On Dancing

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

There’s a new episode of Intellectual Property out today, with Naomi Shimada - a bright and brilliant model and storyteller, who I am lucky enough to also call a friend. We talked, among other things, about how Naomi’s personal dance practice has helped her find new ways of seeing, and being in, her body – and more unexpectedly, how this practice has changed how she works. Give it a listen when you get a chance (there's also a full transcript here and a printed version available here).

Naomi's comments made me think of an essay I’d read by Zadie Smith, titled Dance Lessons for Writers. As you might expect, it explores the teachings that Smith has absorbed by studying the greats of the discipline: Astaire, Charisse, Jackson, Nureyev, Knowles. These parallels are not explicit, but Smith - being one of the contemporary greats of her own discipline - is able to draw them; despite the truth she observes that:

“The connection between writing and dancing…feels a little neglected – compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose – maybe because there is something counterintuitive about it.”

When you think about it, an ability to draw ‘counterintuitive connections’ serves well as a definition for creativity itself. If there's a singular quality that unites great artists, it's the ability to see things in a way most of us do not; cannot. It's an aptitude for combining ideas that seemingly have no place together, in order to generate something that somehow makes total sense.

I've long been fascinated by the non-linear patterns in which creative people think and work– Intellectual Property is, essentially, a project devoted to tracking these paths of thought. After years of interviewing some pretty great ones, I've noticed that the best artists rarely draw inspiration from their own creative disciplines, but instead swerve, disobediently, into other artforms and schools of thought, mining for shiny ideas like magpies. We watch Michael Jackson dance and see, well, Michael Jackson dancing; Zadie Smith sees a new way to write prose.

For those of us looking to expand the parameters of our own creativity (or to simply have some new and better ideas) this kind of lateral thinking is a useful practice to adopt. In moments of creative block, it's always helpful to a) stop forcing it, and b) find a way to look at the thing you're stuck on with fresh eyes. Observing the methodologies of a 'counterintuitive' medium can be one way to do this: What can music teach us about graphic design? Fine art, about fiction writing? Poetry, about clothing design?

One question I've been returning to a lot recently is: What can the body teach us about the mind? After all, creative thinking is limber; it requires a certain agility and fluidity that (in my experience) is much harder to access when the body is in a tense or stagnant state. Like a lot of creative people, I have to move regularly if I want to have any hope of keeping my ideas doing the same. It doesn't surprise me that studies have shown creativity can increase up to 60% when walking.

As Naomi knows, and Zadie knows, and I am learning all the time, our physical bodies are a deep source of wisdom; the kind that exists on a level far beyond the understanding of the intellectual mind. Viewed in this way, we are all walking around with the ultimate source of creative insight at our disposal, just waiting to be observed, listened to, and learnt from – if only we can figure out how to tune in.


Intellectual Property: Naomi Shimada Listen (Please rate and subscribe while you're there! :)

Dance Lessons For Writers, Zadie Smith Read an abridged version online. Full version in this book.

Blessed Unrest, Martha Graham Read