Last week the hometown had its first decent swell in a few weeks drawing all of the crusty salty-heads out of their hiding places to take advantage of the clean, off-shore, well-sized conditions. All the regular spots got crowded, of course, but local surfers were, at least, relieved that this new swell arrived just after the end of the summer holidays meaning that the best breaks didn’t have to be shared with a million and one visitors.
When a decent swell hits, along with scoring a few waves on my trusty old log, I also usually try to take a few photographs of the punters in the line-up. This southernly swell was no different. Over forty minutes perched on a sandy dune lip above the Main Beach I clicked and grabbed well over one hundred images. When an amateur like me is snapping away madly at everything that moves in the churning surf you know that ninety-five percent of the images you have captured are rubbish. Yesterday I finally got around to sorting through the photographs to choose my favourites to add to my collection. After several hours of looking, sorting and deleting I had one of those light bulb moments. I suddenly realized that some of the images were having a gut… visceral… impact on me. These few pics might have even caused me to make a grunting noise or even let out a sudden “fuck!” sound. And, not surprisingly, it was the “fuck” pics that I was choosing as my keepers. Well, none of this is terribly surprising, you might be thinking. Of course! The shots of the best surfers… the lovely cutbacks… the acrobatic vertical re-entries… the courageous and powerful bottom turns carved out after a critically steep take off… are going to stand out from the crappy turns from the lesser surfers. Of course the highly skilled technical performances will cause a gut reaction making you want to keep them. But that was not what was happening. My gut reaction to some of the images defied technical analysis and my choices about which photos to keep did not necessarily reflect the most complex and difficult manoeuvres being performed. Some of my favourite pics were actually very ordinary surfers sometimes doing very ordinary things on what were, occasionally, pretty ordinary waves. This was quite perplexing. I didn’t get it. Why was my gut reaction overruling technical analysis? And what was causing my gut reaction? Why did I like (actually love) some images that showed technically inconsequential performances? I didn’t know.
A traditional diet of footy and running subverted by dance
On my way back from the surf yesterday afternoon I was listening to the car radio and, at the same time, pondering upon the surf photograph choices that I had made earlier in the day that didn’t make any sense. Patricia Karvelas was interviewing a dancer and choreographer who had been raised in rural South Australia. Lewis Major was explaining to Patricia that he had come to dancing and the arts unusually late in life. A traditional diet of footy and cross-country running had been subverted, at the age of seventeen, by his attendance at a performance of the Australian Dance Theatre who had come to his small town while on a rare rural tour.
“Suddenly there was this virtuosic movement – throwing yourself around – hitting the floor – and then rolling out of it!” said Major.
He thought that this was very cool. He was captivated. His mind was blown! Here was the cross-over between a sporting life and his previously unexpressed interest in theatre that he had been (unknowingly) craving. I guess his reaction was visceral… a gut knowledge that this was something that he needed in his own life. His excitement didn’t come from his cerebral analysis of the virtuosic movement. It was an instant emotional reaction. Hmm, I thought. A bit like my reaction to some of the photographs I had taken. We might be onto something here, I thought, so I concentrated on this dancer Lewis Major’s answers to Karvelas’ questions even closer.
Classical ballet lessons, while still dressed in footy shorts, came next. Of course the technical dance moves did his head in, initially, but Major had discovered a new life to pursue. With hard work, a bit of luck and a willingness to take risks Major’s new dance obsession turned into a career as well as whole new lifestyle.
Watching the dance bypasses theoretical understanding
Karvelas then asked, “Dance can be its own language. How do you let people in on that language?”
Hmmm, I thought. This could be interesting. I turned up the volume on my car radio several notches to catch his answer.
Major said, “Dance is about the body. Everyone has a body… so when you are watching bodies move on stage – or even if you are watching a body perform a pedestrian action but it is well-crafted – it bypasses the theoretical understanding… you somehow instinctively feel what it is (or what it is saying, I guess) because you have a body! You know what a body feels like to move because you have your own… and there is something so beautiful about that and the possibilities in that.”
I’m not sure I get it completely but I’m fairly sure that Major’s thoughts don’t just apply to dancing. What he is trying to explain might also be true for surfing. In fact, surfing may be a form of dancing. But the body (and its place in the environment) is the key thing. When one surfs, one uses the body to express oneself. When one watches surfing, one watches a body expressing itself. The watcher does not have to analyse. The watcher has a body and they instinctively understand what is going on for the surfer. They may not have the skill to repeat what the surfer has created on a wave, but they can sense what has gone on and the reaction comes from the gut.
Here are the photographs that I chose. Some of them are of the best surfers. Some of them are not. Some of the best surf shots and the best surfers got left out. But all of the shots that remain, gave me a gut reaction. Some of them made me say “fuck!” If Major is right then my knowledge of my body made me react to what the surfers bodies were doing, and I understood it… and appreciated it. I was out there with them. The good and the not so good. Me, the kook, was riding those waves with all of them. My body enabled me to get their dance!
And so concludes the dance.
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