edition Mai-Juni 2023

Unpicking a Sticky Proverb

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Parvathi Ramanathan (links) mit einem Kind aus der Nachbarschaft. Foto: privat

Parvathi Ramanathan
Dancer, researcher and writer who has occasional morning affairs with poetry

I let my fingers trace the metal grill window as I swayed my body. I brought my hair forward to fall over my face as though it was moved by an imaginary breeze. An imaginary film camera panned across, recording my flirtation with the moon. Here I was at age seven, making an imitation of a Bollywood song while trying to access sexualised dance moves that I barely understood. I thought I was alone and was going for it with total abandon.
One can imagine my horror, then, when I turned to see my mother observing me! I sensed that my dance moves were a transgression for my age. Thoroughly embarrassed, I fumbled to change my steps, fix my hair and explain myself.

All these years later, I still ponder over this moment.
Does one dance differently when one is being watched? “Dance like no one is watching!” What does this proverb mean for the body’s allowances and explorations? What creative transgressions manifest in the privacy of one’s own company?
All kinds of magic moments are said to happen even during rehearsals of ensemble performances. There are connections and sparks that don’t occur again when the audience lays eyes on them.

On the other hand, there’s the thrill of having an audience. Oh, the electric charge that comes from each gaze! I definitely feel hotter at a club when a stranger randomly compliments my dancing. I would like to say this was in my 20s. But honestly, even now, the extra eyes give me more energy and boost my ego. Then I must ask, is there something the extra eyes take away as well? What does the external gaze eat away from improvised self-expression?

“Dance like no one is watching” is quoted so often in teenage slam books and corny postcards. But what does the proverb really mean? Are we to dance like (read: as if) no one is watching, when in fact someone is watching? Or does the ideal dance manifest when no one is watching?

In March-April 2023, one could see posters of thirty performers of the Watch Me Dance campaign all around Berlin. With no stage make-up or costumes, they wear simple T-shirts with the campaign name on it. They aren’t shown dancing but turn their gaze back at the onlooker – with smiles, sass and surprise. They demand to be watched.

During the COVID years, many dance-makers felt a vacuum when adapting their work for online formats. Not only was the gaze needed, it was also desirable to be co-present in the space. Yet, viral TikToks on pocket-sized screens multiply by the thousands. Ritual performances continue all night, whether or not an audience is present. Other performances are presented exclusively for an all-seeing deity. Therapeutic tools like Authentic Movement centre around the act of witnessing.
What do we learn about viewing and witnessing a moving body from these worlds of dance? What does having any single pair of eyes upon us stir in our dancing selves? What does it withhold? Do you dance like no one is watching?

My mother’s gaze on me back then stalled me. But her gaze moved on, so I kept moving. Now and then, her gaze returns to embalm me. And this too, has kept me moving.

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