Turn your ankle in,” Yana snaps at me. She stands erect, back to mirror, facing the class. “I don’t know why dancers do that. Pose with ankle turned out like this”—she demonstrates with her foot, exaggerating the turned out ankle even more. “Is ugly. Always turn foot to hide ankle, this way. Much more pretty.” She states this in her Russian accent, her tone matter-of-fact, absolute, and pivots her foot on the ball so the ankle is neatly hidden. I do the same, and immediately see the difference—where a moment ago my turned out ankle resembled something akin to a broken bird’s leg, the corrected foot now creates a smoother alignment from chin to toe.
Even so, I battle with mastering the correct pose for the rest of practice, adding to the mental notes I silently give myself as we shimmy and smack our gold canes: “Step HIP, Step HIP, turn, sit, LEFT hip, RIGHT hip, side, turn, cane UP, DOWN, TURN ANKLE IN!” And all the while I marvel at how the difference between the accomplished dancer’s carriage and an amateur’s is contained in the subtle but marked positioning of an ankle.
Nothing escapes Yana’s narrowed gaze as she surveys us. Her choreography is complex, with numerous line changes, or “traveling” as we call it in dance. She is an accomplished, breathtaking soloist who studied dance in Russia before moving to the States; she runs her own troupe outside Orlando Bellydance. Some in the class struggle with her candid criticism, her obsession with perfecting the details and running the routine until we’re soaked in sweat and grappling for water bottles.
While aspects of my technique might not be as precise as I’d like, Yana has become one of my favorite teachers because of her strictness. The best writing teacher I ever had was the one who pushed his students the hardest, who refused to candy-coat average writing and call it great, whose teaching style was similar to Yana’s. Sometimes, even at an advanced level of study—perhaps especially at an “advanced” level—you have to be broken down and built back up if you’re ever to come close to great. To correct those little bad habits that sneak into your art.
But I digress. The point of this meditation on my awkward ankle position is not a debate on teaching styles, or the merits and drawbacks of being pushed. Rather, it is how Yana’s philosophy as a choreographer and dance instructor has a great deal in common with the much-heralded and oft-quoted writing master, John Gardner’s, and his fixation on the fiction writer creating “a vivid and continuous dream.” Every week as I drove home from Yana’s class I kept thinking of Gardner, until one night, I finally pulled my multi-flagged copy of “The Art of Fiction” from the bookshelf. The crux of Gardner’s craft treatise stems from the “fiction as dream” theory. Just how and why does this become so crucial? And how might it apply to other art forms, specifically dance?
The common link, it turns out, resides in the physical detail.
Gardner focuses at length on the importance of physical detail as the chief element that pulls us into the story, makes us believe (or disbelieve) the world the author has invented. We dream “not passively but actively…in great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul” and we respond to imaginative things as if they were real.
No great leap, then, to see how a performance—aided by costumes, backdrop, and lighting—is another “fictional dream” of sorts, with the very best dancers pulling the audience in so completely, one forgets the dryer that needs repair, the sick relative, the rain pounding the roof. The audience member’s emotions are involved; like great fiction, dance reveals to us what we believe about people’s abilities and limitations, including our own. On the surface an art form that is physically beautiful and mesmerizing may appear to just simply be about entertainment or distraction. But at the deepest level where art works its magic, the woman who is ashamed to be a size twelve watches another woman of similar proportion perform a graceful Persian dance, face beaming, and begins to question her connection to her own body.
But why “vivid” and why “continuous”? Gardner tells us:
…that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.
And he goes on to say:
…one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.
What Gardner is talking about, I quickly realized, is my turned out ankle—the equivalent of an erroneously formatted dialogue tag or other glaring misstep in fiction. In his section, “Common Errors,” he delves into this “clumsiness”; he notes that while such mistakes are the hallmarks of amateurs, good writers are guilty of such blunders as well—blunders which really are “failures in the basic skills”—there’s that ankle again. Then, just like Yana scrutinizing the angles at which we raised our canes during the saidi number, Gardner breaks down his pet peeves: overuse of the passive voice, lack of sentence variety, distracting diction, accidental rhyme. Notice how his preoccupation is largely fixated upon the micro-level, with language itself, the basic building block of writing. These errors “alienate the experienced reader,” he states, “or at the very least make it hard for him to concentrate on the fictional dream.”
Which is why at a show, you’re more likely to start thinking about how you need to call Sears to repair the dryer when less polished performers take to the stage, their arms sagging, gazes directed downward rather than at the audience. But when you’re watching the best dancers, those who exhibit mastery over not most of their muscles, but all, you can’t peel your eyes away. You are completely immersed in the fictional dream.
But does Gardner seriously mean you can never make any mistakes? Isn’t that rather harsh? Unfortunately, for those who are seeking an easy out or who lack the will, the master offers little leeway here. What follows may be my favorite passage in the entire book, simply because such blunt honesty is rare in our American culture, where students are used to obtaining A’s for mediocre work, and “everyone deserves a pat on the back”:
…people who are not artists—people with no burning convictions about writing or the value of getting down to bedrock truth—are inclined to be sympathetic. Nobody’s perfect, they generously observe. But the true artist is impatient with such talk. Circus knife-throwers know that it is indeed possible to be perfect, and one had better be. Perfection means hitting exactly what you are aiming at and not touching by a hair what you are not….Serious critics sometimes argue that the standards in art are always relative, but all artistic masterpieces give them the lie. In the greatest works of art—think of the last works of Cézanne or Beethoven—there are no real mistakes.
We performed our lovely, flirtatious saidi number at “An Evening Unveiled” two Saturdays ago. As I watched the soloist onstage before us, I focused on calming my jittery nerves by breathing and concentrating on the task before me—to execute the highest quality technique I was capable of, while infusing the moves with personality. In a Zen-like moment, I entered the “fictional dream” of the two-act show, becoming the different characters required in each number; I felt the most relaxed and confident of any performance yet. Still, I knew I hadn’t been flawless.
The next day, the first shots from the professional photographers appeared online—and my heart plummeted. For there, in the final pose of the cane dance, as glaring as a clunky shift in a story’s psychic distance, was my ankle, out-turned. Scrolling through the shots, it appeared I had remembered to position my foot properly in the earlier portions of the dance, just not for the final pose, and my entire leg, in fact, was twisted in a bizarre, jarring fashion, so that I stuck out from the other dancers in my row.
I could imagine what Yana would say, or Gardner, easily enough. But I don’t need to hear a scolding from anyone. In dance as with any live performance, every moment is immortalized; there’s no revision but the next show. My clumsy ankle gleams from the frame, alabaster in the bright stage lights—the knife-thrower’s blade in my eye.