catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #106 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

Books, Dance, and Memoir

More than a decade ago when I was working on the collective memoir that became Rosie’s Daughters: The First Woman to Generation Tells Its Story, I purchased a large number of memoirs by women born during World War II — the daughters of Rosie the Riveter. Some of these volumes have stayed in my mind more than others. And one of these with sticking power is The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp, the highly acclaimed dancer and choreographer. Her memoir gave me new ideas about the habits that need to be associated with writing. Twyla Tharp’s work is tucked away in my mind.

So you can imagine how excited I was when Lanie Tankard, our regular book reviewer, contacted me about Andrea Olsen’s book The Place of Dance: A Somatic Guide to Dancing and Dance Making. In this review, Lanie details how Andrea Olsen’s book has much to offer to writers. In addition, Olsen’s book broadens my understanding of the link between memoir, creativity, and dance as I begin to see how body movement and memoir are both forms of healing.

Memoir Book Review — The Place of Dance Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

The Place of Dance: A Somatic Guide to Dancing and Dance Making

by Andrea Olsen

with Caryn McHose

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“When I teach students to write, I tell them to feel their bodies in their seats, to breathe in and out, to feel themselves in the writing act before they lose themselves to the words they are about to write out or type….The secret to writing that moves is to be within the words, to inhabit them like a second skin.”
—Myriam J.A. Chancy,
“Dancing Words” (Calabash)

Andrea Olsen’s recent book exemplifies how body awareness can benefit writers. The Place of Dance demonstrates Twyla Tharp’s deep belief that movement “has a lot to offer other disciplines.”

Olsen recently retired as a full-time professor at Middlebury College but still teaches some courses there. She’s also taught at various locations around the world, and presented a TEDxMonterey Talk for the 2011 “Cultivating Innovation” event. You can watch her talk, “From Fear to the Sublime: Art Making and the Environment,” at the bottom of this review. In it, Olsen discusses “embodied thinking” and what limits innovation. She ties “your creative thinking mind” to different types of artists, including writers “daily facing the blank page.”

Olsen has written two previous books about movement, Body and Earth: An Experiential Guide (Middlebury Bicentennial Series in Environmental Studies) and Bodystories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy.

This latest book offers dancers a way to explore their craft at a deeper level in a 31-day somatic guide. For every day, Olsen presents section prompts that push readers to do, to dance, to speak, and to present—but also to write. She encourages them to explore a different discipline by placing the dance stories of their lives on paper, and suggests a number of angles from which to do so.

Olsen’s book could be instructive to women’s memoirists as well. She weaves in her life account via staccato snippets placed to the sides of pages, thus staging her own memoir narrative through an approach that literally marginalizes it while at the same time figuratively highlights the sections it accompanies. She employs global visual images, stories, and practices.

Olsen’s style serves as an example of how to bring creativity to memoir, even though Olsen herself may not term her book a memoir. Writers who possess proficiency in a particular subject, as Olsen does in dance, might consider combining their expertise with their personal backgrounds. Sheila Collins used her life story to express how dance helped move her through grief in Warrior Mother, reviewed here on Women’s Memoirs last year.

Andrea OlsenWhen Andrea Olsen spoke recently at BookWoman in Austin, Texas, she said relationship is a theme of her work, books, and writing. She’s kept a journal for a long time—a practice she’s now reversing.

“I’m in the process of burning and burying forty years of journals. I don’t want them read after I’m gone. I wrote what I wanted to get out of my mind. I burn them at the end of each year.”

Olsen brought up the way she had included vignettes from her life in The Place of Dance, and encouraged writers to “marginalize your book.”

“The stories are the most fun—the emotional and personal parts.”

What of her writing process?

“I’m a bit of a classicist. I like a form so I can be wild within it.”

A book is “a way to make a dialogue about movement and language,” she feels, citing discussion, reviews, and criticism.

“You learn as a writer that you get feedback and you learn from it. Take the negative comments and decide how they’ll spur you on.”

Olsen is “a massive notetaker,” stating, “I have volumes of notes. Dancers use language to make movement by using an image or an invocation.”

How does viewing movement assist creativity?

“When you’re watching dance,” Olsen said, “your brain is dancing.”

Olsen considers prepositions to be central to meaning: “Are you moving toward, away, etc.? They reflect your worldview.”

She touched upon voice in writing, saying that it’s “remembering our heritage” and observing that writers become hesitant at an unconscious level.

“Any nondominant person in a culture stays hidden and quiet. A lot of women who write get sick. There’s an unconscious place where they realize what they’ve written will be read or heard out loud. It’s a fear. The role of the entertainer is to shape that energy to come closer to the care of our own artistry. The heart is a history. Childhood doesn’t go away. You have to be where you are to get to the next place. Become wordless. I write so that in what I don’t say I leave room for you to speak.”

I interviewed Andrea Olsen before her talk, asking her for specific advice to women who are writing memoirs.

“Relax,” she said. “Get rid of the word memoir. It’s intimidating. Search out where the energy goes. A dialogue between language and experience is really what emerges out of the body. The portal into freedom of movement is a thinking one. You’re writing to learn about yourself, not about what you know. As Carl Jung stressed, what’s unconscious is from experience.”

I’m not a dancer, but I definitely learned a lot about writing from Andrea Olsen and The Place of Dance.



Lanie TankardLanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.



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