Artistic Crossovers: How Dance Helps with Performance Poetry

Although today I identify chiefly as a poet, dance has always been a fundamental element of how I define myself artistically. I began training in classical ballet at the age of five and continued through university, getting a degree in Dance and choreography in the modern style (‘contemporary’ in British terminology). I’m grateful for this training for many reasons, but especially now for how my education and experience in dance has informed and benefitted me in my performance poetry practice. There is a surprising amount of crossover between the two art forms, and here I will discuss how dance training has been a foundational skill set for my way of performing spoken word poetry.

When I was actively performing dance and writing print poetry (until about three years ago when I discovered spoken word), it was odd to be simultaneously practicing a craft focusing on the silent, moving body (dance) and one in which the reader would never see the body and would rely only on the words on the page (print poetry). I found that I approached the forms with different intentions. Dance, with its utilisation of the richly symbolic body as an instrument and infinite potential interpretations for each movement, allows for greater nuance and openness for interpretation from the audience, so I would choose the dance medium to express more abstract, conceptual work. Poetry allows the poet greater control over the message of the piece but then loses some of that nuance, so I would write poems on subjects I felt I could articulate best through precise wording.

Of course there is more nuance than that, especially considering the vast range of dance and poetry styles out there, but early on I perceived the two forms in that sort of binary, fulfilling different creative functions for me and providing outlets for different kinds of ideas. Discovering slam poetry for me was wonderful because it allowed me to marry these two forms. Slam gives me the opportunity to physicalize, to “live out” my poems in real time with the audience, which gives me that audience interaction and immediate response that merely writing print poetry was lacking. Although the small stage size doesn’t allow for much movement while slamming, it is also possible (and encouraged) to utilise nonverbal actions in poetry performance, and indeed some poems are highly choreographed for theatrical effects. One third of a slam poem’s score is performance, so capitalising on the body’s expressivity while performing a poem tends to raise the score (and, of course, make the poem more engaging!). My recent practice of crafting “kinetic poems” has also been a great way for me to combine these forms for a greater effect, and I will be posting soon on the merits and challenges of that practice.

My dance practice also directly helps with my performance poetry practice in terms of body memory and memorization. Going off-book with my poems (memorizing them) was a challenge, and one technique that has made it easier for me has been choreographing movements to accompany the words. I’m accustomed to memorizing motions and developing muscle memory through dance, so applying that device to my poetry has made it easier to recall poems (plus, adding motions makes the poem visually as well as auditorially engaging).

Recently, inspired by Franscesca Beard’s master class, I have become more conscious of my physicality in performance poetry. I initiated a practice of doing a dance warmup before poetry shows so that I am able to “get into” my body. This helps my voice, my posture, and allows me to more freely use my limbs when performing instead of standing onstage stiffly, as I used to do. My new poem “Long-fingered man” (video links on the Poetry page) is perhaps my most physical, choreographed poem, as it requires enacting the metaphor of a person made more powerful and lethal through gun ownership (the poem is an exploration and ultimate rejection of the claim “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”). I take on a slightly different, angrier voice for the poem and utilise my entire body in the performance, shifting from powerful to weak body language and back to reflect the narrative being conveyed. I did a dance warmup before the Scottish National Slam Championships this year (Feb 26, 2015) and I felt that it directly aided my performance of this poem in the final round, as I was more conscious of how I was utilising my body. This was particularly important at Nationals since it was on a large stage in a large theater space, so actions had to be expansive enough to be perceived by the audience.

Additionally, because of my experience in dance I’m accustomed to physically being onstage in a spotlight. Since the writing process is often solitary, some poets lack performance training and the stage can be an intimidating place, so I am grateful for my exposure to performance from an early age. However, this doesn’t mean I’m immune to stage fright; in fact, I’m more nervous before slams than before dance pieces, because if one forgets the dance it is easy enough to improvise, whereas freestyling verse is not a talent I possess.

And, of course, there are many elements common to every performative craft: the importance of flow, rhythm, of a well-placed pause, a build of energy to an appropriate climax and then a denouement. Disciplined rehearsal, seeking feedback, and the ability to recognize which elements of a poem or dance are effective and which need to be changed or cut are essential to both practices.

Artists: If you practice multiple artistic disciplines, how do they inform and influence each other?

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