Dancing the charcoal fantastique

A few years ago I studied briefly with a life-drawing teacher who made me stand arm length from the paper, take up a hand-size piece of charcoal, and dance while I drew.

“Keep your arm straight, he directed. “Draw from the shoulder, not the wrist. Move your body!”

He turned on some jazzy music, and insisted that I dance throughout the whole 20-minute set of short poses.

“You already know how to find proportions,” the teacher said. “You know how to draw the parts of the body. You’ve got a good eye. Now you have to find some life, some joy in your drawings.”

You must understand. I’m not a cheeky, dancing-on-the-table party-girl kind of person; I’m a focused, earnest, git-r-done kind of person. Generally, I don’t dance; I plod.

And I was deadly serious about learning to draw. I had been studying with Rob Anderson for a couple of years, and was used to doing slow, careful, accurate work. I was strict with myself.

Doing a dance step and shaking my hips while trying to capture on paper the motion of a model? It was a little weird. Okay, so it was a lot weird. And I was afraid I’d let go of the drafting skills I’d worked so hard to gain. I was afraid the outcome would be terrible.

But you know what? The dancing didn’t destroy my hard-won knowledge of proportions, comparative drawing, and anatomy. All the practice I’d done previously was lodged in my subconscious, and when the music started and I started moving, the knowledge and skill bubbled up and gave form to my dancing.

I wasn’t just head banging in a papery mosh pit; I was floating around gracefully on a dance floor sprung with newsprint and chalk. And the drawings were something entirely different from anything I’d done before.

All that dancing had helped set me free from precious scratchy little marks and awkward figures. Those dance-infused drawings marked a huge leap of progress for me.

I normally work in a silent studio, but these days, when my drawings start to seize up into crabbed little wads of chalk-snot, I put on my headphones, spin my Ipod dial to music, and do a little shimmy at the easel.