Tag Archives: empathy

Dancing Away the Doldrums

There are reasons to admire any group that can do a complex task in perfect coordination.  That they seem to do it with so much pleasure is something to celebrate.

There is an eight-minute YouTube video featuring  Broadway’s Sutton Foster that I’d recommend to anybody who feels like  they have been mauled by the national news cycle. It will momentarily lift the dark clouds. The clip features Foster and a group of dancers rehearsing a tricky dance sequence for a revival of the 1930’s show, Anything Goes. It played at the Stephen Sondheim Theater in Manhattan in 2012, eventually leading to a Tony Award for Foster. Even though it’s a piano rehearsal without sets or costumes, the video has been seen by several million viewers.  And its easy to see why.  Who said communication can’t also happen through your feet?

Tap dancing has gone out of style in contemporary shows, but its unique combination of rhythm and syncopation against the beat remains a pure joy to watch. The cast seems to be having as much fun in this run-through as they are supposed to have in front of an audience.

Anything Goes works well right now for the same reasons it worked in the darker days of 1930s.  Cole Porter’s music and lyrics help us look past the frail plot to witness age-old skills that evolved from Irish and African-American traditions.

There are obvious reasons to admire any group that can do anything together in perfect coordination.  That they seem to do it with so much pleasure serves as a model of contagious optimism. There is also something to celebrate watching the cast ‘nailing’ the complicated footwork demanded in the last four minutes of this sequence.

In Rehearsal: Sutton Foster Sings “Anything Goes”

Buy Tickets to “Anything Goes”: http://www.broadway.com/shows/anything-goes/ More Broadway Videos: http://www.broadway.com/video-on-demand/ During a press event, Tony winner Sutton Foster tears into the title song from the upcoming “Anything Goes” revival. Shot by Nick Shakra for Broadway.com

Like most forms of expression, dance works because it engages audience members and makes them sympathetic participants. People moving in rhythm offer a unique form of predictability that we can easily anticipate.  In addition, theater is always a potent trigger for empathy. We are mentally wired to put ourselves in the action. The cognitive process of “mirroring” induces us to become vicarious participants in what we see and hear.  This is by no means a given in most of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Humans are born to put ourselves in others’ stories. And so the exuberance of the performers becomes our’s.  And once more the cliche is true: the company’s sense of fun is literally infectious.

Top Photo: Foster in the 2012 Revival of Anything Goes by the Roundabout Theater Company

The Eyes Have It

       Caravaggio                                        Wikipedia.org

It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  The inability to make eye contact begins to starve communication of its hold on us.

A recent New York Times report describes managers at “fast casual” restaurants assigning staffers to greet new customers with a reassuring and direct “welcome.”  Apparently businesses found too many first-timers leaving if no one in charge acknowledged them.  It’s a specific application of the more general principle of a direct gaze as the near-certain requirement of  interpersonal engagement.  Child development specialists remind us that an infant’s search for its parent’s eyes is not only a joy, but an early sign of a child’s readiness to become a social being.  Only weeks after birth infants begin to seek out the eyes of their parents. It’s nature’s way of cementing the bond that assures that the many needs of a relatively helpless newborn will be met.

It’s also a given in the business and academic worlds that connecting effectively with another person means returning their eye contact.  This can vary from culture to culture.  But it’s own norm. Even experts offering advice for choosing a new pet from the pound note that a good bet is usually an animal that gazes on our face.  And it’s clearly true that  our pets are veterans at the game of shamelessly using those looks of expectation to get us on our feet to provide some useful service.

It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Try a simple experiment to test the essential nature of direct eye contact. Talk to a friend or relative face to face, but look at one of their ears rather than their eyes.  The poor victim will often move to try to adjust to your off-kilter stare.  They want to be at the center glidepath of your eyes to find signals of your engagement.  Looking away suggests you want to break off the exchange. It seems that the poets were right.  We look into the eyes of others as if they were “windows of the soul.”

Of course what is going on is more than reciprocal staring.  We have an entire lexicon of signals that are modulated through the eyes and the facial muscles that surround them.  Ask an actor to perform the emotions of surprise, concern, fear, or joy.  Most of the work of suggesting these inner states is going to happen within the pupils of the eye and the muscles of the eye-lids brows immediately above them.  Often these are the only tools a film or television actor has, since they are usually shot in tight closeups.  Witness the last half hour of Damien Chazelle’s much-praised La La Land (2016). The final scenes of the former couple are predicated on our noticing eyes that lock as if they still had a shared future.

What is obvious here still needs to be said.  The more we shift to mediated forms of personal communication—texting,  phoning, e-mail and their equivalents—the more we explicitly violate this fundamental norm of communication.  Like most, I delete some unread e-mails with the gusto of a chef cleaning up the debris on a cutting table.  It’s easy to forget how much we give up when we send words in place of ourselves.  Indifference to the channels we use and an unwillingness to make eye contact with our circle can starve communication of its hold on us.