Its Proper Uses and Functions
by Najia Marlyz
posted July 16, 2013
Sometimes it takes a multitude of people to open up your way to experience a personal epiphany in dance performance, but there has to have been a precursor—that foot in the door that keeps it open for awhile, allowing further development. However, initially, all it takes is one teacher or mentor (or even a critic) who either makes a casual comment, delivers a fully developed lesson, or something in between, to begin the process of understanding on a new level. For me, insights often began from casual comments or anecdotes about the experiences of Bert Balladine, my principle instructor.
Graceful Circles or Hair of Medusa?
During one break in the classroom, Bert (who spoke with a German accent with sometimes a few amusing German words thrown in for good measure) announced, “Girls, just concentrate on the basics of the steps and movements, and later on, you can add in “der schnerkles”. “What the heck is a ‘schnerkle’?” I asked aloud. Apparently, nobody else in the class needed or dared to ask. “Oh, it’s just something as simple as this,” he answered, as he twisted his lead finger in a small circle counter-clockwise quickly.
“You don’t have to wave your hands and arms around all the time like a bunch of snakes on the head of Medusa!” he added.
“I think I understand it,” I thought to myself. “It is like the little serifs on a traditional printing font that grounds the letters, making them more easily legible.” Although I thought I understood fully at the time, I learned eventually that there was much more to Bert’s little serifs for dance than mere “grounding”. I soon found that they could be useful as accents and punctuation in what I thought of as “musical sentences”, as well as effective points of energy release. They were to make a huge difference in my dance performances and became a mainstay of my future teaching of appropriate musical response.
On a different occasion, when we were talking about using hands and arms effectively in our dance, Bert said that we students had to stop flailing our hands and arms around in circles and waves because they were distracting to the audience. It would seem self-evident to me—but apparently not to everyone, that dancers use their hands and arms for many purposes and one of them is to attract attention to something special.
“Remember this girls: wherever the dancer’s hands are moving is where the eyes of the audience go also.”
For me, the two dance details seemed to be working at counter purposes with each other—on the one hand, don’t put hand movements in, but on the other, sometimes, you might need them.
Why? What was the true purpose of hand movements in dance? How do you know when to use them and when to stop them? Also, what do you do with your hands if they are not gracefully waving the air in snake-like motions or weaving the fingers in desperate wormy, weird configurations like I had seen so many dancers insist on doing—albeit graceful? Is graceful movement an end within itself? I struggled to make sense of adding in the graceful sensual motions and conversely, learning to leave them out! I imagined (briefly) that that it might be the reason that most dancers during the ’70s were playing their finger cymbals furiously, non-stop. That activity gave them something to do besides figuring out what to do with their hands when they didn’t want to “distract” the audience with their arm movements! It was a perfectly clear, but partially wrong, conclusion on my part.
Transference of Energy
It wasn’t until Bert explained that energy is transferred by the palm side of the hand, yet is stopped by the back of the hand, that all the puzzle pieces began to fall into place for me.
I began my long journey into responding to musical cues in a new and easily understandable guideline for expressing what I was hearing, as well as relating to the music in a more personal way. Strangely enough, I found that I had learned “over-night” that the judicious use of the hands and arms allowed me to translate music and relate to my audiences in a new way. So, use of energy was the next and most mysterious of the techniques that a dancer must master!
Previously, I had thought more about the use and nature of transferred energy than many young women of my age because I had needed to understand when learning to weld and solder in my college art and design classes, in glass blowing with my scientist husband, and when helping him to wire and solder our sound system at home. I realized that if the front of the hand was supposed to emit energy, there must be some way that the dancer could renew the source or she would soon “run dry” of any energy to send out to the audience for the movements to make sense.
Therefore, I reasoned, the use of ones extremities for dancing (beyond transporting one across the stage or making a movement appear finished) was to gather and distribute performance energy from the stage rather than simply wave arms about in the air with artistry and grace.
This subtle epiphany caused a revolution within my dance performance that was, apparently, visible to audiences because I began to receive many compliments concerning how “different” my hands were from other dancers; this new understanding alone brought me my first real successes in performance, and I basked in the attention I began to receive.
I had learned that invisible energy could be felt by audiences and that a dancer had to give as well as receive and stop pelting the audience with dollops of unrelenting aggression—especially when that relentless aggression was perceived by the Middle Eastern culture as non-feminine—perhaps even masculine.
When teaching, I began to use the imagery of something with great power that both gives and takes—the ocean. I asked my students to imagine that they were like the ocean waves upon the shore. They had to learn to push energy clearly toward the audience by directing it in line and motion and then to release it when it was time for the wave to recede. There would be a moment of release and reversal, during which the energy stopped pushing and then began to pull back.
Many dancers I see performing these days are vividly energetic about sending their performance energy out, but few of them understand that they should also pause to release the energy, momentarily stop or finish the gesture, and then pull part of the “sand of the beach” back into themselves by motions of gathering in energy from the audience.
I caution that one must mind where, exactly, you put it after you have collected it. It is all too easy to bring it in your aura and unceremoniously and unconsciously stuff it into your nether-regions without considering the symbolic effect of that ungainly gesture! It is the balanced combination of push, release, pull, and placement that gives many dancers a greater skill level than others while in performance, even though they might use the same exact steps prescribed by a specific choreography.
Proper Use of Der Schnerkle
The exact moment of energy release is one obvious moment to employ the small flick or circle/flick of the fingers that constituted Bert’s “schnerkle”. However, this needs to happen both at times when there are clear fillips or embellishments in the music itself as well as when the dancer decides that the overall effect of pushing energy outward has been sufficient. Enough is enough! When a movement is finished, a dancer can, if she chooses, complete it with the use of Bert’s schnerkles (also known as an energy release) in the fingertips.
I recall Bert telling his students to “Save a little bit of yourself at the end, girls!” so that dancers could have the final flick of a fingertip or a small flip of the head to put an exclamation point or a period at the end of their musical sentences.
Additionally, if you get to the end of your movement before the music does, you will still have a little important something in your arsenal to finish sharply with the music, demonstrating that you have honed your “edge”. In this way, movements appear more clean and finished and the audience isn’t left waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you have ever felt an ominous silence at the end of your dance before the audience begins to applaud, you may not have released your energy visibly enough so the audience could feel at ease to begin clapping and break a silence that you have forbidden them to enter. In short, they must be given permission to applaud your dance by your indication that you are completely finished; otherwise, they would feel rude and silly to impose upon what may only be a momentary pause in your movements. Nobody wants to look foolish; least of all, members of an audience!
These are just a few of the secrets in the arsenal of experienced dancers pertaining to the use of hands and arms in dance. There others as well as methods of decoding the music itself in a simple, yet artistic, way that will keep you and your audience amused and intimately involved while you dance, making your time designated allotment fly past you all too quickly. If these technical matters seem to you to be too detailed and picky, perhaps they are, because dance should flow freely out of the music and the emotions it conjures up, but to quote my dance buddy, Bert Balladine—
“Just being young and beautiful may be enough in the beginning, girls, but eventually, you had better actually learn how to dance!”
Next: Decoding Music for Dance
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