Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Amnesiac Morris Dancing

On the flight to Seattle I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker by Oliver Sachs about Clive Waring, an English musican who lost not only his memory but his ability to take in new information following a bout of encephalitis. This man's brain injury was extroardinarily severe -- I think it was described as the most severe case of amnesia recorded. Every time he opened his eyes the world was completely new to him, and he could make no connection from moment to moment. The two things this man seemed to retain were: His great love for his wife, and his ability to play and conduct music. It was the contradiction of keeping music while losing everything else that Dr. Sachs explored a bit.

I don't have the article in front of me for specifics, but one thing Dr. Sachs described was the phenomenon that even total amnesiacs like the gentleman in question can learn sequential activities. There are certain types of memories -- procedural memories -- that are stored in a different, more primitive area of the brain than the areas that were damaged in this gentleman. The article spoke of music being something that exists in the present (which is how I always describe my pleasure in singing shapenote), but it is the distinction of two types of memories that got me thinking about Morris dancing. The phenomenon of memory and movement sequence that exists in a sort of non-intellectual area has been of concern to me since I became a Morris dancer -- in large part because my comfort zone, my experience, and even my identity and sense of worth have always been entirely based in my declarative memory: the areas of memorized details and formulated abstractions and verbal processing. The part of the brain that stores and controls a more instinctive unthinking intuitive sense of movement and space and sequence is not one I've ever been able to rely on much (I cannot put up a tent without the instructions). And yet you can't Morris dance very well without it, that's what I'm leading up to.

In discussing the dance, and what makes good dance, my friend Denise speaks of what she calls "muscle memory", and I think that's the same thing that Dr. Sachs described in the area of the brain that learns sequential activity -- noting that if you interrupt the sequence it can't be picked up easily. Morris dancing is just no damned good until it reaches the level of muscle memory. One thing my team says to each other at the beginning of a dance we haven't danced for a while, or one which we're not all certain we remember, is "the music will tell you what to do". And it does. At a level that's not about verbalizing, or about remembered facts. I often speak of the glorious moment at the beginning of a dance, when my team is at its absolute best, when we let music and muscle memory guide us into a collective foot up, before we get distracted (and the sequence gets broken) by any number of things that can happen as the dance progresses. I used to say that once you know the dance well you are free to experience it, to interact with the other dancers. But I now think it's not about knowing the dance well so much as storing the dance in the unthinking, primitive part of the brain, which isn't exactly the same thing.

The other week a visiting friend had dinner with me and Jim and Denise, and she spoke of her frustrations with a Morris team she is currently involved with. Among the frustrations was what she described as the team being a bunch of "intellectual dancers", which, in the discussion at hand, meant they get thrown off by interruption or change because they are thinking too hard about what they are doing rather than feeling it. I think this notion of the dance being stored in a different area of the brain explains some of this. Part of our friend's frustration was that the team allowed poor turnout at rehearsals -- so the dance never made it to the deep-seated instinctive muscle memory place.

I have described dancing the occasional Morris dance that has felt absolutely transcendant, the sort of experience that reminds you why you dance Morris in the first place. I'm thinking that what makes these experiences so soaring is that for these dances, at these times, my team or my set is relying on primitive procedural memory in how we are moving. This sort of experience and this sort of pleasure is not one I've had much of in my life. Offhand, I'd say it's only in dance and music that I've felt this.
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