What Do Dancers Know?

On life, movement and brain elasticity By Sheila Heti

Several years ago, I performed in a ballet. I played the part of the “non-dancer”, although I danced.

Four women danced with me - all members of The National Ballet of Canada. I loved seeing them stretching all the time, eating hummus and carrot sticks, and talking on their phones to their boyfriends, who did not dance.

Late one afternoon, two of the dancers and I were sitting on a park bench near the rehearsal hall, when we noticed two old men doing what people sometimes do when they walk toward each other on the street: they stepped toward the road, blocking each other’s path, then stepped in the other direction, then toward the road, several times, unable to get by. Finally, one of the old men took the other by the shoulders, positioned him to the right, and moved by.

Leslie, one of the dancers, watching it, said, “That has never happened to me - never - that sidewalk dance.”

What?” I had thought it was a universal human experience, but the other dancer, Agata, agreed with Leslie.

“That has never happened to me, either. How does it happen?”

“What do you mean, how does it happen?” I said. “How does it not happen?”

Leslie shrugged. “Maybe I always know exactly where I’m headed, and it’s really clear to other people on the street where I’m headed.”

Agata confirmed: “When you’re dancing across a stage, the most important thing is that you see the spot you’re dancing toward, and you move toward it with clarity, so everyone can tell where you’re going.”

This made sense to me. If a dancer doesn’t move across the stage with true intention - with so much purpose and certainty that it communicates to all the other dancers, “This is where I’m going,” you would always see dancers knocking into each other in a dance performance. That skill - of knowing (and so communicating) exactly where you’re going, and so getting there - this was a skill that dancers took with them into the world.

Their experience of being human was slightly different from everyone else’s, since dancing had trained their bodies in specific ways.

“I never bump into anything,” Leslie said. “I must just have a really good sense of my body in space.”

Six months later, it was winter, and nothing felt any good. I felt outside the current of life. I was nostalgic for the summer, when I had been dancing and hanging around the dancers, learning new things. Those six weeks, everything had felt fresh: there was movement and music. I was using my body in strange ways. I was fully distracted from the question that had preoccupied my mind for the nine months before I started dancing - a question that returned, that winter, with real force.

It had not been two years since my husband and I had divorced, and I still did not know why our life together, which had not been so bad, had come to an end. The week I moved out of the house we shared, I called my mother in confusion and grief. She told me, “One day you’ll understand. Don’t think about it now. It’s too soon to know why.”

It was the most useful advice she had given me, and for some time the puzzle left me, but by that winter, it was back, and it was soon all I could think about. Why we divorced - it was the first thing my mind went to when I woke up, the last thing I thought of before I slept. It preoccupied me night and day.

How I longed to live in accord with my mother’s advice - to have the question rest in the back of my mind as I lived my life, an answer one day coming to me. How could I return to the happy, unfettered place I had been in while dancing; how could I retrieve that mental freedom I had known only six months ago?

In a bookstore one overcast and wintry day, I picked up a book that called to me: The Brain That Changes Itself by University of Toronto professor Norman Doidge.

I went to a café and began to read. Conventionally, neuroscientists thought of the brain as an organ that did its major constructive work in early childhood, finishing off its work in adolescence, and then remaining fixed (or deteriorating) through adulthood. Doidge’s book elaborated a more radical and contemporary line of thought: the brain is “plastic” and its structure changes throughout one’s life.

Pathways that have been underused can be strengthened, and pathways that have been strengthened from overuse can be weakened from disuse. “Use it or lose it,” as the neuroscientists say. As someone whose brain was stuck on the problem of her divorce - someone who hoped to turn her mind from that path - I tied myself to that statement, and to its corollary: “If you want to lose it, don’t use it.”

I remembered my day in the park with Agata and Leslie. Their experience of never doing that sidewalk dance had something to teach me, I was sure. I wanted to be like them. I didn’t want to dance with my divorce while walking down the street the way those old men danced with each other.

What was it about a dancer? Dancers - unlike the rest of us - have somewhere to go. They have a clear intention. My mind, knocking into my divorce, was feeble, where their bodies excelled. Their bodies were the embodiment of clarity, intention, direction, discipline. I had to get my mind to be more like their bodies. I had to make it clear, directional, disciplined.

That winter, I carried Doidge’s book with me everywhere, and underlined sentences on every page. Beside some underlines, I put stars: Neurons that fire together wire together **.

If a woman thinks about her divorce at a corner of the city, every corner of the city reminds her of her divorce. I soon became aware of how everything - books, trees, preparing food, sunlight - was wired to my divorce. Whatever fired, the mystery of my marriage fired with it.

If I didn’t want to think about my marriage, I couldn’t think about anything.

My purpose now was clear: to train my mind to be more like a dancer’s body. To do this, I knew I would have to start with my body: Make it like a dancer, I told myself, and maybe your mind will follow - your will purposeful and under your control, so you can direct your thoughts cleanly and confidently in the direction you want to go in - so your thoughts move across the stage of your mind with precision and ease.

I walked down the cold, city streets, and I tried to be aware of my body’s reality in space - its relation to people and things.

Paying attention to my corporeal nature for the first time ever, I focussed on the limits of my skin - I tried to know how far (and in what ways) I extended in the world. Without knowing this, I would surely knock into my marriage forever.

