I must confess: I am probably the rudest person at any dance performance I attend.
Critics can be odd seatmates. We slip in at the last minute; we’re too busy scribbling notes to applaud; we dash out before the bows. On top of that, we’re flipping pages on our notepads while people around us are trying to focus on the show.
How do you put up with us?
One fellow did not. It was more than two decades ago, when I was a baby — okay, a very, very young freelancer. I was reviewing a performance in Hand Chapel, off Foxhall Road. It was an intimate setting for dance experiments, with swings and nudity and toy machine guns and the like.
I don’t remember much about the dancing that night. But I do remember the boyfriend of one of the dancers, because at intermission he turned to me — I was sitting next to him on one of the wooden pews — and announced, with a little more heat than was necessary, that my notebook-rustling was driving him crazy. His girlfriend was in the show and I was ruining his enjoyment of her, blah blah.
I hear you, I assured him, as you do with folks who are wrought up and close to going off the deep end, and you’re hoping to avoid a scene.
In his case, however, I wasn’t just saying it. I did hear his complaint, and I’ve never forgotten it. I didn’t realize I was being noisy, of course, but from then on I’ve tried to be the stealthiest of note-takers. I flip pages during the applause, or on a musical crescendo. I have another pen at the ready in case the one I’m holding slips between the seats. (This happens! Usually in conjunction with page-turning.) I try to carry out the public part of this fantastic job with delicacy.
That puts me in good company, because I’ve generally found my fellow dance audience-members to be a well-mannered and socially sensitive bunch. When we critics met to discuss this section on theater etiquette, I honestly couldn’t think of any gripes.
I usually don’t have trouble thinking of gripes.
Certainly, I’m often distracted by the folks who fan themselves with their programs on a hot night at Wolf Trap. Sometimes I’ve had to wince-and-bear-it if I’ve got an excitable whoo-whooer behind me. Once I had to stick in earplugs (I have those at the ready, too) because I was downwind of a cougher whose barking could have drowned out a train. But the fact is, you’re not alone when you’re in the theater; you’re with other people and you’ve got to expect that, on occasion, some may have trouble with the heat, or they get caught up in the moment, or they have a cold. I overlook that kind of thing.
Otherwise, I can’t recall any out-and-out bad behavior, either at the Kennedy Center or the Atlas or elsewhere. True, I’m usually seated in the orchestra section in the Opera House or the Eisenhower. Maybe in the upper balconies there’s wildness I don’t see; I have a rather limited purview. But I haven’t heard of any ragged edges of conduct there, and I haven’t seen it in the less upscale venues I frequent — the black-box theaters, the bleacher seats, folding chairs and other spots, comfy or simple, where I’ve been lucky enough to experience this amazing art form.
I think the amazingness of dance is key here. I’ll venture to say dance audiences are better behaved than other crowds because they’re more immersed in the show. They’re not as distractible. That feeling you have, when a dancer leaps lightly across the stage and you’re carried along with her — that’s your brain, your whole sensorimotor system, responding sympathetically to another human body in motion. Mapping to her, feeling her actions in your own body. Scientists call this “kinesthetic empathy.” Dance fans know it as that urge to whirl up the aisle on a wave of energy after the ballet “Don Quixote,” or Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” or Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.”
When human movement is as acrobatic and buoyant and freed from everyday norms as dance can be, we’re pretty well glued to it. Add music, especially live music, and the combination of rhythm, harmony and muscular energy has an even stronger pull. So strong, as the Kaufman Theory of Audience Etiquette goes, that we’re less inclined to do the fidgety things that folks at a movie or a music concert might do: text, whisper, cuddle conspicuously.
This isn’t a generational matter, either. I’ve seen the same level of absorption, non-texting and general good conduct with the millennials and younger kids I see, for instance, at Dance Place or the University of Maryland or Lisner Auditorium.
Nowadays, when we’re no longer marking the winter solstice and full moons and what have you with communal rituals, live dance is a relatively unusual thing. Watching a movie is a little like watching a film on Netflix; hearing a concert is a bit — just a wee bit — like listening to a CD on your awesome living-room sound system. But a dance performance? There’s no casual, at-home lounging-around-with-your-buddies correlation to it. It happens in a formal space, and for all but a dance critic, it is rare. Whether dance takes place in an actual sacred space — like a chapel — or not, there’s something about it that, if it is going well, engages us deeply. Body, mind and spirit.
It’s a modern miracle. For the most part, dance is a space that even e-mail can’t invade.
Read our critics’ takes on etiquette in their respective fields:
- Hornaday: Improving manners at the movies
- Sietsema: Hoping to have a good dinner? Be a good diner.
- Kaufman: Dance audiences are too caught up in the performance to be rude
- Pressley: Turn off your phone at the theater. And ignore the prostitute.
- Richards: How not to be a jerk at a concert
- Kennicott: At museums, selfie sticks poke holes in the idea of anything goes