The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Everything has Meaning
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Everything has Meaning

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

I’m in the room with TiDii, the tap dance company that Savion Glover directed in the early 2000s. We’re working on a piece and he says, “Who is this step about?” All of the dancers in the room draw a blank. We are silent. He does the step again, and asks again, “Who is this step about?!” Still silence. Then he says, while repeating the step, “This is Uncle Bo! Can’t you see that this is Uncle Bo?”

Mind you, the step Savion was talking about was not a direct quote of anything Bill “Bojangles” Robinson every did. Rather it was two beats – count them 1, 2 – of an insinuation that was spurred on by Savion thinking about Mr. Bill. How could anyone else have figured that out?

There is one way. By bringing us into his world, into his we of thinking, Savion was giving all the members of TiDii the opportunity to take on his approach to the craft of tap dancing. His approach, as I came to understand it, was inseparable from the people – the relationships – that one would meet in Tap Dance Land. His approach required a kind of immersion through which connections, the methodology of language, and consequential meaning all became second nature. There was never a point in which I thought a step we had in a piece was meaningless. The goal was to learn, practice, and ultimately embody the meaning.

Whether it was something like the 2 beats that honored the memory of one of the most respected tap dancers ever or a step that was needed to get from side of the stage to another – the approach was the same. We, the dancers were to execute the steps with specificity, accuracy, and care.

But there was something deeper happening in that room. Savion was generously teaching us the how and the why. He often created work right in front of us. We got to witness his process of choice-making unfold. With even a little intentional observation we would see his choices evolve as he searched for the right next step in a piece. If we asked, he would graciously open up about what a particular part of a piece meant to him, how he saw it in his mind, or where the inspiration for a choice came from.

This wasn’t just about learning how to execute a skill. It was about becoming the kinds of people for whom a particular kind of dancing would naturally come out of. The dancing had a character, that was based on a set of values – even personalities – that was then expressed in every step undergirded by meaning.

Grafting

The three years I had in TiDii were profound. They capped a 13-year journey of being grafted into the community of tap dancers who held the oral tradition. I had been immersed – completely dunked in the waters of Tap Dance Land. It was difficult to see any other way as good or right.

You can imagine my shock when I first heard the idea the art was meaningless. Or deeper still, that we could make our own meaning out of things. While I understand why such sentiments exist, I still has a hard time with them as they disregard what I know to be reality.

Meaninglessness

Meaninglessness comes about from a few different directions. First might be the idea of freedom. There is freedom in action if there is not possible meaning attached to it. If there is no meaning, there is no judgement. If there is no judgement, there is no possibility for condemnation. If there is no possibility for condemnation, we can do whatever we want, without restriction to any morality.

Second might be the idea of value. Much of art isn’t considered valuable in the market. Since the culture of the market pervades much of society it goes that art isn’t considered valuable. If only things of value can have meaning, and art doesn’t have value, then art is meaningless. Meaninglessness here is close to frivolousness or more directly, worthlessness, which is the antagonist of productivity when it comes to activity. If art making is a frivolous activity, then the art made has little value, deeming it meaningless in a market culture.

Making our own meaning

If it is true that only things of value can have meaning, there is a way to flip the logic. If we can make our own meaning, then things we deem have meaning can have value. This is the road to making ourselves the gods of our own worlds. Which, if there isn’t anything else to guide us will be a likely outcome.

I recently sold my remaining collection of Transformers on Ebay. Of more than 20 pieces, I decided to hold back one. Soundwave – the one that looks like a tape player, with one of his cassettes. There is meaning there for me – a reminder of a time when play was free and I had more than I could ever need. Did I make that meaning up? No. It is embedded in the memories associated with the object. The object itself doesn’t hold the meaning per say, but it facilitates the memory which carries the meaning. While at one time Soundwave would have been the catalyst of play, today, as he sits on my desk, he is a vessel of the meaning of that play in my life.

Life

If art is an expression of a person, and art is meaningless, then the expression of that person is meaningless. If we get to make whatever meaning we want from whatever expression of art that comes out of us, we dismantle the restrictions of every form that defines us. Coming from a physical performance art, neither of these notions make rational sense to me – nor have I experienced them to be true.

If there is no meaning to the art I create, why would I bother subjecting my body to the training necessary to bring this art to life? There must be some meaning. There are plenty of examples in Tap Dance Land. From the dancer who deeply wants to affect an audience, to the one who wants to express themselves purely, to the one who has found tap dancing to be their way to thrive in this world, they all are valid ways that undergird the pursuit. These “whys” bring meaning to each individuals pursuit, inform their creative choices, and ultimately shape their body of work and life.

If I get to create whatever meaning I want out of the craft that I’m using, why would I feel drawn to sharing the art with others? After all, its not as if anyone would get what I mean since I made it up myself. Communication is at the heart of expression. Whether with the divine or another human being, art is one way that we get to say things we can’t say through other methods. Considering the human condition, honoring the commonality of experience we share with one another, and being curious about how what we express affects one another – these are ways that we acknowledge shared meaning during interaction.

Of course, there is plenty of room here. An audience of 500 may have 500 different experiences of a show. But a show is ultimately a conversation between the world of the performer and the world of the audience member. And both those worlds are flooded with ideas and beliefs that give shape to each world and color the meaning we hear as each expression enters each world – a sound or movement from the stage to the audience, and audience reactions sent back to the stage.

I’m not saying that there must be a single meaning to every action, that every person must agree on to be true.

What I am saying is that having the disposition of an active observer – someone who is affecting and affected by the world around them and also keen to bear witness to what is happening and curious as to why – may be a better way. Being an active observer requires that we hold that meaning exists – there is a reason a particular action is happening; that we may not be able to see all of it – we can’t know everything all the time about everything; but that we would want to and are willing to pursue it – we continue to aim towards knowledge, that is interactive relationship, with reality.

This disposition just may free us from the dystopian view that all is meaningless which ultimately leads to destruction, and from the responsibility of having to construct the meaning we require in order to experience the good life.

I was blessed in Tap Dance Land to have a guide like Savion (among many others). I wish you the same and better in your journey, wherever you might be along the road. In the meantime, may you find yourself confounded by the meaning you begin to see in smallest corners of your life.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.