The Step is the Foot

The Step is the Foot

More about this book at the website for Grey Suit Editions

Here is an extract from Chapter 1:

The Gait of the Lizard

The gaits of animals/the units of Orthometry

I never had a pram. From the earliest age, I was put on a horse. Perhaps this is why rhythm has played such an important role in my life. I have spent many years dancing and as many years writing. Rhythm is common to both pursuits. Increasingly I have come to feel that dance is a language and that language is a dance. In this book, I explore the relationship between dance and poetry.

All mammalian locomotion has a rhythm, and many beasts have an ability to walk with a variety of gaits. A horse can walk, trot, canter and gallop. The horse’s walk can be analyzed as having four beats, its trot two, its canter three. The gallop is the fastest of all its gaits and it’s a four-beat pace with each of the horse’s legs striking the ground in quick succession with a moment of suspension between each stride. Besides these basic gaits, horses trained to perform dressage may also move with a lateral slow gait, a lifted gait and a running walk as well as an “extended” trot. Some gaits are genetic traits in specific breeds known collectively as gaited horses.

A rider often “rises” to the trot, elevating the seat out of the saddle on the “trit” and lowering it on the “trot”. Musically it is equivalent to rising on the downbeat and sinking on the upbeat in order to rise on the next downbeat. This co-ordination of the movement of horse and rider makes the trot a smoother ride for the horse’s passenger – and for the horse! The push into the stirrups on the downbeat places the emphasis on the rise, so the sitting movement that follows is minimalised – instead of crashing down on the horse’s spine.

The springbok gets its name from its ability to use a springing sort of jump as a means of locomotion. Thus it is that this beast is famed for its pronking – that is, its ability to travel by leaping into the air in this eccentric spring, also known as a stot. It is behaviour that you might see a sheep perform but it is particularly characteristic of gazelles. When springboks pronk they spring into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground at the same time. Usually, the legs are held in a relatively stiff position and the back may be arched concavely to the ground, with the head pointing downward. Many explanations of pronking have been proposed; there is evidence that at least in some cases it signals to predators that the pronker is not worth pursuing. The rhythm of a pronk would have to be an iambic of considerable quantity – “The moon! The moon!”

Most other gaits involve the diagonal forwards co-ordination of left forefoot with right hindfoot – even in pronking I detect the wraith of such diagonal co-ordination in the landing.

Perhaps this goes back to our snaky origins before legs were invented, let alone hands and arms! Mind you, what is being suggested here is an entirely mythic notion of evolution, since rather than their limbs emerging from some limbless ancestor snakes seem to have mislaid their limbs. Still, the spine is so fundamental to movement that it’s worth considering how the spine copes with locomotion when there are no limbs to help it along.

Snakes have several ways of moving around. They are basically a spine. This they undulate in order to progress. Since they don’t have legs they use their torso and their scales to do this. Of course, a snake can coil, and strike, but neither is a means of locomotion.

For locomotion, there’s the Serpentine method:  imagine a snake slithering forward across flat sand, pushing off from any bump or verticality – a rock or root – in order to get going. It is that wavy motion which we think of as serpentine. This movement is also known as lateral undulation.  Speaking figuratively, it’s as if the snake were swinging its hips one way and its dorsals the other on a rough horizontal surface that allows for points of purchase. On a slick surface like glass it would not be able to get very far. 

Then there’s the Concertina method:  This is harder for the snake but effective in tight spaces. The snake braces the back portion of its body while pushing and extending the front portion. There is a hint of the caterpillar in this as it contracts some of itself together and stretches out the rest. Then the snake contracts its front portion and drags the back portion along. It thus projects itself forward.

Then there is Sidewinding: here the snake uses a sideways movement to move forward at a diagonal. This works well in sand. The snake curls its tail to achieve gravitational purchase, then appears to throw its head forward, contract its “dorsals” and thereby bring its lower half with it while the head is thrown forward again. Only two locations on the snake’s body are in contact with the ground at any one time, so there is a subtle vertical ripple as well – which works well with the ripples on a dune.

Finally, there’s the Rectilinear Method: this is similar to the concertina but less visible, just a slow, creeping, forward movement. The snake uses some of the wide scales on its belly to grip the ground while pushing forward, sliding on the others. 

Sidewinding looks as if it might be fun. We may imagine that the sidewinder enjoys doing it, just as we enjoy walking. I think all animals enjoy their gaits.  If it’s good for a human to run, then it’s good for a horse to gallop.But we should be clear about one crucial difference between humans and animals here. A snake may appear to dance when it raises its head and sways, and cranes may appear to perform a pas-de-deux as a preliminary to their mating while the canter of a horse has a rhythm. However, when a horse canters in a show to the accompaniment of a band, the band is playing to the rhythm of the horse. A horse cannot alter its pace to canter in time to a band. A chimpanzee may drum on a log, but it cannot do this in time to an external source – this point is well made in The Dancing Chimpanzee by Leonard Williams. A flock of birds may sing in unison, or one bird may respond to another. But animals cannot alter their rhythms so as to be in time with an external beat. Only human beings can do that. In this sense, the beasts are rhythm blind.

*           *          *

In the late sixties, the American dance pioneer Simone Forti developed Sleep Walkers. These dance pieces were inspired by Forti’s observations of animals at the Rome Zoo, now known as the Bioparco di Roma. Forti specifically refers to developing the movement of swinging her head back and forth from watching polar bears and elephants move at the zoo, writing “Yes, I felt a kinship with those encapsulated beings.” In the essay Animate Matter: Simone Forti in Rome, Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, “In Sleep Walkers, Forti takes cues from animals that develop (and continually replicate) patterns of movement in response to environments of confinement. By segmenting and then repeating small passages of movement, for instance by isolating a few steps out of the flow of the elephant’s many other motions, she creates an almost musical sense of pause, interval and tempo.”

