I’m taking contact improv this semester, which is honestly one of my favorite things ever, BUT recently my professor had us do a series of exercises that involved A LOT of singing in A LOT of different capacities, notably including singing while dancing and staring at another person in the eyes with no affect in your face and singing directly at them. I knew the minute he said we’d be doing anything with singing that I wouldn’t enjoy it at all (I hate singing) and I was right about that – I didn’t enjoy it. But it certainly made me think. As a performing artist and someone who finds a lot of power in performance, I found it interesting that this one specific medium of performing is so distinctly unappealing and, perhaps more importantly, so distinctly uncomfortable. There’s something about vocalizing that’s vulnerable in a way that other types of performing aren’t for me, and I’m super curious as to why that is. As I’ve said before, I read myself better through my dancing than my words, so in a way my dancing should be rather vulnerable because it’s rather revealing.
Something else that I found very interesting is that I have zero problems humming or making vaguely musical noises that sound remotely like a song, but ask me to insert words and we have a problem. I hum/vaguely sing instrumental music all the time, especially when I’m dancing. But for some reason there’s something about adding words that feels infinitely more uncomfortable. I’m inclined to think it has to do with the inherent association between words and taking up space. Humming or vague non-word singing much more easily fades to the background than singing a song with words. Our brains are attuned to hear and distinguish words, which naturally brings song involving words more to our attention in a room full of background noise. It is simply easier, and more comfortable, to not take up space, especially when you don’t feel like you are an expert (or even remotely good at) the thing you are doing. And that’s very much how I feel about singing, and sometimes speaking in general.
Often when I speak, it’s in the form of long-form sentences with a frequently ridiculous amount of words and occasionally ridiculously large words. I’m hiding behind my verbiage. It’s a mode of performance (though, notably, everything is a mode of performance to some degree), specifically performing some form of expertise or experience, and it feels safe. It’s also inaccessible in the sense that throwing long sentences with sesquipedalian (see what I did there? Excessively large word) verbiage doesn’t do a great job of relaying information because you have to sift through the sentence to get to what’s actually important (AKA every academic reading ever…it’s literally its own language). It’s performing knowledge, and I often use this mode of performativity to convince myself that I’m knowledgable in the subject just as much as the other people in the room. So, singing is a form of relaying words that’s super uncomfortable because it doesn’t allow me to fall into a rhythm of often monotonic, long-form, verbose sentences. In fact, many songs are explicitly not that.
Furthermore, I’m a performing artist for a reason. The stage is a comfort zone for me, at least when I’m dancing. But it’s important to think about what kinds of stages are comfortable and why. The proscenium stage is a place of particular comfort, partially because most of my time performing has been spent here and partially because the proscenium is built to create a degree of separation between the performer and the audience. The lights and general environment of a proscenium during a performance make it virtually impossible to see the audience, and if you can see them they generally just look like a blob (as in, they’re not discernible as individual people generally). I’m literally hiding in the spotlight in that I don’t have to acknowledge that there’s an audience full of people. I certainly acknowledge there’s an audience – it’s impossible not to as proscenium performance is quite different from rehearsal – but it’s easy to ignore them as individual people and to just perform to the general blob. This is a really interesting way of “hiding” because it only works one way. I am hyper visible to the audience in the sense that I am a part of the thing that they’ve come to watch; there’s a literal spotlight on me. The setup of the proscenium means I don’t have to acknowledge that, and I find it very possible to evoke an entirely convincing level of performance without thinking about the individual people in the audience in most cases.
This is a very self-indulgent mode of performance. It’s me doing a thing I’m very comfortable doing and enjoy doing a lot without having to necessarily confront the notion that I’m being watched. The singing directly at another person is decidedly not self-indulgent (though I suppose it is in the sense that I’m still making another person listen to me…but I digress). I can confirm that I do not enjoy it and it is decidedly uncomfortable. It’s forced acknowledgement of the person I’m performing for and a break from the normal social cues of one-on-one interactions (per the “no facial affect” parameter). There’s no hiding, either in the light or in the lengthy sentences. It’s a very deeply performative moment, but it’s also very stripped, at least for me. We are all comfortable in different modes of performance, and this particular exercise strips me of all, or at least most, of my performative comforts. Which I suppose is the point: both getting comfortable in your discomfort and being able to identify your performative modes for the purpose of suppressing them.
It’s notable that, even though I say I’m most comfortable on a proscenium stage, this has become rapidly less true in the past year (ish). The proscenium is still a very familiar and comfortable place, and a performance modality that I grew up in, but I’ve come to like more intimate performance settings for dance for the different ways movement reads in these and the value of the possibility of more intimate interaction with the audience. I’ve also recently come to love improv as its own mode of performance, though a very very different one. This was such a deeply uncomfortable practice for me not that long ago, and I’ve grown to not only love it but to need it in my life. I’ve come to love its inherent vulnerability and it’s taught me so much about myself as a mover and a human.
So, begrudgingly, my professor’s exercise has value. I still hate it (sorry not sorry) and I’m pretty sure I’m never going to enjoy singing the way I’ve grown to love improv or non-proscenium dance performance. But it taught me a lot about my own performativity and the value in stripping this to learn about where my discomfort comes from. Honestly, everything we do is performative in some ways, down to the small facial cues we make. A lot of it is a subconscious social or cultural choreography, and there’s so much value in being able to strip down modes of performance for the sake of recognizing which of these we exist comfortably in without even recognizing it. I’ll certainly continue to hide in the light, at least sometimes, but I’ll acknowledge that it’s comfortable and it’s hiding, which is an important acknowledgement to make.