art, artist, dance, Deborah J. Brasket, Ernie Barnes, inspiration, Joy, poetry in motion, The Nicholas Brothers, writing, Writing advice, Zadie Smith
What is it about this painting by Ernie Barnes that so uplifts and inspires? That ripples with joy? That feels like poetry in motion? The elongated bodies express a joyful, hopeful longing to rise up. To leave this earth and its troubles behind as they leap into the air, their faces upward gazing as the ball falls, triumphantly, through the hoop. Their feet barely graze the ground. Their arms and legs and elbows a choreography of dance movements, jazz rhythms, and soul music. No blues here. It’s all Praise God and Amen!
You can see all that in Barnes’ “Sugar Shack” as well. Imagine what joy he must have felt while painting these! It makes me happy just thinking about it. Barnes knows something about the joy and challenge of movement. He was a talented athlete playing professional football, as well as a talented artist, before his death in 2009.
That “poetry in motion,” that joy in movement, can be found in found in great dancers everywhere. I found the following video in celebrated writer Zadie Smith’s article about what dance can teach writers. “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.”
She compares the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Kelly’s is firmly grounded, prosaic, “commonsense” dancing, showing what everyday, ordinary bodies in their youth and strength can aspire to. Astaire’s dancing, by contrast, is not aspirational but inspirational. His dancing, she writes, is “transcendent . . . . for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams.”
The Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, were another example of that transcendent dancing. Smith writes: “The Nicholas brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw.” (Be sure to watch to the end when they descend the stairs doing the splits!)
Smith has a keener eye for dance than I have, for she saw Fayard’s dancing as more prosaic: “formal, contained, technically undeniable.” Whereas, “Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back.” For me, both dancers are pure joy and perfection.
“Between propriety and joy,” Smith writes, ” choose joy.” In dance, in art, in writing—in life, I’d add—choose joy. I try to choose joy when I blog. Sharing things that bring me joy.
I’ll leave you with what Smith says is the best writing advice she ever heard—from the dancer Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”