’m inspired to dance.