Shawls, fans, bata de colas. We've all been mesmerized by their very presence on stage; by the way they are so expertly manipulated by dancers. We watch and wonder "how do they DO that? How do they make it look so easy?"
Then we get inspired and we stand in front of the mirror and we try to replicate what we saw. But we trip on the bata de cola and get tangled up in its web of ruffles. Or we launch the abanico across the room by accident when the wrist overworks the movement and the hand loses its grip. Or we fling the mantón around our head in a way that looks less like poetry in motion, and more like airing out an old rag!
It's all impossibly hard and hopeless. Mostly because we fail to understand one fundamental factor and the core principal behind dancing with a "prop": the "prop" is not, in fact, a "prop." The word implies a piece of "property," something by definition separate from us, detached. The magic in dancing with a given accessory, comes from integrating it with our bodies so seamlessly that it becomes a part of us, an extension of the way we communicate.
So how do we achieve this level of integration? Equal parts technique, patience, experience and imagination?
First thing we work on is developing an understanding and muscle memory of the movements involved. Training our hands to change grip quickly and efficiently for example, or our wrists to develop more flexibility. Both things that will increase control of our fan and shawl, and give us freedom to develop different sequences of movement.
In the case of the bata de cola, we learn how and where to place our feet and legs in order to move the tail of the skirt without tripping or stepping on the fabric. We learn what gives the cola height and direction, and the proper way to spiral our legs and hips. All of this takes time. Lots of it. If you give it that, you will grow fascinated with your body's ability to adapt and learn new skills. It's an amazing journey to undergo, even through the frequent bouts of frustration.
Once the technique is integrated and muscle memory is developed, you begin to look at what lies behind it: what are you trying to say with a given movement? How is your accessory capturing the essence of what you're trying to communicate? Why the choice of that accessory and not another? This all requires a careful thought process, the patience to allow something to develop over time, and the willingness to remain open to different possibilities.
The biggest obstacle to this process is our mistaken impression that we must perform "tricks"; that dancing with accessories is about displaying our tremendous versatility and technique at every turn. This, in my opinion, is precisely what gives the impression of being disconnected from the "prop"; when you lose the poetry in the movement and sacrifice storytelling for fireworks.
Yes, it's impressive. But then you have to wonder whether you're looking at sport or art.
In music, we value silence as part of composition. In dance we must value stillness. Watching a dancer work out a movement as part of an idea, or a particularly vulnerable moment, can be tremendously rewarding because it allows us time to live in their world for a short while. Adding an accessory to the mix gives us a window into how they interact with others: the shawl as companion, enemy, refuge... the possibilities are endless. Being caught in a whirlwind of speed, tricks and constant motion can often have the opposite effect: we feel like we are being held at bay by a dancer that uses accessories as a barrier between us and them.
I've participated in this as a performer, and have experienced it as an audience member. So the struggle continues. There are moments when I want to kick my bata into oblivion, just like an unruly dance partner that won't cooperate. But most days, I love those yards of fabric as if they were a part of me. And when I step on them by accident, I stop, and I figure out why it happened. Was I in a rush? Am I not following through with my technique? It's all time consuming and a little maddening, but it teaches you something about persevering, staying in the moment, and communicating in a more honest and effective way.
That's dancing with "props." And that's life.