Memory and Tap Dancing

Last night a few of my cast mates and I stepped out on the town to see the dance musical, Pulse at ASOLO Rep.  What a gorgeous theater they have here in Sarasota. Be sure to take a peek inside whenever you happen this way; it’s a stunning space.

Now, about the show: I must confess that my critical faculties seem to fly out the window whenever anyone starts smiling, singing, and (tap) dancing at me. But that’s tap dancing’s purpose isn’t it?  To beat those abilities out of the brains of its spectators and leave them as lumps of giddy awe.

Your favorite theorist on tap, Ayn Rand (whose critical faculties are always in tact), explains why this might be the case:

Tap dancing is completely synchronized with, responsive and obedient to the music – by means of a common element crucial to music and to man’s body: rhythm. This form permits the dancer no pause, no stillness: his feet touch the ground only long enough to accent the rhythm’s beat. From start to finish, no matter what the action of his body, his feet continue that even, rapid tapping; it is like a long series of dashes underscoring his movements; he can leap, whirl, kneel, yet never miss a beat. It looks, at times, as if it is a contest between the man and the music, as if the music is daring him to follow – and he his following lightly, effortlessly, almost casually. Complete obedience to the music? The impression one gets is: complete control – man’s mind in effortless control of his expertly functioning body. The keynote is: precision. It conveys a sense of purpose, discipline, clarity – a mathematical kind of clarity – combined with an unlimited freedom of movement and an inexhaustible inventiveness that dares the sudden, the unexpected, yet never loses the central, integrating line: the music’s rhythm. No, the emotional range of tap dancing is not unlimited: it cannot express tragedy or pain or fear or guilt; all it can express is gaiety and every shade of emotion pertaining to the joy of living.

“Art and Cognition”, 1971

I like how she makes it about competition, power, and the domination of the human spirit. Keep it real, Ayn. She does confess in that same essay, though, that tap is her “favorite form of the dance.”

Anyway, the point of all of this is that I am not going to try to review this show for you, because I couldn’t.

I would, however, like to write about a theme that popped up for me over the course of the night. A theme related to a lovely book by Marvin Carlson entitled The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as a Memory Machine.

His book deals, in large part, with how audiences receive theater, particularly as relates to a phenomenon he calls ghosting. To Carlson every play is a memory play involved in “inescapable and continuing negotiations with memory” (2).

When we go to the theater we have stored with us all the shows we’ve seen before, all those great (or boring) theatrical experiences we’ve had prior. Our memory cannot help but shape our experience of what we are seeing.

Carlson writes:

The process of using the memory of previous encounters to understand and interpret encounters with new and somewhat different but apparently similar phenomena is fundamental to human cognition in general and it plays a major role in the theatre as it does in all the arts. Within the theatre, however, a related but somewhat different aspect of memory operates in a manner distinct from or at least in a more central way than in the other arts, so much so that I would argue that it is one of the characteristic features of the theatre. To this phenomenon I have given the name ghosting. Unlike the reception operations of genre…in which audience members encounter a new but distinctly different example of a type of artistic product they have encountered before, ghosting presents an identical thing they have encountered before although in a somewhat different context. (7)

This is why going to the theater sometimes feels like visiting an old friend. There’s comfort and familiarity, and an extra delight (or perhaps dismay) when they do something you weren’t expecting of them.

Now, I do think this ghosting idea is a complicated thing to really gauge in terms of reception, as everyone has their own stores of memory and experience, and the idea of a quasi platonic cultural memory of theater-going that exists out there in the ether is a bit tricky for me to wrap my brain around.

But there was no doubt that as I sat in that audience last night, everyone was conjuring up memories of this. (Click it, you won’t be sorry.)

On top of that, the actors all told personal anecdotes about when they first knew they were dancers, of when they fell in love with the art. These personal narratives wove together with our own personal narratives and cultural memories to create what really felt like a communal experience. Here we all were remembering our lives in the theater, either as spectators or artists.

At the end of the show, as the cast began to sing “Sunny Side of the Street” you could feel the audience absolutely unable to resist softly singing along to this song that they’d heard and loved again and again. It was very sweet.

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