Dancing with Whales

For the last few weeks, my dance companions have been humpback whales. I have been swimming in the South Pacific with the humpbacks, listening for their songs, and scanning the surface of the ocean for signs of their presence; a spout, a tail slap or a breach. Our time together was a mesmerizing mix of physically demanding swims through choppy water with the hope of encountering the humpback mothers with their calves and male escorts. Initially, our swims began with a bit of trepidation (they are SO big!), but we quickly transitioned to swimming with absolute joy at each encounter. I watched closely, observing their behavior, and then tried engaging them, with turns, swirls, and swoops of my own in the water, following the whales’ cues.

Isn’t it amazing that we all have a  particular body language, no matter our species? We communicate across distance, genus, and location through our gestures and inclinations – leaning and moving toward and away from one another as circumstance requires.

Movement – it is our first language and in many ways is the language that connects us all. As I responded to the whales in the water, moving closer as they allowed, swimming back to create a bit of space for them to lift a pectoral fin and slap the surface, I thought of my dance classes and how these swims contain some of what we do in studio – transferring movement from one part of our body to another, sequencing movement with mobility and expression, building phrases, mirroring one an others movements and then  responding through movements of our own.

As I teach, I look to my dancers for clues during class.  Are they comfortable with the particular combination I have given them?  Has it prompted the intended result?  Is there challenge and enjoyment as they follow the movement sequence?  How are they expressing various movement qualities and styles?  Is there something in the movement experience that is both challenging and engaging? 

I also looked for clues as I looked into the eye of a whale.  Did they seem to be comfortable with my presence?  Were they interested in engaging with me or others?  Were they feeling playful, or intent on demonstrating their superior strength, skill in navigation; or just how magnificent it is to be a whale?  They spoke through movement. Eye to eye with a whale it becomes evident that across species we are all connected, and that we humans bear a responsibility to Step Up (ah ha – another dance term) to understand and, through our actions, protect these amazing creatures and their ocean home.  It’s all there in the whales’ eye. 


Alison Marshall


Photo credits:
Grant Thomas

Michael Hughes

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