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Emily Johnson
Photo by Cameron Wittig Emily Johnson, Choreographer

Call & Response + On Dance & Performance
Spandex and Basketballs

July-August, 2008

Since February of 1995, I have rehearsed, studied, created, produced, thought, written or talked about dance every single day (often for many hours). You could say that it consumes me—or that I'm obsessed.
But it wasn't always like this. Sports was what got me when I was younger, specifically, basketball and cross-country running. My dad nailed a hoop to a tree in our yard. My court was the lawn and I used baking flour to mark out the lines of the court.

I grew up in a small town in a high school with about 400 students. If you had enough time to get your school work done, you could be on the basketball team and on the dance team. Yes, the dance team. We weren't cheerleaders, we choreographed and danced in half-time shows forthe boys' basketball and football teams, as well as on auditorium stages at other schools in our area. My senior year, I was 'team captain,' which meant that I called out cues with a whistle. We marched in time with my whistle, onto the field or into the gym, and took our places. Mostly, we danced in unison to very strict canons or to popular music with strong beats. Our audiences were huge. Regional high school dance teams would share an evening, bringing parents, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. We performed funky, spandex-clad dances, country line dances and lyrical, narrative ballads, and my favorite was an epic dance we did to "Bohemian Rhapsody." I loved Queen.

Though I spent a considerable amount of time doing it, I didn't take dance too seriously then. In my heart of hearts, I was a point guard. Basketball was more immediate: if you're good, you win. And though I
enjoyed dancing, I don't think I was very good at it. Dance team should have been the end of my dancing career. I had a passion for physical activity, but dancing and sports were kind of the same to me.

When I got to college, I wasn't good enough to play basketball, except in a little pickup league, so I took a beginning ballet class because I thought it would make my legs look good. I had never put on a pair of ballet slippers before. Right away, I saw that even in the beginning class, there was a code. A French code that everyone else in the class seemed to know. The instructor would make small actions with her hands, beating her fingers together in rhythm and switching her hands back and forth. The other students translated those little hand actions to their feet. I had no idea what was going on. One day, during an exercise at the handrail used during warm up, called the barre, the instructor came up to me and felt my upper thigh. She looked at me, horrified, and said, "You're not even engaging your muscles." I bought a book of ballet terms. I practiced pliés in my dorm room. I still wanted to have good-looking legs.

It was by accident that I got into a dance class I could handle. I had to convince teacher to let me join. The quarter had already begun and I had dropped a crowded and miserable math class. I needed to make up the credits so I could still be a full-time student. The only interesting class I could find, that was not full, was a beginning modern dance class. We had class in a gym. It was almost familiar.

I can't say that it was a magical experience, in fact, it was quite awkward. I couldn't bend my knees without sticking my butt out and my feet didn't know how to point. One day, I wore a baseball cap to class and the instructor came over to me and eased it off of my head. Despite feeling out of place, I loved the physical action, challenge and accompanying exhilaration of sore muscles and slight vertigo. It probably could have ended there, a brief college foray into learning to dance; becoming a little more comfortable "in my body." But, as often happens, life stepped in, or in this case, death.

My friend died. I was stunned and devastated. I remembered my friend staying up late to study. She was a very good student, and especially brilliant at math. She was a good teacher and helped me out sometimes. She studied hard, but then she died. I didn't see any reason to stay in school, far from my family. I almost quit.

My mom flew in from Alaska to help, and I stopped going to all of my classes. I didn't see the point. One day, I sat on my bed and looked at the clock. I remember thinking that if I left right then, I could make it across campus to my beginning modern dance class. For some reason, I went. It's not like it was a revolutionary experience, not that day. But from then on, I made it to my dance class. I just made myself get up and go. It started to make sense, this dancing stuff. I started to connect meaning to action. I started to see the beautiful ways other people moved. I started to appreciate the intelligence of my body—how I could learn to relax certain muscles, how I could throw my energy across a room. I started to see other peoples' ideas move from their minds out through their limbs and torsos, and during class I started to see the near misses that beginners make and the arrangements of patterns accidentally formed during walking improvisations as content. I started to appreciate my dance class as something more than an exercise to achieve nice legs.

Then, catharsis. I mean literal, life changing, purging catharsis.

You know the kind of release that happens after an intense emotional experience; the kind that makes you take a deep breath and arch your head up to the sky? The kind that brings you to kneel deeply to the ground in reverence? The kind that makes you throw your arms up in the air with a "YEAH!" when your little cousin scores a goal in his hockey game? These honest, immediate physical actions are the guts of
dancing. When I danced and felt my sadness move out of me, pull like threads from my body and disperse into the air like millions of particles of dust, I knew I would be forever grounded in the act of dancing and making dances. This was early spring, 1995.

Now I call myself a dancer and a choreographer, and I believe in the actual power of dance. My little hip shakes on the football field didn't do much for this world, but they, in a way, led me to my college ballet class, which led me to my college modern dance class, which leads me to now: a little more than 13 years of dance-type activity every day. Some days it is mundane and some days I am disheartened and bored, both in the process of making and watching dance. But because I had this experience in 1995, I know what is possible. I empathize with bodies as I watch performance, and relate to bodies as I perform.

I suspect that the first dance steps or gestures were done because someone somewhere could not contain their happiness, or pride, or gratitude, or joy, or sorrow or anger without moving, without releasing some of the energy or spirit that would inevitably release adrenal secretions through their body. A simple step or a complicated one, it's all dancing. And the thing that makes you throw your head and arms up to the sky in ecstasy or bend them down to the ground at times of sorrow is the same thing that can connect you to another human being. And this is the same thing that can connect you to what someone else makes and presents as dance.

It can be this simple.

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