I’ve been reading and exploring a lot of Buddhist material in my personal life these days, so I’ve taken that as inspiration to write a little about some Zen-like bits of experience that I’ve picked up while learning to dance over the years. Each of the three experiences I’ll relate was with a different dance teacher, and I hope they don’t mind my mentioning their names here. This will be a 3-part series, with one teacher per post. Here’s part two.

2) The Zen of Ambidexterity with Steven Mitchell

Steven Mitchell is an internationally renowned dance instructor who I remember for his intense teaching style and his ability to convey subtle yet profound elements of connection, rhythm, and musicality often without even saying a word. His jazz dance classes are out of this world and often steal the show at Lindy Hop workshops where he teaches.

I first took a class with Steven Mitchell at the 2003 Oakland Swing Dance Festival, and while there are ideas I learned then that still influence my dancing today, the particular experience I had with Steven at the 2004 Herrang Dance Camp is the one I want to comment on.

I was attending week 3 of the Herrang Dance Camp and we students had jazz with Steven for an hour and a half for each of four days. That particular year, Steven presented a Gospel inspired jazz routine to a song called “Satisfied.” It was an extremely popular routine likely because of its high-energy and soul-stirring music, not to mention the challenging but immensely fun and creative choreography.

Steven began by teaching us the first part of the choreography in his usual animated and intense style, and proceeded to drill, drill, drill the routine into us, until it was out of heads, and out of our feet, and embedded in our subconscious souls.  On the second day, when we students were feeling fairly comfortable with the chunk we had learned, Steven dropped the bomb on us.

“Now reverse it. Do everything in this section again…on the other foot.”

Silence. Shock. Students shyly eyed each other, searching for reassurance that this feat of footwork reversal was actually possible. Some began with concentrated effort to work out the transposition step by individual step.

A few seconds later, Steven interrupted us, wagging his fingers and scolding, “No! Don’t think! Don’t think! Just do it!”

He elaborated briefly. “It’s already up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “but if you stop to think you’ll ruin it. It’s just the mirror. Your body and brain already know it, but not by thinking…just dance it.”

This was a real leap of faith he was asking us to take with him, but as he started up the music, we all took a deep breath…and proceeded to dance everything we’d danced, starting with the right foot first, and then dancing the next chorus completely opposite! We were filled with glowing amazement and awe!

To be sure, the transposition had not been perfect, but I would safely estimate that most people were able to dance 80-90% of the movement on the opposite side of their body, and all of that without having to break down and re-drill the movement again. I will also admit that this was a class of advanced-level students, but I think that there is something that all students can learn from.

I’m not sure how to word the lesson exactly, but it has something to do with effortless-effort, with trusting yourself to know what you know — that your mind and body already know what they need to know at the moment, and you just have to let them do it.

Okay, that’s it for today. The next part of this three part series will feature my former tap dance teacher, Kathe Burick, and a lesson in clearing one’s mind to become a receptacle for knowledge.

The Zen of Learning to Dance (part 2)