Renée K. Nicholson ~
Frequently, I am asked, “How do you render the specific, choreographed movement of dance (a physical art form) in your writing (a static art form)?” As a dancer, my body was my instrument, my mode of communication and expression. This same body became my vehicle for joy, sorrow, shame, and, ultimately, salvation. How to put what happened into words on a page? The task remains both daunting and fascinating.
We each encounter the world in our bodies, our own specific and particular vessel for experiencing life. It naturally follows that we write from our specific, embodied selves, and from this vantage point we hone a particular physical sensibility that gets distilled through our writing. It can’t be helped. In my case, the writing becomes tinged with the twined physicality of a dancer and a rheumatoid arthritis patient, competing bodies and experiences, until I find where the blend happens, a truth of two different ways of being. Often implicit in the ways of being are also ways of moving, the active self, which also needs translating onto the page.
The question of rendering movement effectively in writing, on finding the truth of how we move, depicting it accurately, is at heart akin to translating from a foreign language. Movement isn’t the same from one body to the next, something I’ve learned writing from two very different bodies, having lived in them both. Physicality represents one of many types of the expression, and in my case, that includes dance technique, a specific and codified language. The classical vocabulary is expressed in French—plié: to bend, tendu: to stretch, dégagé: to disengage—and it never felt like enough to describe the execution of ballet technique through these words, particularly for those who have never danced.
Take jeté, meaning to throw or toss. To me, jeté, a kind of jump or leap, translated more to “bits of flying.” But another dancer might recall the sensation of this jump in a completely different way. In writing jeté, I am giving you my physical translation of it, particular to my experience. Seen this way, writing movement becomes a translation not just of the body, but one’s intensely personal experience of it. Because of this connection to perspective, we can understand writing movement as an extension of narrative voice. To cleave movement away from this voice would be to render it silent.
Honing voice to address movement reminds me a bit of taking corrections in ballet class for the same technical issue, only from different instructors. Take “turnout,” the base structure that defines ballet from other forms of dance, which is the rotation of the leg from the hip socket. It allows ease of movement in any direction. Early on, it was described to me based on how it would look: “your feet make a piece of pie, the bigger the piece, the better.” As I progressed, other teachers would physically arrange my body into the desired shape, which to my young limbs felt like being wrenched into place. Yet others would explain it as “opening the hips” from the joint.
So, whose description best captures the elusive nature of turnout?
Purely from a dance perspective, the teacher who best helps the student achieve the physical attributes of turnout is the teacher who described it best. But things change when we view this from a writing perspective. I’d argue each teacher renders it perfectly because each presents it in a distinct way, a distinct voice—a character’s voice—implicit in each example. One could flesh out a voice from any of these examples, and our depictions of the physical can be shaped by directives of others, as well as the demands of an ideal. As often happens in my book, my own voice develops in response to these various explanations of movement: interpretations of interpretations.
Memory often fails and distorts, although we might also see that as a kind of translation, too. How we remember movement can tell us something about how we processed the sensation. It depends on the goal of the writing. For me, trying to write movement that might be familiar to some and completely foreign to others, engaging with the physicality of dance—performing plié and tendu and such—sharpened what I wrote because it directly shaped the language chosen to express it.
Some physical movements present a different challenge due to their routine nature. It can be difficult to write movement that’s habitual, an unthinking gesture. Consider acts like chewing and breathing. When is the last time you used words to pull apart the jaw’s movement during chewing? Would it change depending on the food being chewed? Or consider breathing, typically rendered on the page only when significantly altered from its ongoing involuntary act.
For me, the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, my struggle to move at all some days, resisted my efforts to capture it. Yet, writing the transformation of my dancing-body to my RA-body depended on my ability to describe pain, a state of daily crisis. Complicating this further is that the pain was caused by autoimmune activity, a kind of activity I could not control. I find myself explaining on the page, first to me and then to the reader, what physically happened as a result of this illness. In revision, the inward-facing gaze is reshaped to share beyond the confines of my body and its existence those sensations living with chronic illness.
The lessons I’ve learned from translating movement can be widely applied. Whether you’re writing autobiography, or invented personas or characters, your depictions deepen and expand when you incorporate specific, relevant movement. You enhance how the reader navigates and negotiates the world within your work. Writing from the physical self supercharges the empathetic consequence of reading your work, one of our most important rewards of reading. So, too, translating movement enhances delight—those little bits of flying.
— Renée K. Nicholson
Renée K. Nicholson splits her artistic pursuits between writing and dance with scholarship in narrative medicine. She is Associate Professor and Director of the Humanities Center at West Virginia University. She was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona, 2018 recipient of the Susan S. Landis Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts (WV Governor’s Arts Awards), the 2019 winner of the Outstanding Public Service Award from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences (WVU), and the 2020 Winner of the Nicholas Evans Award for Excellence in Advising (WVU). Her books include two collections of poetry, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center and Post Script; a memoir-in-essays, Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness; and the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.