Dance Fever

While my title could refer to the jubilation which I felt upon delivering my paper at the conference (and hence the reason for the pause in between the last post and today’s), it actually refers to the end of today’s post in which I describe how part of the purpose of Ensler’s performance is to remind us of the importance of bodies, and particularly dancing bodies.

Second viewings, just like second (or if I’m teaching something like a Shakespeare play, twentieth) readings, remind and reassure me of how important it is to have the time and space and energy to pay attention. I know all of this, but once again, it took my second viewing of In the Body of the World, to remind me that when you spend more time paying attention, you SEE more. So, for me, during the second viewing, I paid more attention to the number of times that Eve Ensler directly addresses or insists upon the participation of her audience. I knew that this was the case during the first viewing, BUT I hadn’t realized the extent to which the lighting design very purposefully demarcated narrative space vs. what I’m calling performer-audience interaction space. And how wonderful that I had a second chance to SEE the significance of the lighting design. Part of the reason I noticed the lighting more the second time around was because I had a hard-to-hide 8 ½ by 11 inch note pad in my lap which made me feel very conspicuous when the house lights were up. So I was painfully aware each and every time the houselights came up. The houselights go down when Ensler is relating the narrative material of her fight against the cancer invading her body, but the houselights come up and interrupt the narrative frequently throughout the performance. This means there’s ample opportunity for audience and performer to SEE one another as well as for audience member and audience member to see one another (hence the reason I felt conspicuous with notepad in my lap). Ensler interrupts her narrative when she directly addresses the audience, usually in the form of rhetorical questions, of which there are many interspersed throughout the performance.

Here is a sampling of the rhetorical questions:

“Do you remember Gary Gilmore?” which she needs to ask because she wants to compare herself preparing for the initial tumor operation to Gilmore walking off to his execution by firing squad in 1977.

Another time she asks “Did I tell you they cut through my belly button?” and another time, more pointedly pinpointing a particular audience member to ask, after pointing out she didn’t know there was a difference between the anus and rectum, “DO YOU?” Still another time she asks audiences to consider ‘What if instead of being afraid of talking about dying, we actually talked about it, since, in fact, we will all go through it?”

A particularly poignant question asked of the audience occurs after she tells us about the toxic spill occurring in her abdomen which just happens to be occurring at the exact time as the Gulf Oil Spill, leading to one of her darker moments, asking “Who wants to live in a world that makes oceans bleed?”

Perhaps one of the more effective moments occurs when Ensler directs an extended series of rhetorical questions to her audience, prefaced by the question “What would be the normal response to…?” First, I need to set up the context for this series of questions that interrupts the narrative. Ensler has been talking about her response to being told the news that she has a significant sized tumor in her uterus. This leads her, not surprisingly, to the word hysteria which, she reminds us, comes from the Greek word meaning uterus. This leads her to ponder what’s so wrong with the hysterical response and more important to the question of “What would be the normal response to…?” In the March performance she asked us six or seven questions, including “What would the normal response be to a 12-year old shot for playing with a toy gun…to a president grabbing women by their pussies…to Dreamers being threatened with deportation?” The questions are very important, but so too is her final comment on the word “hysteria” which she says “is the word used to make women feel insane for knowing what they know.” That statement, you will be happy to learn, drew loud, energetic applause during both performances.

Ensler also directly invites (or perhaps the more accurate language here is insists upon) audience participation by requesting that we stand up and dance with her. Ensler had been talking about her friends hosting a dance party for her after one of her operations. Suddenly the house lights come up and Ensler interrupts her narrative to encourage audience members to participate. It takes a bit of cajoling, but eventually most of the audience (including me) does stand up and start to dance for several minutes. Those of you familiar with Ensler’s One Billion Rising endeavour will not be surprised to hear that the dancing body is a prominent feature of the performance. Ensler makes sure to remind us frequently that while the women of the Congo have suffered unspeakable ravages to their body, they also join together in dance and protest which sometimes also incorporates dance. Ensler herself dances several times throughout the performance, including during this moment with the audience. During the March performance, Ensler ended the dance by noting, wryly, a “side note that in the time of the predator-in-chief we need to be dancing multiple (I can’t remember the exact number, but Ensler is thinking in terms of 700 or 7,000) times a day.”

So second viewings also led to a second opportunity of watching Ensler shake up the theater rules by continually insisting upon audience interaction.


2 thoughts on “Dance Fever

  1. Your post today reminded me of the opportunity I had to see my choir perform the same concert twice last spring when I was unable to perform with them. I too found myself paying more attention the second time as I had already experienced the music once. I looked more acutely at the presentation, the effect the music had on the individual singers and the effect on audience members around me. The second thing that struck me is the reference to the Congolese women who suffered so much yet wove that into their dancing. That too reminded me of the piece we sand just recently “Dance of Zalongo” a Greek folk song arranged by Carol Barnett. The women of Souli choose to go to their own death willingly rather than submit to slavery and probable rape and other atrocities. The lines “The women of Souli haven’t learned only to live, they also know how to die, rather than consent to slavery. As if to a fair, to see lilac blossoms, into the abyss they go down, with songs, with joy.” One can take control of whatever is happening to our bodies with song, dance, energy, we can accept what may come with dignity. I would rather that than live in fear.


    1. Thank you so much for this commentary! I love that you connected to a similar experience in which you found yourself paying attention not only to what the performer was doing but also to how the audience was receiving what the performers were doing. It’s not very often that I find myself in the position of being a performer in the way that you are, but when I am, I always miss that I don’t get to see it from the audience perspective. And what a thoughtful connection to Carol Barnett’s arrangement of “Dance of Zalongo” so thank you for that as well as for the lyrics.


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