Dance to the rhythm in our souls

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 3, 2007

The moment has arrived. We’ve taken our positions on stage.

The house lights dim, the curtain rises, a new year has begun. We’re poised to dance the dance for which we've come to this point in our lives.

But what’s this? The music is unfamiliar. Its rhythms seem unrelated to anything we’ve prepared for.

Yet our choreographer's words echo through our innermost being: go with what you've learned from me; do not let yourselves be distracted.

So, closing our ears to the intruding beat, we dance to the rhythm in our soul.

For our e-mail coffee companion Alberta-born Jean Freebury, this is no mere metaphor. Dance is her life; Cunningham, her technique. And I love sharing the story of her impact on my life.

Since 1992, Jean has been with the internationally renowned Merce Cunningham modern dance troupe based in New York City. In addition to dancing, she is also on the faculty of the Merce Cunningham Dance School.

As a charter member of Jean’s fan club, I grab every opportunity to have coffee with her when she’s back visiting in Alberta. Such was the case last week when she was home celebrating the 40th wedding anniversary of her parents, Edmonton coffee companions Jack and Mary Jean Freebury. (Happy anniversary, Jack and Mary Jean!)

Right from the start of her career, Jean has mentored me in Cunningham’s synergetic philosophy of dance.

She has also caused me to consider anew the importance of listening to the still, small voice inside each of us in our journey through life.

As Jean describes it, the Cunningham technique consists of dancing not to music, but with music.

The only thing the dance and the music have in common is that they occupy the same amount of time, Jean says. But otherwise there’s no relationship between the dance routines and the phrasing of the music. The dance exists for the sake of the dance, and the music for the sake of the music. Each divides and punctuates time differently.

In fact, choreography and musical composition are created independent of one another, Jean says. "When we rehearse, we rehearse without the music." The dance movements follow counting and cues quite unrelated to the music.

The dance and the music come together for the first time at the public performance. At that moment the synergy of the dance and the music results in the audience experiencing something totally serendipitous and unique.

But don’t the competing rhythms throw her off?

"Stillness is very important," Jean answers. "I don't hear the external music. I am listening to the rhythms deep within myself.

"I never thought about the importance of silence before I began the Cunningham technique," Jean says. "It's very important to find your centre, and the only way I can do that is to become still.

"This technique focuses not on 'trying to do it,' but on 'letting it happen' – surrendering.”

And the way the dancer avoids getting confused by the rhythms of the music is to surrender to the interior rhythms instilled through long hours of rigorous, disciplined practice, she says.

Jean's style of dance provides inspiration, I believe, for equanimity in our own lives for the coming year.

As we enter 2007, public and private affairs will confront us with many unexpected noises and rhythms. Health and financial crises may tempt us to break our stride; changes in employment, relationships and living arrangements may bring us to the breaking point. These threaten to distract us from our pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty; we are in danger of forgetting the greater good we know we’re capable of.

But we can dance with confidence in an offbeat world, if we draw from our own reservoir of internalized rhythms built up through the disciplined nurture of our soul – nurturing through careful listening and observation; through thoughtful reading; through meditation, contemplation and prayer; through artistic expression; through touching the lives of others as volunteers or just as good neighbours.

An indicator of such confidence is interior peace. A teaching I embraced as a young man puts it this way:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things . . . and the God of peace will be with you.”

That advice comes from a letter St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, one of the first Christian churches nearly 2000 years ago. He was concerned with helping people learn to walk with confidence in the Spirit.

Yes, and amidst the confusing cacophony of our own day, we too can choose to surrender to the still, small voice; properly focused, we can rise above the distracting din to perform our own part well in the great dance of life throughout the coming year.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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