Dances With Words
Yesterday evening we watched the 1989 movie “Tap”, starring Gregory Hines. The story is predictable, the pace a bit slow, and the bad guys are not all that scary. But the performances, especially by Hines and Suzzanne Douglas, are excellent and, most importantly, the dancing is not only fantastic but it gets a lot of screen time. And thankfully it isn’t spoiled by the sort of editing that makes you wonder if any of those feet you get momentary glimpses of actually belong to the faces that flash by in separate shots. Like a Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers movie, you can actually watch the dancers dance. The movie opens with a powerful, steadily built solo piece by Hines in a tiny prison cell, and manages to fit in at least a few steps by Hines or some other member of the cast, which also includes a young Savion Glover as well as veteran Sammy Davis Jr. who was near the end of his amazing life and career when the movie was made.
There is something about dance, especially the percussive style of tap, that makes me smile. No, it goes deeper than that, it lifts me up in a way that only one other thing can do. That one other thing is reading a particularly well written passage, whether from a novel, poem, play or any other form of writing. And I think the reason these otherwise dissimilar art forms touch me in much the same way is because they both involve rhythm, they have a heartbeat. A good tap routine, no matter how complex or dazzling, has to come from a beat, a pulse, it has to know how and when to lay back, when to create tension and when to strike. The same applies to fine writing. Whether an Ogden Nash short poem, a tragic play by Shakespeare or a novel by Jane Austen, all good writing has a rhythm, all good writers know that it isn’t just what they say, but how they say it, using just the right words in just the right order with just the right punctuation that makes all the difference in the world.
When it comes to my own dancing I’ve got a pretty good sense of rhythm and movement, but I’m not very well schooled and I’m certainly not a natural. It’s just that, much like Darin Baer, the main character in my WIP, when I’m happy I just can’t keep my feet from moving. And when I need a lift, the right music and a bit of empty floor space works wonders. But nobody is going to mistake me for Gregory Hines or Astaire, and that’s okay with me.
But writing is a different story altogether. I am reaching for that same sense of rhythm, that sure handle on the pulse of the words that is one of the defining characteristics of all the writers I admire. The stories told by Twain, Wodehouse, Pratchett, Westlake, Dickens and so many other writers are great not simply because of their subject matter or plotlines (yes, ridiculously intricate plotlines are part of the Wodehouse charm, but Twain couldn’t sustain a through storyline to save his life, Huckleberry Finn meanders like crazy) but because of the way they present their truths, our truths, the shared rhythm of our lives. I may be late in life to be reaching that high, but I'm still going for it.
As I sat in the bathtub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar” it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy. ---Bertie Wooster Sees it Through by P.G. Wodehouse
“Where a man does his best with only moderate powers, he will have the advantage over negligent superiority.” …Emma by Jane Austen