English first, English second

They say dance is a universal language, because movement is wordless. Okay, the image is neither exact nor exactly true; but there is truth in it. It is how Aerowaves’ Spring Forward festival – presenting performances by a host of nations, and hosted by a different nation each year – can function at all.

Of course Springback, the festival’s dance writing programme, uses actual language, and that is most definitely not universal. Its particular language – English – was chosen first because a choice has to be made, and second because it is the commonest second language spoken by Aerowaves members.

So, it is a practical matter. Yes, but not a neutral one. I, for one, count myself lucky: dance is damn difficult to write about in any language, and at least I got to use my own. Most of our Springback writers have English as a second language. That makes their task many times harder than mine; their accomplishment, consequently, many times greater. I’d like to applaud them for that.

I’d also like to offer them some words (English ones, naturally) of encouragement, for consideration, maybe for argument too. First, it is clear that what is considered “good writing” varies between languages. Wittingly and unwittingly, my values were formed in English – and I’d like to suggest that English style has some wonderful qualities. It is not, in my mind at least, a language of great intellect (French) or high concepts (German). But it is a great language of practical communication and adaptable usage, accommodating to its readers and flexible with its style. Sure, it has its uses and abuses, and I think dance writing (because it is difficult) shows them up particularly clearly. At its worst, dance writing in English can be little more than consumer journalism, riddled with unexamined opinion; but at its best it can approach the condition of literature. Whereas my hunch (or should that be “unexamined opinion”?) is that in some other languages, dance writing can be dutifully academic at its worst, but at its best can approach the condition of philosophy. I guess what I’m saying, maybe a little defensively, to those Springbackers with languages that are bigger on ideas and concepts is: give English a go. It may have its weaknesses, but it really does have strengths. See both.

My other main thought is more about second language use. Speaking a non-native language can be a bit like travelling away from home: it induces a certain rootlessness, a loss of identity, of history and culture. That can be disorienting, debilitating, but also liberating. It certainly affects the person; I wonder how much it affects the writing. Might non-native language users be less burdened by correctness, more open to possibility? Might they discover, even unconsciously, something less traditional – less “classical” and more “contemporary”, or “hybrid” – in their use of English? Something less affirmative, but more transformative? Or is that possibility open only to those with an existing command of the language? The questions have been circling my mind since the festival, and I have another hunch that the answers have a bearing not just on writing, but on current dance practices.

But hey, I didn’t write in a second language, so what do I know? Fellow Springbackers, I think I need some answers from you…

Sanjoy Roy