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Special Dance Enthusiast Feature: MUSCLE MEMORIES

Special Dance Enthusiast Feature: MUSCLE MEMORIES

Published on December 1, 2009

(The Second Installment in series of short essays by Stuart Hodes) ON "MAKING" DANCES, TRAINING AND WHY PEOPLE DANCE

Stuart Hodes 2009

Stuart Hodes piloted bombers in WWII, and wrote for an unofficial army newspaper. He was Martha Graham's partner, danced in a dozen Broadway musicals, taught on four continents, made some 100 dances, and had a young-audience troupe, The Ballet Team. He and his wife, Elizabeth, toured in their "Dancing on Air with Fred Astaire." His book about choreography, "A Map of Making Dances," (Ardsley House, 1996) is available from him, and his webzine,, tells true theater stories. He is completing a novel, "Chorus Gypsy," drawn from the NYC dance world, 1948-1960.



The first person I heard use the word “make” for dances was Merce Cunningham. Until then, dances were just made up, or grandly “created,” as by Ted Shawn, or “choreographed,” for ballet and modern troupes, or “set” for TV and nightclubs. The goals might diverge slightly, from something that amuses, like David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, or delights, like Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In the Rain, or enchants, like Balanchine’s Serenade, or spellbinds, like Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra.

The setter, maker, choreographer, creator, is driven by something powerful yet ephemeral, what I heard Martha Graham describe as the human reflection of God’s need to create the universe.

I must say, I like that. I’ve made some hundred-plus dances, and if none became famous, the thrill of making them up was enough to keep me at it most of a lifetime.


At Brooklyn Technical High School I was the swimming team’s back stroker and after classes would head for the Natatorium to do laps. I enjoyed laps, which felt good after sitting in class all day. It was my first real experience of “training,” which I’ve since heard derided as, “Animals are trained, people are taught.”

Training demands practice which flows inward, not only to build strength and skills, but to impart knowledge of a kind you can’t get from books; no matter how many instruction manuals you read, you will not learn to juggle until you’ve tossed objects into the air, play the violin until you’ve scratched out myriad notes, or fly an airplane until you get into one, grab the controls, and practice.

Performing, on the other hand, explodes outward. My races were short, the 50 and 100-yard dash, but any race – marathon running, Tour de France bicycling – is a kind of controlled explosion.

Football coach, Vince Lombardi, is famous for saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” and “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” A winning coach he may be, but also a warped human being.

I loved winning and won often enough, but win or lose, it was great to experience the intensity of a race, which, to use an abused phrase, thrusts you utterly into the moment. Dancing can do that even when you dance just for yourself.

Felice Lesser made an evening-length work, I Am A Dancer, that explored dancers’ lives, each asked why she or he made so many sacrifices in order to dance. Other than saying that they had to, none could explain.

Maud Carlsen, a dancer from Sweden arrived in New York City for two weeks, her prize for winning an essay contest. She took two dance lessons a day and evenings went to the ballet. The day of her scheduled return to Sweden she left her limo waiting at the curb and presently showed up at Paul Taylor’s studio. Paul liked her and it looked like she was headed for his troupe when she stopped showing up.

I ran into her waiting tables in a SoHo restaurant. “I’m dancing with...” and named an obscure non-paying jazz dance troupe. At my questioning look she said, “It makes me happy.”

That, I figure, is the only reason anyone dances.


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