“Lovely in Limbs”: What a Tap Dancer Taught Me about Obedience

nemrI am often bothered by the word “submission.” This can be in reference to human beings’ relation to God, ecclesial leadership, and even, the Son’s relationship to the Father. This can happen when the term is used in ways that seem cogent with scripture, free of tyranny, and initiated by a concern for love. I am aware of American conceptions of freedom and independence at play in my suspicion, as well as abuses the Christian community has propagated around this term. I also realize that, as a Christian, the simple, humble, and active saying of “yes” with my entire life, even to things I do not yet fully understand, should, at their best, provide spiritual bread and butter. This I know. Still—my gut reaction remains.

But this spring, I watched a collaboration between the American tap dancer Andrew J. Nemr and hammer dulcimer player Max ZT, and my concept of obedience was rocked.

The fact is that their extraordinary duo relies on total submission—to the music, yes, and to their individual disciplines, but primarily to the realities of Max ZT as the music-maker and of Nemr as the skilled respondent and interpreter. When talking about it in an interview after the workshop, Nemr spoke of his part explicitly as submission, even as the performers both referred to their collaboration as “play.” They “played” their own instruments: the dulcimer and the hard wooden floor. But Nemr went further: “Max plays me; I am his instrument.” I think this relationship between music and dance might help toward a proper (i.e. healed) conception of submission and obedience. Here are some reflections toward that end.

First, their performance happens in multiple levels of careful listening and response: Max ZT’s skillful rendering of the music from the dulcimer, Nemr’s ready and unreserved physical response to it, and Max ZT’s musical counter-responses to Nemr’s choices. And since this also depends on an ability to read one another quickly while in action, the two have become incredibly successful at improvisation which, when done many times over together, creates a total trust which releases between them an intensely positive energy. This energy (what one might call joy) feeds back into their collaboration and energizes it further, enables even greater freedom, deeper spontanaeity, more complex rhythms.

Second, this sensitive mutual listening, the ground of Nemr’s “submission,” involves, not only submission to their particular traditions, to the written music, and to their memorized routines (though it certainly includes, crucially, all of that), but to one another. About halfway through the performance, it becomes more difficult to tell who’s giving the first signals, who’s “obeying” whom.

But what about when Nemr gets something wrong? Nemr described the process this way: the music renders a particular possibility which he knows, in that moment, he has the choice to follow with a movement. Mostly he follows. Sometimes he misunderstands, ignores it, or waits just that split second too long until his foot can no longer go in the new direction. It’s disappointing, he said, to feel that moment pass. But what then? The dance becomes something else. The music changes. Max ZT listens, not only for Nemr’s moments of getting it right, but also for moments that, because of a missed opportunity, require the remaking of an opportunity by adjusting the music to the dance that is actually taking shape, not to the dance that might have taken shape otherwise. The duo, the submission, works with what is. Mistakes only initiate another embrace of reality. There is no room for regret—there’s literally no time for it—or for an abstract ideal of what they wish to perform, or wish the other to perform. There is only what has been, and what’s being done.

Watching them perform, I watched “play” inextricably combine joy with obedience, turning one free being, believe it or not, into the exuberant instrument of another. And the sound and movement they’re able to make is intense, wild, captivating. A word like “instrumentalization” does not even occur. Is this something like how “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” or how a Christian community might be “submitted to one another in love”? Was this vibrant, grin-inducing collaboration between a dulcimer player and a tapdancer a glimpse of something like real Christian obedience? If so, I hope I can learn to say yes.

Amber Noel received her M.Div. from Duke University in 2012 after additional graduate coursework in theology and literature at Lee University. She lives in Durham, NC (USA) where she is exploring vocations in pastoral, artistic, and academic fields, and currently works as Assistant to the Director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. In her spare time, Amber is either pursuing ordination as a deacon, eating breakfast, or watching Doctor Who. She has high-quality humans and/or cats around her most of the time.


http://www.andrewnemr.com
http://www.maxzt.com

Video courtesy of W. David O. Taylor
Image Credit

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