The discipline of dance, as a strategic process (metaphor) and a ritual form of connection, is used in 'In and Out of Step' to form the backbone of the story. I've flagged this in the title and carried it through the story to denouement. It is also reflected in aspects of the novel's cover design. In this blog, I'll discuss my use of the metaphor of dance to represent aspects of Belonging. Blog #4 will discuss dance as a ritual form of connection.
PART 1: Dance as a strategic process - a metaphor
Dance and the engineering of balance and timing are used to invoke in the reader the way the main character, Cassie, processes and controls her emotional responses to her work, social, and personal relationships. At first, Cassie manages this through locating and using arbitrary rules and strictures – as one does when learning to dance until familiarity with the steps of the dance allows us to move automatically attuned to the rhythm of the music.
Having chosen exile from the people and life that she had once loved, Cassie Sleight found herself well outside her comfort zone at the start of her career as a high school teacher. Frightened by strong emotions and in a form of emotional shutdown after a traumatic experience in her mysterious past, Cassie found safe emotional release through dance.
'Led by the violins, the orchestra and Cassie extended the movement into an enthusiastic waltz. As the waltz changed into whirling, emotions denied for so long found release. She felt like a trapeze artist working the high wire with a safety net. The explosion of energy at the end of the track matched her mood. With tears streaming unheeded down her cheeks, she sank to the floor.'
The comparison to a trapeze artist reinforces the personal danger that Cassie felt when dealing with emotions. The metaphor also shows that dance, like a safety net, functioned as controlled protection for her. Balance and timing are also implicit in this metaphor. This scene provides clues to the reasons for her exile.
In Chapter 1, before entering her new workplace, Cassie felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the foreignness of that world. She felt like an outsider.
'After locking the car door, she looked down at her clothing ...she looked the part. All she had to do was be it. Teaching is another form of dance, she thought, a simple matter of learning the steps and getting in time to the rhythm of school life. I can do this.' p 4
In an attempt to gain inclusion, Cassie made a conscious decision to change 'her dress' and 'look the part.' This outwardly connected her to the people in the world she entered but also psychologically connected her to it. By reframing her view of the new experience as a dance, she made also connections between a world where she knew she belonged and the new world that she was entering. Dance, as a metaphor for a life experience, enabled her to contain her apprehension about the workplace challenges before her and gave her the confidence to enter it and begin the journey to 'fitting in'. She used dance as a strategic process not only to interpret life but also to inform the way she dealt with it.
Later, when faced with the reality and challenges of classroom life as a first-year-out teacher, dance was again a strategic process that enabled Cassie to contain her despair, overcome her sense of defeat, and regain her emotional balance in order to claim her place within the classroom.
'During the lesson, thwarted and ashamed, Cassie slumped against the classroom wall ... Feeling like dust on a shelf, she wondered about the key to cooperation.
Looking at her students, Cassie's depression lifted with the dry realization that she was audience to a form of performance art. They are, she thought, A Study in Disruption. Then what am I ? .... Dance Novice, replied an inner voice. But I've never been a wallflower though, she thought, and re-entered the battle.'
'At the end of detentions, Cassie calmed herself with a deep breathing exercise that she had used prior to dance competition. Being centered was more important to her than a break and a cuppa. It was essential for maintaining her mask of quiet containment in front of her classes.'
The wallflower metaphor, which is embedded in the extended metaphor of dance, is fundamental to understanding Cassie's personal growth and in explaining her mindset when rejecting defeat and alienation. The wallflower metaphor also functions as a super objective in her life - a major motivation that determines and explains her actions. She wants to participate in and be part of the varied forms of relationship to which she can belong rather than be isolated or alienated.
In the excerpt below, Cassie uses the language of dance metaphorically as a way to process and comprehend the conflict between her parents. In the narrative, this occurs as a flashback sequence.
'Argument, fierce and hot, spilled from the house. Her father sounded in right form. Without entering, Cassie visualised the scene. It was a chilling dance. This version of her father was brutal in his language, huge in his gesture and movement; volume was the preferred weapon of assault. Her mother’s responses were controlled and selected. She sheltered under a cloak of martyrdom occasionally twisting out of it like a matador uses his cape to deflect the bull’s ire. From his tone and the drop in volume, Cassie knew that her father was bloodied. The battle would continue until one gained superiority, another sort of kill.'
By making connections between her parents' conflict and the ritual connections within a bullfight, and then interpreting that conflict as stylised dance form, Cassie not only filtered the violence through a dark metaphoric lens but insulated herself from the violence to a degree. The choice of language and use of metaphor: a 'chilling dance form', 'matador', 'bull's ire', and 'another sort of kill', shows that some relationships or forms of belonging can be destructive.
This sets up a counter-proposition, a direct contrast to the proposition that Belonging is always a positive experience.
'This version of her father was brutal in his language, huge in his gesture and movement; volume was the preferred weapon of assault. Her mother’s responses were controlled and selected. She sheltered under a cloak of martyrdom occasionally twisting out of it like a matador uses his cape to deflect the bull’s ire.'
The negative connections of the bullfight clearly involved knowing the language of and reading the codes of interaction, boundaries, and balance and timing in responding during the interaction that are part of a relationship. (NB There are strong parallels here to what happens in The Crucible in Act 3).
This processing of the parental conflict as a 'chilling dance form' shows Cassie's acceptance that conflict, although a negative way of connecting, was an aspect of their relationship. It also shows that she realised it injured the health of the relationship dynamic. This scene also shows a relationship (belonging) can occur without members having equal status and that the status of a person can ebb and flow. 'The battle would continue until one gained superiority, another sort of kill.'
The counter-proposition that Belonging can be a negative experience extends to the dynamic between a group with destructive intent and their target. Obviously, the target is alienated from the group, but the negative experience may also extend to and corrupt some group members. In In and Out of Step, this is seen in the behaviour of Cassie's 10G class, the sexual harassment within the workplace that evolved from locker-room camaraderie, and the challenging of sexual boundaries by some characters that began in the guise of a positive relationship but became subverted. Similarly, this type of subversion occurs in Miller's The Crucible in the factions in the Salem community, the girls (Acts1-3), and the court (Act 3).
You will find the complete discussion in Belonging: A Related Text Companion: In and out of Step. You can buy the companion from this website or from Amazon