24 January 2008

Shut your eyes

It was an exercise.

Mrs. C. flipped off the lamps and we all lay down on the studio's cold varnished wood floor dim in the late afternoon half light filtering in from the windows in the roof.

"Close your eyes," she told us and for the next hour and a half, we moved all the major muscle groups, blind.

Without visual stimuli, everything became more acute. Every cough and strained breath, the fact that my quads really hurt when I lifted my leg from the floor and that my toes cracked when I pointed them, the smell of the rosin the gymnasts were using in the main part of the gym.

Next class, we took our places, center floor, standing, and she turned off the lights, and told us, "Close your eyes."

It is one thing to lie on the floor and work through a series of stretches. It is something altogether different to move through space unable to see the 11 other people who are in the room with you--none of whom can see you.

Everything feels different, sounds different, when you can suddenly see nothing.

I remember reading an article some years ago about a blind man who had surgery that restored his vision. He referred to himself as a "blind man with vision," the paradox being that his vision may have been restored, but his brain couldn't process what he was seeing. My brain scrambled to make sense of movement without vision.

I have strong visual and aural memory, both of which helped me to learn dances. In the studio, we danced in front of mirrors, which allowed us to correct a line, straighten a leg. It was important to feel those adjustments, too, because once we got on stage, there were only seats in front of us. Nonetheless, I could see if I needed to lift my wrist, or if a kick was too high or too low. Sometimes when we were working through choreography, we'd dance solely to beats, without music, which forces you to learn timing as opposed to taking cues from what notes you're hearing. I've danced to poetry and to stories also, and you cue off words, which is different from music. But take sight out of the equation and you feel your body differently. You feel air, and the way you move through it differently. Space, while always part of the movement equation, seems more expansive--almost frighteningly so--when you can't see what else is occupying it. You hear music differently, and there are nuances that are less evident when other stimuli is occupying your brain. I learned that dancing in the dark allowed me to refocus, to better understand how my body knew space, once I got past the fear of being in such an alien place.

I learned to choreograph with my eyes closed, too. Each individual instrument in a piece of music becomes so much clearer when you're not distracted by another sense, and as I picked apart rhythm and melody in my brain, a cello here or a bass line there, movement would become clear in my mind's eye.

I still have a tendency to listen to music with my eyes closed, in part because I like being able to focus intensely on what I'm hearing. I wonder if I listen too intensely at times because I've awakened some mornings with a fully formed piece of a song playing loudly through my brain. Then, too, the son once accused me of being asleep during a performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but in truth, I was all ears. And only ears. And I wandered through the kitchen for days afterward, singing in German.

Go listen to some good music: "Shut Your Eyes" from the album Eyes Open by Snow Patrol.

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