While in between reads, I often pick up Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s The Body has a Mind of its Own. I was initially turned on to this book thanks to fellow dancer, Helen Hansen, and gratefully so because it’s entirely fascinating and relevant for professional movers. Throughout this detailed account of the interwoven mind-body relationship, it sheds light on how our body maps operate and how understanding our body in space extends beyond our physical selves. Body maps are what they sound like: your brain contains a map of your body’s surface with specific parts of your map synchronized with specific parts of your body. (7)
I just got off the 6 train and nearly missed my stop thanks to the chapter devoted to “place cells” and “grid cells.” Yes, I was for a moment that obnoxious girl walking on the platform distracted with nose in book. I like to believe because I’m a dancer with hopefully slightly more body awareness than the average being, I can handle this multi-tasking conundrum with relative ease. Not always the case, but this time I made it home unscathed. So what are place cells and grid cells? “Place cells map the space around your body in terms of whatever environment you happen to be in” (130). These allow you to situate yourself within a space relative to the objects around you. Grid cells on the other hand “map space independently from your environment” (130). This accounts for you knowing where your body is in space based on your own movements. Superb athletes, Sandra and Matthew explained, have highly developed place and grid cells which allow them to have extremely detailed awareness of themselves versus other players in the game and open court/field opportunities. Through familiarizing yourself with your performance space, can you enhance your performance experience? I do often like to meander about the stage, run around, become accustom to the wing space, distance from the audience, feel of the floor in different places, the height of the ceilings, etc. Prior to a performance I like to make myself as familiar as possible with the space to feel a sense of ownership and comfort while dancing movements under the unpredictable wrath of live performance. Apparently, this urge holds actual purpose – acclimating and activating your place cells – rather than just a psychological one. With this in mind now, I will actively introduce this into my future performance routine, perhaps taking more tedious care to acknowledge my surroundings. Let’s see if it has any beneficial effects! In addition, being comfortable with the movements of the dance and the other performers with you on stage, educates your place cells and heightens your awareness further allowing for appropriate handle of the curve balls of live performance. Note the ease and effectiveness of a tight-knit dance company performing familiar repertoire while on tour. Definitely looking forward to this unity for in the upcoming season!
However, how can we better prepare ourselves for performances that are not as familiar in our body? Dancing professionally often means being on tour and performing on stages you are experiencing just hours before curtain as well as jumping into new roles and pieces on a whim. This is where grid cells and having superb comprehension of your body in space comes in handy. As dancers we have been training to move our limbs through space for a sufficient part of our lives. I would imagine that by now, our grid cells are well adept. Edvard Moser, a scientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, believes we are born with our place and grid cells or they develop very early in our growth (132).
Can we strengthen our cells through constant rehearsal? I like to believe so despite Edvard, because something tells me my place and grid cells could use some additional work. I can’t help but recall a time when my grid cells were clearly out of whack. It was my second Parsons performance of Remember Me when my first few 8 counts required me to chaine on stage from stage left to just beyond center mark and then stop on a dime to walk confidently downstage arms slapping the space in front of me directly towards the audience. Well, the newness of the material, stage, and lights got the best of me, because as soon as I reached stage right of center and avoided hitting my partner Eric, who is spiraling directly at me mind you, I paraded my sorry butt upstage towards the scrim with complete conviction and gusto. It only took about one or two steps before I recognized the black scrim was not quite the black haze of the audience and turned myself around like nothing ever happened besides my mental bewilderment of “did I really just do that?!” What a way to kick off the piece, particularly when it’s David Parsons’ first time seeing you perform his work. Priceless! This seems like a prime example of my place and grid cells unable to adequately identify my body in space. For the record, I am awful at recognizing my north-south-east-west unless I can identify at least one direction from an outside source. Apparently there are people who innately know what direction they are facing. Slightly jealous. Sandra and Matthew claim once confused by cardinal directions, always confused since the cells themselves are confused (132). Not looking too good for me. I have slightly confused cells for sure! This brings the golden rule of changing your position at the ballet barre to a whole new level. I often change my spot at barre, but generally pick standing with my torso north and south (in the cardinal directions of the room) rather than east and west. Think its time to start retraining my place cells!
I highly recommend The Body has a Mind of its Own for so much more than just this chapter. If you are at all curious about how we make sense of our bodies in space from a scientific vantage point written in not-so scientific lingo, pick it up!
About to perform In the End on Friday in Maryland. The Rouse theatre – a new theatre. In the End – a new dance. Come on cells, don’t fail me now!