Grace and Wonder

For the last few weeks my dance companions have been whales. Once again I returned to swim with the humpbacks in the South Pacific Tongan waters, listening for their songs, and scanning the surface of the ocean for signs of their presence; a spout, a slap of a pectoral fin or a breach. Our time together was a mesmerizing mix; lots of rough and tumble swims, through smooth and choppy waters, sun and rain, always with the hope of encountering the humpback mothers with their calves and maybe with their male escorts. During this, my second season of whale swimming, I had the good fortune to swim with nine or ten whales at a time in what is called a heat run; a collection of male whales swimming in a pack in competition for the affections of a female.  Their power moving through the water was astonishing and palpable as they made their way past me, their grace and finesse remarkable, especially for an animal of their size., quite beautiful to watch. My very first swim began with just a small bit of trepidation (they are SO big!) but quickly I was swimming with nothing but absolute joy at each encounter and visit. In the water I watched the whales behavior closely and occasionally echoed their movement with my own, sharing turns, swirls, and swoops in the water, following the whales’ cues.    

Isn’t it amazing that we all have such distinctive body language, unique, specific and shared, no matter our species? We communicate so much that is observable across distance, genus, and location through our gestures, physical reactions and inclinations, moving toward and away from one another as desire and circumstance require. 

Movement – it is our very 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 to slap the surface, I thought of  the performances I create and the dance classes I teach. These swims included some of  the same kinds of things we do and pay attention to in  dance studio – sequencing movement and finding expressiveness, transferring movement and weight through one part of our body to another, expressing meaning through actions, building phrases, extending a fluid line, mirroring others movements and then responding through added movement of our own. Dancing requires us to be physically present, attentive to ourselves and our surroundings, alert to what and how we are communicating.

Aesthetic choices and practicality often meet in the choices we make as dance makers and those choices seem to be evident in the whales’ movement too. There is no doubt that specific whale movements convey meaning and have specific purposes, just as there is no doubt that  it is sheer bliss watching a baby calf dance its way across several miles doing thirty or forty variations on breaching  –  blissful for me, the viewer, and from the looks of it, for the calf.

As I teach I watch my dancers.  Are they comfortable yet challenged by the particular combinations I have given them?  Have my cues lead to developing movement explorations or expression?  How are they expressing their own sense of varied movement qualities, meanings, relationships, and patterns? How can these movement and dance experiences engage both makers and viewers cognitively and kinesthetically? 

I  also watched for clues as I looked into the eye of a whale.  Were they calm and comfortable with my presence?  Were they interested in engaging in an encounter together – extending an invitation for me to swim along with them?  Did they feel playful while demonstrating their incredible strength and agility? Maybe they were simply showing, again and again, just how magnificent it is to be a whale.  They spoke to me through movement. Looking eye to eye with a whale it becomes evident that across species and environments we are all connected, and that we humans bear a responsibility to Step Up (ah – a dance term) to understand, and through our actions, protect these amazing creatures and their ocean home.  Look. Consider. See. It’s all there in the eye of the whale. 

Alison Marshall

Photo credits:

Grant Thomas

Michael Hughes @mchughesphoto


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