Inventing the Moment: what dancers can teach us about the inner life

The art of dance is the art of moving as if for the first time.

Dancers move in ways we don’t see every day. Not at coffee shops, gas stations, office cubicles. Dance is not a social utility . . .

Inspiration from one of my Pinterest boards

. . . that is, dancers aren’t using gestures and movements for basic social communication. Instead, as with artists in general, they aim to communicate realities that run deep: emotions, impulses, dreams.

They reinvent the inner life from something hidden to something explosively visible and unexpected.

In other words: they invent the moment.

The point is to take oneself out of time, out of everything you know and have learned, the way babies and toddlers process new information. In Sarah Manguso’s reflective book on time and capturing moments–titled Ongoingness: The End of a Diary–she recalls a realization inspired by her toddler.

Sarah Manguso’s book

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake. [. . .] The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that.


Love indeed. To create anything as if for the first time in history–whether through word or deed–is the ultimate in unadulterated attention.

As an introvert, I struggle with that. I’m overwhelmed by possibility. I want to express the unknown before I can even know it.

I constantly pressure myself to do, write, or say something so new that it’s either inhuman or impossible. (A desire well-explored by Harold Bloom in his book, The Anxiety of Influence ). And of course, it never worked. I stymied my own efforts to communicate the inner life; it kept me from writing for years.

It kept me from many things. Years ago, when I received a hand sculpture-casting kit as a gift, I wanted to cast my hand in a position that had no particular meaning or association–something unearthly and intense. I looked for inspiration in jewelry hand displays:

And although I liked the ones which stretched tall and reached out, I was disappointed by the limits of the human hand. The hand does what the hand does; humans are what we are.

I never did cast that sculpture. The box of dormant clay sat in my closet, a reminder of this fear to invent my own moments.

I think dancers know something that every writer and thinker should know:

the body and the mind have their limits, but you work with that . . .

there are only so many words in a language, but you could still spend a lifetime arranging them . . .

and a world of fear and anxiety won’t get you any closer to the unknown.

I’m reminded of a quote, which I can’t remember word-for-word and can’t attribute, but which says something to the extent of: To discover the unknown, explore the known in all directions. 

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