12.16.11 | Transblog
One stage. All eyes are on the group. The crowd quiets down and the music starts to play. From that moment on, all you need to focus on is following the beat. Occasionally you might look around to see how the rest of the group is flowing but everyone seems trapped in their own bubble moving to the steps previously rehearsed. Easy. The music gives you the counts. But what happens when there is no music? How do you coordinate choreography when there is nothing but the dancers performing?
This is exactly what happens in Character Movement, a dance class where dance is an emergent system. However, to understand the system we need to first look at the class itself. It is taught at Liberated Movement, a donation-based dance studio in Chinatown. Character Movement is an exploration of the beauty and expression in the simplest of movements, from everyday gestures to choreographed emotions, dancers are asked to tell a story using nothing but their bodies.
I took the class just a few months ago out of curiosity about how coordination happens within a group when no music is playing. It might not sound too difficult but when you have a class of 30 people, it becomes next to impossible to see everyone at the same time. I have to confess a big part of the challenge was learning the steps themselves. We were not taught regular dance movements, but rather more free form steps where dancers use accents and pauses to tell a story to the audience. Needless to say our first try as a group was a disaster. We were too absorbed in our own dancing, to pay attention to anyone else and without the music leading the movements we could not coordinate.
We tried a couple more times but we kept getting the same result over and over again, it became evident that our system was not working. After a little consensus we decided to try one more time focusing on really ‘feeling’ the people around us but more importantly focusing on coordinating with our immediate neighbors. In other words, paying attention to the people who where next to and in front of us during the performance which was really all you could see while dancing.
It worked like magic. The teacher was impressed on how well coordinated it looked and it was finally getting the message across. What changed? Simple, we created an emergent system. Let’s take a look at Steven Johnsons book Emergence as our reference to better describe what happened by taking one of the 5 principles he believes necessary to create an emergent system: “Pay attention to your neighbors. Local information can lead to global wisdom”. Ants apply this principle in their colonies when bumping into neighbors and gathering information from each one of them as to how is the colony doing. The more neighbors you bump into, the more information you will have and the better the system will work.
In other words, just like the ants we started gathering information from the people closest to us, at the same time they started gathering information from the people closest to them until a kind of network was created where we had enough information to move at the exact same time. So all we did was pay attention to our neighbors.
To finish I would like to pose the question of what would happen if we took the metaphor of dance into our everyday problems? How would paying more attention to your neighbors change the overall behavior of society? All I know is it would change the way we ‘dance’ through our world for good.