Teamwork, freedom, and surprising myself by Elizabeth Gibson
I had a gut feeling that 2020 was the year for me to apply for the Writing Dance workshops. During lockdown, I suffered a lot from loneliness, which was probably why my work as a poet really leaned into the collaborative and experimental. Teaming up with other writers, artists and performers was lovely, and made me feel part of something bigger, especially when we were working towards a cause such as World AIDS Day, queer rights, or body image. I learnt about other people’s craft, and got a glimpse into many new worlds.
I heard from a poet friend, who had previously taken part in Writing Dance, that it was a really good experience. Meeting and working with dancers and choreographers felt exciting, and would be another way to expand my ideas about what poetry could be and do. I was delighted to be tutored by Kayo Chingonyi, who I had met before and whose poetry I love, and I was looking forward to getting to know Ella Mesma and her work.
I was somewhat nervous at the beginning. I love dancing – to the radio in my own flat, or in dark Manc bars with people too drunk to judge me! My experiences with dancing in a more organised setting had been mixed. I had some good times at Zumba, but also a difficult salsa experience that left me feeling quite self-conscious, and dealing with questions about how my queer body could fit in, especially in dance styles with traditional gender roles.
I think having to do Writing Dance by Zoom, in my own home, made it feel more accessible, with the knowledge that I could turn off my camera if I got to a point of feeling really uncomfortable. But that didn’t happen. I soon felt at ease with the tutors and dance artists, and I already knew most of the Writing Squad poets. The physical exercises were manageable and adaptable, and were more about movement and emotion than formal dancing. They helped me to be more aware of my body, and afterwards I sat and wrote:
Whenever I am told to freestyle, connect with my body,
my hands go to somewhere between neck and shoulders,
to raise my arms like jasmine petals, elbows sharply bent.
That place must mean something to me, where my wings
could have been – but I am more spider, limbs and limbs.
Maybe it is some quirk of a past life, flitters of evolution
stored in bone memory, that push me to feel that ghost,
acknowledge it. It doesn’t bring fear, or guilt. It is only me.
A key thing that I learnt quickly was that many of the poets also dance, and most if not all of the dance artists also write. As a non-dancer, I had held the two groups separate in my mind, and it was really exciting to discover that not only was I getting to know some amazing dancers and choreographers, I was also meeting more poets! It is a lovely thing to have in common with someone, and can help you connect quickly, and on quite a personal level.
I was paired with lovely Maria Popova, to work on some writing and movement. We soon discovered that we had mutual interest in many themes, such as home, the body, gender, fertility, and parenthood. For our first challenge, we wrote a haiku on the theme of isolation:
Sharing a cold space,
touch is the warmth that seeps through
fingertips on skin.
We were paired together throughout the project, which was great because we were able to develop the relationship, and I grew more comfortable with moving in her presence. The pivotal moment came with one of the challenges set for us. In each pair, one person had to move on camera for five minutes, and the other had to write from watching them. I watched Maria first, and was deeply inspired by how free she looked; how able to place herself in the moment and follow her body. I wrote:
The invisible music, somewhere in a dream
maybe I was this free, to crouch and to glide,
like you have reached a place you can do anything.
With your Christmas tree on the tiny table,
your chest of wooden drawers, you are the only one
in your space, and you decide what moves in it.
I ached to feel that way, but it was challenging for me. Still, feeling safe with Maria, I stood up and moved for my five minutes. I tried not to think too deeply, and just follow some kind of instinct. Afterwards, I felt incredibly empowered, and that experience is something I will carry with me for a long time.
I came away with new friends, and some poem drafts that really intrigued me. My perception of dance was now much more nuanced, and I hoped that maybe I could get back into it one day. I am also hoping that Maria and I can work together again. I would recommend Writing Dance, however anxious you might be at the thought of dancing in front of others. It is a warm, supportive environment, and you may well surprise yourself with what you achieve.