Surfing, dancing, movement and nature junkie, Anna Seymour, takes us inside her world where the exploration of nature and it’s rhythms provides her with some of her ultimate pleasures. As a profoundly deaf dancer, the exploitation of her heightened other senses are key to her success. These enhanced senses also impact upon her surfing world!
As I entered the year 2016 holidaying at my parent’s house near Byron Bay and spending the majority of my time in the ocean either surfing, ocean swimming across the bay, body surfing or just a quick refreshing dip giving my body a respite from dancing, I started thinking about what the sport of surfing and the art of dancing have in common.
I also wondered how surfing could help my dancing and how dancing could help me become a better surfer (I only surf a few times a year whenever I visit Byron Bay). I am passionate about both! I am addicted to adrenalin and endorphins flooding my body and mind. I love moving, I love working out and being physical. I also see dancing and surfing as spiritual practices. They connect me with nature and make me feel complete.
I am surprised I haven’t thought of this before given that I have been doing both activities ever since I was a little girl. I grew up in Northern NSW and I am a contemporary dancer based in Melbourne which has been my home for the past 10 years. Reflecting on my dance career and noticing the themes that often arise in my dance projects, it’s no wonder I subconsciously use both passions to feed each other.
Even though the art of dancing and the sport of surfing seem completely different, there are so many similarities between both that it’s astonishing.
Contemporary dance, in a nutshell, is a study of movement with the human body as the medium. Personally, contemporary dance is a way of living, a form of expression, an ongoing site of research and experimentation, a vehicle for me to release energy and a huge source of joy and salvation. It is an art form and a sport because it requires discipline, training and technical finesse. Dancers are like athletes. My personal interests in contemporary dance specifically lie in studying and understanding the rhythms of the human body and the rhythms found in nature. I am intrigued by the patterns found in nature versus the patterns found in society – more specifically the similarities and differences between the two. Rhythm is a big part of contemporary dance. Not just musical or artificial rhythm but the natural rhythms of the body. The breath the human body makes and the flow of energy.
Surfing is a water-based, dynamic sport involving riding waves standing on a board. It is often referred to as the art of dancing on the water where the rhythms of the human body connect with the rhythms of the ocean and nature.
Dancing and surfing are driven by rhythm and flow. Kendall Eric Sparks, a ballet dancer and surfer from the USA, says in dancing and surfing each has a ‘master’. In dancing, the master is the music where it tells you what to do and you have to follow it. In surfing, the ocean tells you what to do and you need to follow the ocean and the waves. That got me thinking. I am a dancer and I was born profoundly Deaf. So in my case, music being my ‘master’ in dance doesn’t really work. People often ask me “How do you dance if you are Deaf?” That is a fair question as dance is often associated with music. Dance has long been thought of as a hearing art form excluding those who cannot hear. But dance is not just about the music. What is my ‘master’ in dance? What is my reference point? What guides me? In my case, my master is my intuition, my sense of rhythm, muscle memory and tuning in with other dancers/bodies and the environment. I rely on rhythms – my own natural rhythms, the rhythms of other dancers, kinaesthetic senses and breath to inform my dancing.
Does the hearing sense, or lack of, interfere with movement? I don’t see how it would. If one sense is absent, then other senses are amplified. Perhaps my Deafness is the reason for heightened awareness and kinaesthetic intelligence in me. It’s no surprise that I’m so attracted to dancing, surfing and movement in general. I wonder if all the years spent surfing and ocean swimming has developed a strong sense of natural rhythm and breath laying the foundations for a career in contemporary dance.
Fluidity is a common concept referred to in contemporary dance. After all, up to 60 percent of the human body is made of water and dancers constantly do warm up and meditation exercises focusing on fluidity in our joints for increased freedom of movement. If your dancing has been described as being fluid, it’s usually a compliment. It is a valued dynamic in dance. I’d say the same applies to surfing. It would be hard to embody and enjoy a staccato quality in surfing. I believe it is nature that inspires fluidity, flow and synchronized breathing. I was a dancer for a contemporary dance piece called Hypnagogia in Melbourne, which explored the states of being awake, being asleep and especially the place in between, often a state of lucid dreaming, hallucinations and fluidity. The choreographer asked me to dance as if I was underwater which added a certain resistance in my movements. I was directed to imagine diving under the waves and being thrown around by the waves coming up for breath. It was easy for me to conjure those images as I spent most of my childhood and teens in the ocean.