I witnessed Forti perform several of these pieces back in the sixties, and I must say the implication of incarceration was less apparent to me than the extraordinary accuracy of Forti’s analysis of animal gaits. The hopping of a bird or the weight shifting of an elephant got translated into human movement. I was particularly struck by her rendition of a lizard. Horizontal, her knees and elbows splayed, Forti very precisely simulated the movement of the reptile; and what was interesting was the (“snake-like”) counter swing of hips and torso. As the right elbow swung forward in conjunction with the forward movement of the left knee, a diagonal could be drawn between that knee and that elbow. This diagonal co-ordination accompanied each swing of the spine, and it’s already been observed that such cross co-ordination can be seen in the majority of gaits. It is there in the human walk, for as our left foot goes forward, it is accompanied by the forward swing of our right arm. 

This relationship can be seen in the walking of all mammals – from the lion to the dog, and we inherit it from our days as a creature that required the forelimbs as integral to its means of locomotion.  It’s put to use in the run as well.  Running and walking are particularly good forms of exercise because by practising these gaits we encourage our innate diagonal cross-over. Bear in mind that a large part of human thinking is done by the left side of the brain, while for many of us the right is the side of our body we control best. The body is a construct of crossings-over.  The predominating left side of the brain is significant for our species and gives us a useful bias we will return to later.  For now, let’s simply focus on the walk.

This basic ambulatory gait of ours shares its diagonal swing with the serpentine progression of the snake. Tango dancers know how to take advantage of the oblique connection between left hip and right shoulder, and they call making use of it “dissociation” – in that what we don’t do is to move forward “associating” our right shoulder with our right hip when we walk! We do the opposite. The tanguero uses dissociation to generate pivots and wavings of the leg sometimes generated by counter-momentum. It is what gives the tango its serpentine enchantment.

The walk also reinforces alternation – after all, we don’t hop along on one foot – or not for long. But we do do the same thing with the left as we just did with the right. So that is a basic binary underpin to our movement, and in all probability to our minds. Walking may well have generated fundamental oppositions – yes and no, off and on, zero and one, left and right. And while the hands swing in opposition, the hands are now nevertheless freed from the business of necessarily contributing to our locomotion – and this has significance for our evolution into becoming “the language animal”.

There’s plenty of people who find walking an aid to thinking. Famously, Ben Jonson walked to Scotland, in order to gossip with William Drummond of Hawthornden, who had just returned from the grand tour. Wordsworth walked for inspiration, and Charles Dickens knew that the “black dog” could be sent back to its kennel by a brisk twenty-mile walk. Virginia Wolf loved to walk and think, and Peter Porter used to compose his poems on walks through Hyde Park. Henry David Thoreau was an inveterate walker, while Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor, walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and his destination, Paris. The list of walkers includes George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vladimir Nabokov and Bruce Chatwin. All of them thought at the same time. And Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

In a paper entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University showed how experiments demonstrated that walking boosts creative ideation.

Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.

Walking, thinking, speaking. They seem to feed off each other. And we talk about babies “learning to walk”, and then, later, “learning to speak”, but its questionable whether “learning” is the appropriate word.  It might be more appropriate to define learning as something we do after we master the ability to speak. Thus we may “learn” a second language, but not our first, not our mother tongue.

That mother tongue we acquire, as, earlier, we acquire walking.  For sure, parents can help – by making expressive sounds at us – so that we can respond, and by not carrying us everywhere, by not suspending us in some contraption, and by not strapping us into buggies while they occupy themselves with their mobiles. But we get the first words sorted out by expressively trying out all possible sounds, gradually homing in on the ones that elicit a response, and we get the motor organisation sorted by trying out all possible movements and then by crawling – by moving our left knee with our right hand to master the diagonal co-ordination of this skill; and of course our crawling may be encouraged by a parent smiling and calling us with open, welcoming arms but it is not tuition. We seem to have an imitative tendency that helps us get the hang of it.  But you don’t have language when you get the hang of walking. 

You do have walking when you get the hang of talking, but – and this is important – you don’t have language when you acquire speech.  That is obvious, though you may have the imitative skill, used by the little language animal you become, to “pick up” more and more. Both skills are acquired pre-linguistically. And when you lose these skills owing to some disability, such as Parkinson’s, then you have to try to get the hang of them again as you might learn a second language. That is, you learn them now, through language, through being told how to do them. This may open up alternative neural channels.

Everything about the acquisition of these two skills suggests an affinity between them. Perhaps there is more than an affinity, perhaps there is a primordial connection. It’s this notion of a connection, even a fusion, of step and expression that intrigues me. And in order to explore the relationship between them it will be necessary to overlay two specialised fields – that of poetry and that of dance. Perhaps this will generate a new arena, but as we shall see, it is also a very old one, that of the aloni – the threshing floor – where the chorus first stepped in time to the words they recited – or vice versa. But how did I get into this line of enquiry? Where did it begin?

Allow me to take you on a journey. For now, it’s a journey through my adolescence, and here it may provide an illustration of what the relationship between the dance step and the metrical foot has meant to me. We may pick up this autobiographical thread again in later chapters, as I show how the two disciplines have been interwoven in my life.


About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
This entry was posted in Grey Suit Editions, Poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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