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The Sixth Sense

martha graham.

As a failed child ballerina//tap dancer//gymnast, I’ve always been more than a little amazed by [and a tad jealous of] those who possess both the coordination and the grace to dance their way to the stage. Quite frankly, the feats dancers perform are nothing short of miraculous to me. These are people who have mastered the art of sensing where each and every inch of their bodies are at any given moment in lyrical time. A musician relies on her aural sensibilities when composing a piece of music. A chef relies on the integration of smell and taste when crafting the most flavorful of dishes. A dancer, on the other hand, must rely on a little-acknowledged but ever-present sixth sense: proprioception.

Proprioception is “the inner sense by which the body is aware of itself” [Oliver Sacks]. The body sense. As we proprioceive, our brain is coordinating several raw inputs, such as the body’s position with respect to gravity [the inner ear fluid], the stretch of a particular muscle [stretch receptors], and the angle at which a given joint is open [joint receptors]. The brain integrates all these complex inputs to determine where our bodies are in three-dimensional space at any instant.

twyla tharp.

This body sense is what allows us to shut our eyes and still account for the orientation of all our limbs at once without a moment’s thought. It is literally why we feel embodied. However, perhaps because we feel entitled to our own embodiment, we often take proprioception for granted, even more so than our other senses. and yet, without it, we would have to consciously train our eyes on each and every movement to judge distances. to calculate trajectories. To pain-stakingly keep track of where we are and where we’re going. [For more, see the strange case of Ian Waterman.]

Most of us seldom use our powers of proprioception consciously because we only ever ask our bodies to do the routine: one foot in front of the other//now walk, fingers to the itch//now scratch, hand to the mouth//now eat. we perform these tasks with an innate sense of effortlessness because we’ve been doing them forever. We only proprioceive consciously while we are actively learning a new movement or fine-tuning a motion we already know, drawing our awareness to it.

pina bausch.

Virtuosos of proprioception, dancers necessarily have a heightened and very much conscious sense of body: “A dancer must listen to his body and pay homage to it. behind the movement lies this terrible, driving passion, this necessity” [Martha Graham]. Of course, by virtue of their intensive training, the dancer’s repertoire of motion is far more extensive than the average individual. Their muscle memory is jam-packed with moves that are almost incomprehensible to my own body. Nevertheless, the art in dance only comes with the dancer’s ability to unite the conscious mind with the body. Intentionally fine-tuning the most minute movements. Exhibiting exquisite command over even the tiniest of muscles.

Some of the greatest dancers claim that they were born to dance. Martha Graham once said: “People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose. I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life.” Perhaps for these elite few, the proprioceptual mind-body union comes through pure intuition—a natural sense of knowing where the body should be at any given moment, simultaneously envisioning and creating the lines of the body. Just as one person may have a higher visual acuity or super hearing capabilities, the natural-born dancer could have greater proprioceptual capacity. A heightened awareness of the body’s orientation and coordination in space infused with an aesthetic sensibility. An innate understanding of how to move with artful purpose.