While reading Yeats a few nights ago, I came across a line in “Among School Children” that really resonated for me: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Having performed and taught ballet and jazz for many years, I sometimes created choreography to be danced while poems were read. There was always a connection. The Yeats line made me think, “How can we know the poet from the poem?” and then, “How can the poet teach us the dance?” I began to search for poems about dance and was happy to discover quite a few.
A lot has been written about the psychology of movement, about dance as an effective supplementary therapeutic technique, and about how the “emotion of movement” holds court with expression of feeling that goes back to the beginnings of artistic expression. People dance all around the world and, although not everyone participates in dance, all societies include dance among their art forms (from ritual dance to dance for entertainment). Crossing cultures and times, dance offers opportunities to tap into emotions, to create, and to encourage interpersonal associations. Dance also serves the poet as both subject and metaphor.
For this prompt, let’s “dance a poem.” Samuel Beckett wrote, “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” With that in mind, you might begin by writing first – free write, that is. Don’t plan anything, just think “dance” and begin a free write to see where your thoughts go. After writing for several minutes, take a short break, and then go back and read what you’ve written. Is there anything you might develop into a poem? Of course, if you have something specific in mind at the start, skip the free write – go ahead and “dance” with your idea.
If the free write doesn’t work for you, and you can’t “dance up” an idea, some alternatives and suggestions follow.
1. Compare something in your life (a relationship, an occasion, or an experience) to a specific dance. Some title ideas: Why My Life Is A Foxtrot, Jitterbug Jibe, Disco Days, The Boyfriend Ballet, Swing Season, Belly Dance (How I lost 25 Pounds). An alternative here might be to write a poem entitled "Break Dance" about someone who left you with a broken heart (or you might write about an experience that caused you emotional pain).
2. Write a poem about an actual dance: the first girl or guy you ever danced with, a dance or prom that you attended, a dance recital in which you performed, or a dance performance that you attended (i.e. a professional dance company or your child’s first dancing school recital).
3. Re-read Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “My Daughter at 14, Christmas Dance, 1981” (see examples above), and write about a similar or related “dance experience” that reveals something about parenthood.
4. If you’ve ever taken a dance class, you might write about that. Or, how about a humorous poem that describes your two left feet?
5. Use this quote as inspiration for a poem: “If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance.” (George Bernard Shaw)
6. Write a poem about animals dancing (i.e., deer in a meadow, puppies at play, dolphins at sea, a herd of gazelles on the African plain).
7. Write a poem about team players in dance “formation” (football, soccer, baseball, hockey).
8. Re-read Mary Oliver’s poem “Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End?” (see examples above) and use the title as inspiration for a poem of your own – think, perhaps, in terms of the mortal dance we all share.
9. Try to include some dance terms or dance imagery. You’ll find a list of terms and definitions that might be helpful at: http://www.abt.org/education/dictionary/index.html.
10. Use dance as an extended metaphor (just be wary of clichés such as “the dance of life,” “dancing with the devil,” and “the last dance.”).
Waltz, leap, pirouette, tango into a poem!
As Lord Byron wrote, “On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined.”