Inter-departmental project leads student dancers into the trees
Their bodies weaved through adjacent Eastern Redbud trees as they combined elements of interpretive dance and ballet. Their expressions ranged from elated to calculating, but they all held fast to the thin branches supporting them as they fought gravity and a gentle but noticeable breeze—but for dozens of undergraduates, a personal injury release was hardly enough to dissuade them from enjoying a dance form inspired by a common childhood pastime.
On Friday afternoon, while people studied just yards away, students gathered behind Olin Library for the second annual tree dancing workshop led by dance professor David Marchant.
As far as Marchant is aware, this form of dance is something that he has personally pioneered and is not done anywhere else.
“What I’m doing here is introducing people to an art [or] meditative practice that I’ve been working on for a decade—climbing trees as a kind of dance or art form—and I want people to try it, feel it, show some of the basic skills and techniques that I’ve developed for doing this safely,” he said.
The workshop was held as part of the ongoing Environmentalism and the Arts series, which brings together various campus groups and departments to find the overlap between sustainability and fine art.
“We’ve been working together for about two years to interject aspects of all the arts into environmentalism and sustainability,” Ann Rothery, program coordinator at Edison Theatre, said. “I think the arts are the best way to teach and learn almost everything … and this is a really good example, because people interact with the trees in a personal way, rather than just look at them or prune them or something. But they’re realizing that they’re actually sustaining each other’s lives.”
Marchant agreed that there is a metaphorical dimension to the exercise that he finds personally meaningful.
“In a way, my life is literally in the hands of the tree,” he said. “Insights about big ideas like sustainability are more tangible in something that I feel in my body than in something abstract.
“I feel an urgency when I see the problem with how the climate is shifting. I feel the same urgency about that that I do if I feel like the branch is starting to bend and I’m starting to lose my support.”
To create that dependency, Marchant acknowledged that there is a degree of danger to tree dancing and said that it was one factor in deciding to hold the workshop by the redbuds behind Olin rather than among larger trees around campus.
“Falling out of it would probably hurt. But we’ve chosen this site for this event because it’s quite a bit lower and [there are] quite a bit more branches for support,” he said.
Many of the students who participated had heard about the workshop from Marchant’s classes and were excited to experience it firsthand.
“This is our actual class today, just dancing in trees,” Briana Keightley, a sophomore dance major who participated in the workshop for the first time, said. “It’s kind of cool to almost feel like you’re dancing in space.”
Junior Diana Goeller said she was initially interested in the chance to climb the trees but found the artistic aspect of it exactly as Marchant had described in class.
“I used to climb trees a lot when I was little, and I haven’t had the opportunity lately because Wash. U. doesn’t want you to climb the trees, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity,” she said. “The tree is a solid thing but it moves just a little bit when you’re on it, so it’s kind of like you’re flying.”
Junior Liz Anterasian learned about the workshop through an email from the Environmental Studies Program and thought the opportunity was too unique to pass up.
“When else can you climb trees? It just sounded really cool,” she said. “It’s really challenging to learn how to move your body in a combination of dancing and tree climbing … When your mind is thinking about both things, like the movements, how you’re getting to the different holds—it’s a good challenge.”