On taking the space, or The choreographies of unfolding

It still feels like early days of my ‘research training’, but I have had ample opportunity to observe the problem of taking the space, both in myself and others. Women tend to be worse at this than men, but of course there are exceptions in both cases.

I have been keenly and purposefully observing women for many years, looking out for all the fascinating and creative ways in which we belittle ourselves. We shrink. Sometimes when I watch a PhD defence or a presentation by a female colleague, I feel like whispering to her: Don’t shrink. You’re good. You’re making sense. Stop shrinking – I try to telepathically communicate this message, to no avail. Why is she shrinking? – I wonder. Surely, there is no reason for that. I don’t do that.

And before I know it, I am the next one up and I do the exact same thing. I shrink to the verge of non-existence.

Funnily, moving the whole thing to Zoom and disembodying the whole process made things worse. Recently I was doing a presentation on Zoom, and I actually slid down my chair under the table. I submerged under the table up to my shoulders. Well, on Zoom you rarely see much more of a person than that, but why on Earth was I doing that? It’s like I wanted to disappear.

We do this in writing, too. Once I emailed a fantastic social anthropologist Heidi Mosknes (who recently passed away), asking her for an update on her publications for the Uppsala University website (when she used to work there). She responded with an email in which she, among other things, described her most recent research. It went something along the lines of ‘It’s just this little article we wrote with very little funding’. She was apologising for her research.

So what’s going on behind the scenes, in the process of presentation or performance, or pressing ‘Post’ under the link to your article?

Blurred vision. Hard to breathe. What I have to say suddenly steps into the background. On the foreground – the anxiety. ‘What will they think? How do I look? Am I saying too much? Am I waving my hands too much? Am I not saying enough? Do I sound arrogant? Do I sound insecure? Do I sound insincere? Am I crazy? Is this sloppy, illogical, inconsistent? Did I forget to do my homework? Is this controversial, angry, too politicised, disrespectful? Is this too conformist, not radical enough, trying to please, to fit in? Does this sound too academic, intellectual? Does this sound trivial, unsophisticated? Is my hair too messy? Am I mispronoucing this word? Am I just trying to look smart? Do I actually have anything to say?’

The last one, ‘Do I actually have anything to say?’ is a killer, both in research and art. There is no remedy for it. If you don’t have a positive answer to that, you are doomed. But the tricky thing, the answer is contextual. It depends on who you are talking to and what they already know.

Nowhere else do I have such good material for the keen observation of myself shrinking as in the dance studio mirror. This is where the ingenuity of devising a million ways of how to reduce yourself to a certain amount of space, and not an inch more, truly flourishes. If my teacher tells me to open my chest, my toes turn inside. If she tells me to turn them out, my shoulders go up. There is no winning this game.

But the beautiful thing of having her there is that she unfolds me. With some trepidation, I see her stomping towards me. She pushes up my chin, bends my arm to make it round, gives a nudge to my spine, and then makes a series of little twists (wrists, upper body, knees, feet). She twists parts of my body with her hands, she moulds me like a wax doll. And there I stand, in that state of absolute flamenco perfection, completely unfolded. Can I remember this, I ask myself with a sinking feeling? Can I stay like this, without contracting again?

I never can. Well, at least I know how it feels, for a few seconds, to be unfolded.

In flamenco, it’s all about taking the space. Round, sweeping arms. The head positioned so that you can look into the windows of the second floor (Andra våningen!, shouts my teacher). Tall spine, heavy legs. The stereotype of flamenco is that it’s ‘passionate’, which I find amusing, if not ridiculous. My teacher says: There is no passion in flamenco. Only technique.

This may sound as if it goes against her statement that she uses Stanislavsky’s methodology, as Stanislavsky is all about ‘feeling what you portray’. She teaches that, too, but the trick is, you cannot portray anything if you don’t have the technique. I will never be able to improvise por seguiriyas or alegrías, if I don’t have the technique which I learn through choreography, where I imitate my teacher and become socialised in the practice and interpretation of a style.

Those of you trained in theatre will know all about this. Theatre training is fantastic in teaching how to take the right amount of space (maybe even with a bit of surplus).

The question is, how do we train ourselves to do this in speaking, writing, living?

Whether or not you have something to say, you cannot say anything without the tecnhique. We learn the technique in research by socialisation and imitation. We are choreographed by the senior researchers and learn how to choreograph ourselves. The best of them are unfolded and also know how to unfold us, muscle by musle, joint by joint.

The question is: How can we unfold ourselves when we speak, write and live? How can we help each other to unfold, without the other noticing?

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