I tried to sense my actual height, the shape of my arms and legs. It was strange: without meaning to or being aware of it, my mind had settled on an understanding of my body that did not correspond with my body at all. My mind took my body as extending a foot or two beyond my actual flesh; it was blobby, not the narrow shape of arms, a torso and legs. I had been experiencing my body in a fabricated way; was everything else - like my understanding of my marriage and my divorce - as far from reality as that?

I started to see how different my life would be had I spent it dancing. A writer engages with possibility; the imagination accepts all things. One version of reality is made of the same substance as any other; truth does not have a certain substance that less truthful versions of the truth lack. But a dancer doesn’t abide in fantasy and imagination. The body has its limits, and a dancer is constantly aware of her body’s constraints and nature’s laws. While the mind can go anywhere, the body cannot.

The world wasn’t imagination. The world was flesh. I was flesh. And our divorce was flesh, too.

But this knowledge did me no good. Experiencing the limits of my skin, while interesting, did not prevent my thoughts from knocking into my divorce right and left. My attempt to make my mind like a dancer’s - intentional - got me nowhere.

As I read on in Doidge’s book, I learned some new things: that the brain is most elastic, and produces the greatest number of freedom chemicals (my non-scientific term for the chemicals that put the brain in a plastic state where the most change occurs) in early childhood. Neuroscientists theorize that early childhood plasticity is related to not knowing the value of things; one thing is as important as anything else. Children take in dust particles on the ground with as much serious absorption as they take in the sounds that come from their parents’ mouths, as the sight of a truck going down the street.

Everything is important.

Change becomes harder as one becomes older because the brain has settled on what is important. The brain pays more attention to certain things - maybe the same things over and over - and leaves other stimuli - stimuli that could potentially change it - behind.

I realized I had been going about my task all wrong. The problem with my mind wasn’t that it lacked intention - had nowhere to go - but rather, it knew, with all too much certainty, what path was important, and it went there with way too much zeal. I had trained my mind, as a writer, as rigorously as those dancers had trained their bodies. It wasn’t that my brain was knocking into my divorce at every step, but that my brain danced across the same line of the stage, always to the same point somewhere near the wings, where my divorce stood.

I had to make my mind less like a dancer’s! I had to scramble it up, confuse it, so it could find meaning and value in other places; so it could bump into so much: lampposts, political history, asbestos, peanuts, all things. The dancers were a negative example.

I had to become like those old men on the sidewalk, knocking into things, each other. That was their freedom - their very free dance.

Now I knew what I had to do, yet I could not do it. I was unable to find everything equally interesting - the streetlamp, the ceiling, an orange peel on the floor. I could not pretend that puzzling through the economic situation of Venezuela had as much pull as why my marriage had not worked out.

I had to accept it: my brain was like a dancer in Swan Lake. It had to dance stage right, then toward the footlights, then swirl off-stage, then on, the same way every night until closing, even if it was driving me mad. My brain would have to move in all the ways I was exhaustingly familiar with until this particular production was over. I had to let it play.

And that is what I did, giving up. Some nights I paid attention to the show. Sometimes, like a stage mother, I ate a candy bar and watched it with half a mind.

Then, without expecting it, a few years later, in the course of one night, the production ended.

I had a dream. I was sitting in a white tub, in an all-white room, with a circle of my female friends standing around. I was explaining to them why my husband and I broke up. Then an older woman - whom I had never dreamed about before, but who in real life owned the hotel where my marriage finally ended - entered the room and asked me what I had been saying. I told her that I was explaining the reason for my divorce.

“Was the sex not good?” she asked.

I shook my head. “It’s because he wasn’t strong.”

When I woke, I remembered the dream in its entirety. I wondered if this explanation was right or fair. It was not a reason that had occurred to me in my waking life even once. I could see how it could be “the reason”, but I could also see how I had also not been “strong”.

What was more important, perhaps, was the feeling I had waking from the dream - like the stage of my mind had been struck. (To strike is a theatrical term for taking down the set, the flats, the risers, everything, once a show is over.)

Yes, I felt better. The stage of my mind was struck.

That night, I wanted a drink. I called a friend and asked her to meet me at a bar I knew well, near where we lived. When I entered, sitting at the bar was the grey-haired owner of the hotel I had dreamed about the night before. It felt bizarre to see her there. I ran into her maybe twice a year. I went up to her to tell her I had dreamed about her.

“Last night you were in my dream,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “I dreamed about you last night,” she said, and she proceeded to tell me her dream: “We were in the Arctic. There was nothing but snow. And you were worried. You couldn’t figure something out, but you were trying very hard. I said to you: ‘Watch the polar bears. That’s where you will find the answer.’ Then we watched a polar bear that was sitting on an ice floe, and then the ice floe drifted away from the land, away from the few other polar bears that were there.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. We had both dreamed of these all-white places, in which we had had somewhat the same conversation.

After saying wow and wow and wow, I went to sit on my own, at a little round table. I considered what a beautiful closing image to a ballet that would be - a ballet about divorce, say, and what it means to separate - like being a polar bear, mysteriously floating away from one’s people and land.

A version of What Do Dancers Know? Originally appeared in Boulder Pavement, the digital arts journal of The Banff Centre Press.

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