As Tim Winton in his beautiful book, Breath, says, “It’s funny, but you never really think much about breathing. Until it’s all you ever think about.” He is absolutely right. When I am ocean swimming, the first bit is always hard as my body tries to find a steady pace and rhythm driven by breathing. I remember learning to swim; it was all about understanding the breath before learning the strokes. In surfing, if you fall off a wave and get thrown around underwater, you go without oxygen and all that is on your mind, in that moment, is the need to get air to breathe. It is easy to panic but with practice, you learn to remain calm and utilize your body resources until you are able to emerge to the surface for oxygen. Dancers could learn something from this as dancers are often reprimanded for forgetting to breathe or not using our breath to instigate movement. Dancers tend to hold their breath while trying to master difficult technical steps and complex choreography. In Hypnagogia, the choreography was not driven by counting or music but rather by our breathing. Breath allows for movement to occur and for us to extend our movement possibilities.
In dancing and surfing, you need to honour the natural flow and let your body and the wave take you wherever it will take you. You cannot predict what will happen. Even in choreographed performance, each time you do the same choreography, it will always feel a bit different.
Surfing and dancing both require surrender and trust in your body and natural rhythms. We are often told in dance class to have conviction in the natural trajectory of our body as the human body has the intelligence to make decisions. If we honour our bodies and go with it, our bodies can take us on a journey and on an adventure. It is the same when catching a wave. There is so much potential for spontaneousness and surprises.
Disorientation is an unavoidable element in dancing and surfing. Dancers and surfers have a three-dimensionality awareness of the surrounding environment. In dancing, disorientation happens as we constantly change directions, do pirouettes, fall to the floor, roll and tumble on the floor. In surfing, we experience disorientation if we wipe-out. You can feel the ocean’s unquestionable power and rage throwing you around like a spinning ragdoll losing all sense of direction. Once you finally find the way to the surface, another wave may crash over you sending you into disorientation again.
I like to think of dancing and surfing as improvisation. Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of improv theatre says, “In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action…bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.” To improvise, you need to accept all offers made. This is our job in dancing and surfing. We have to be there for it, be present, be in the moment and be switched on. Otherwise disconnection and lack of action will occur.
Surfing and dancing invite us to embrace the descent. In surfing, the descent down the wall of a wave… and in dancing, the fall to the floor. Both require a delicate negotiation of physics and balance, applying pressure or releasing for a ‘safe’ fall and recovery.
I feel fear, as well as immense joy, while dancing and surfing. In dancing, there are different kinds of fears I experience. The fear of looking stupid. The fear of trying unfamiliar movements. The fear of being out of control and falling over. In surfing, I feel the fear of being dumped by huge waves, of rocks and reefs, encountering sharks, crashing into another surfer or being cut by fins of a surfboard.
I thrive on the unpredictability, the adventure and the fear while dancing and surfing. Both demand full presence and attention. I love feeling the fear. It is what keeps me on edge and makes me feel alive. It’s like being in love. As Tim Winton says “Apparently there is nothing to fear in life but fear itself.” He also says “Being afraid proves you are alive and awake.” I believe it is healthy to feel uncomfortable on a regular basis in life. Being uncomfortable is the antidote to laziness and disconnection from nature. If I don’t move for even one or two days, I start to feel restless and depressed. My senses feel dormant.
In dancing and surfing, I want to feel powerful but with style and grace. Dancing and surfing have similar qualities such as flow, rhythm, awareness, concentration and control. Both activities require agility, balance, precision, grace, presence… not to mention immense physical strength. In both, you need to know how to use your muscles and alignment properly and how to direct energy and weight. You need a sophisticated understanding of your body and how far you can push it.
Melbourne is a city devoid of waves but I could apply the principles of surfing to my dance practice. Everything we do is interconnected. My time in the ocean has provided a place of calm and reflection for me, to breathe and gather energy from nature. As the cliché goes: Only a surfer knows the feeling. It’s the same with dancers; only a dancer knows the feeling. A Hawaiian proverb says, Hiki mai ka ino hiki mai no ka malie which means bad weather comes, good weather comes too. The ocean changes. Life changes. Meanwhile I will keep dancing and surfing.