natural disasters and the improvising artist, part 3

More than a dancer or a choreographer, I’m an improviser at heart. I love to see what arises at any given moment and to follow that reality for as far as it will take me.

Which might be dancing.

But it also could be singing, wrestling, continuously spinning, or moving heavy rocks from here to there.

It might be gobbling down my dinner with loud oinking sounds (that happened last night).

It might be growling the lyrics to Regina Spektor’s “You’ve got Time” when I watch Orange is the New Black (that happened last night too).

It might be lying on the floor in Andrew Marcus's School of Disappearance and moving so slowly that I can feel my cells expanding.

And yet when it comes to natural disasters, I don’t know if and how and when my improvisational instincts take over, and if they ever do.

I brought this question up a few months back after having a fantastic conversation with my good friend Jill Sigman when we were talking about how improvisers have a natural and innate sense of dealing with the unknown.

Which I think is true, but when it is that scary, charged and devastating, I just don’t know what is improvisation, what is adrenaline, and what is pure animal instinct. And maybe I don’t need to know, maybe they are all the same thing on some level.

A few months ago, I heard this on the radio:

There were two hospitals in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that dealt with the flood in two very different ways.

One hospital improvised throughout the disaster and all of their patients were okay. It was hard and scary and unknown, but the staff just kept going, methodically and patiently, improvising their way through an untenable situation. In the end, everyone was fine.

One hospital did not improvise throughout the disaster, and due to an inability to “think outside the box” the head doctor there began ordering “mercy killings” for the hard to evacuate patients.

When I think about going through my own natural disasters, a fire in 2003 and then flood in 2013, I see my own inability to think outside the box — or to even know how to find the friggin’ box — and instead I just barrel on through as best I as I can, crashing through the chaos.

So I am practicing.

Practicing so that when the next Natural Disaster hits, which I think it will, I crash a little less.

Practicing so that I find the box this time and decide whether to step daintily inside, or to crush it with my bare hands.

Practicing so when I have to evacuate, I take the time to look around me and see what is there before it is gone.

Practicing so that I grab my hiking boots and the handmade quilt instead of the Oreos.

(During the fire, Glen and I didn’t take anything with us except for a box of Oreos.

We had enough time to pack up Glen’s entire van with all of our stuff from a 500 square foot log cabin.

We didn’t do it.

We grabbed the Oreos and left).

Practicing so that when the next Natural Disaster hits - or the next shooting happens, or the next time someone gets sick, or things crumble in a way I wasn’t expecting - I will have the where withal to understand that I am always stepping into the unknown.

And maybe this time I will crash a little less.


Your dance mission for the week is to lie down on the floor, notice your breath, and stay still for as long as you want.

If/and when you are ready, begin to move, and notice how you feel.

With Warmth and Jivey Vibes, Joanna of Joanna and the Agitators sweetly agitating/persistently upending