“Because apparently the feeling of knowing you are not the only one who is FEELING the feeling is indeed the most calming feeling of all.”
I underlined this sentence in the opening pages of Marlee Grace’s book A Sacred Shift: A Book About Personal Practice because it seemed to encapsulate both the seeds and the fruit of any artistic endeavor. Even more, the vague repetition seemed indicative of why the Personal Practice project — a year’s worth of short dance videos, some more profound than others (as is the case with any project that mandates a daily submission) — have inspired such a following. Grace’s words, and her dances, are casual affairs and in their direct, offhand manner seem to invite the reader, or viewer, to make their own. Why not dance too?
The self-published book reached me at a pivotal moment in early motherhood when I was beginning to realize just how much the physical body, and its natural movement, reigns. At times, when all my soothing attempts ended in failure — the boob, pacifier, swaddles, singing, shushing, naps, dry diapers — there remained dancing. My first career finally felt practical as it prepared me well for the bounces, sways, and rhythmic chugs of this preverbal, baby world. And in my hands, Grace’s book felt like the call to action, or perhaps the promise of action, it is possibly meant to be. The small pink tome began with an overview of the project, to dance daily and post a video of each creation to Instagram for personal accountability purposes only, and the major life events those dances archive. Which in turn made these pages even more meta than the paragraph explaining, as if to an alien, what Instagram is through the lens of a Fight Club analogy: “Sometimes Instagram feels like fight club, the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” Essentially, this book is the text archive of a video archive of a daily dance practice. Since I generally prefer anything analog to digital, I was content to first consume Grace’s Personal Practice via this level of remove. (I decided to watch the videos only after reading the book.)
As a now writer, a former dancer, and a mother to an infant, this essay is simultaneously a book review and a portrait of myself attempting to read and write (critically) in the magical in-between. Here is the opening scene: I am swaying in a figure eight pattern while humming to Side D of The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream album, in my tiny living room (made even tinier with the obstacles of newborn gear), with my little girl strapped to my front in a carrier, my right hand keeping the beat gently on her back. As she nods off, I pick up the book with my left hand. Grace’s prologue is a sparse, poetic timeline. It begins with her birth in 1988 and charts the milestones and the mundane life phases that lead up to 2015: from pointe shoes to a college degree to a span of years that lack focus to the “shift” that the title of the book must refer to. There is definitely more white space than type. But this is the story and journey of a still young woman.
“The Ways of the Work” consists of phrases describing the themes, places, motivating words, and inspirations for her daily dances. Her words encompass a wide spectrum of emotions, a sort of wall text to accompany her art project, which thrives on the parameters of repetition and practice. Some dances, and their corresponding entry in the book, conjure the melancholy hope that meets us all at the top of a new week, while others act as sort of mini-diary entries to capture moments in time before the feeling is lost:
feeling alone hello monday practice
right after I saw lady gaga at the airport and did not play it cool and just froze and stared and felt her power practice
when you feel defeated and don’t want to practice but the practice is what keeps defeat at bay practice
As I read, I continue to sway, out of nap-ending fear but also because it makes perfect sense to continue to consume this slim volume while moving. Would Grace name this my get through the witching hour with a book and some figure eights practice?
A Sacred Shift is at times a whimsical book of miscellany, tracking this year-long project with random anecdotes and constant references to pop culture. But just as often, Grace’s matter-of-fact delivery hits a little deeper, plumbing the events—a divorce and cross-country move—that set her on this journey in the first place.
finding ways to feel more than one thing at a time during a season of nuptials
how to grieve a space, a floor, how to stay in it when you’re leaving it
Eventually, I change the record back to side A, trying all the while not to lose the dreamy beat. Later, I will discover pajama practice, new sufjan, pre coffee among her early videos and in its strange ability to mix the quiet of the morning with the raw drive that can push an artist to begin creating before consuming any caffeine, all in a simple floorwork phrase, I will be moved to hit the ‘Follow’ button.
The most enjoyable part of this section, aptly subtitled “Practical Tools and Reflections”, is the inclusion of comments from the followers of the @personalpractice Instagram feed. (Followers to date: 29.7 K, which seems all the more remarkable given this account follows no one in return. Grace also has a personal account from which she follows others.) Like any real mob, and her followers definitely qualify as one, the sentiments gain steam with each reinforcement. Whether their comments are about her clothes or hair or her smile or the objects in the room, they seem to revel in having a say. And while I would never take the time to read them in their original setting, I found her deft editing of them into a wave that rushes from light and supportive (“Yaaaaaas love the moves love the sweatshirt love the vibes”) to darker and outright rude (“why is she famous this looks like a cat having an exorcism”) back to the random and inane (“You’re a plant!!!!”) to be a droll and self-aware commentary on what it means to put your creative work out in the social media space.
I wonder about the atypical path Grace has forged as a dance artist. Her improvisational work is performed in site specific locations rather than stages and her bio includes writing, quilting, podcasting, running a space called Have Company, teaching, and unblocking other creatives through mapping sessions. Is she a dilettante or a Renaissance woman in her on trend embrace of so many talents and identities? Either way, does it matter if her work inspires this tsunami of responses? The virtual standing ovations and boo hisses must stem from the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability her art so generously offers up.
“A Catalogue of Facts” are listicles of songs, people, animals, and places that appear in Grace’s dance videos. Reading these fragments feel like stealing glances of a love letter or overhearing inside jokes between friends. There is a sense of looming emotions and stories behind each song, lover, friend, cat, pin-dropped location — but as the reader, I am mostly in the dark and left instead to judge the wide variety of musical genres (pretty impressive), and note that the list even includes the band my baby and I are still swaying to. I would probably be so moved to switch to a new album and begin a more complicated movement phrase with some gestures and turns were I not also holding a book and reading.
Mercifully, my daughter only begins to stir as I approach the final pages, which are even more personal in their ebullient show of gratitude for the many people who have helped her persevere. In the end, I am not surprised to find a shoutout to all the readers and viewers, because the time I spent vicariously feeling the feelings, as I read and reread this book over many months, has perhaps sent more calming feelings of community out into the ether and maybe even back to Grace. At the very least, this layered document,, with its deep awareness of transitions, made a new mom feel a little less alone and allowed me to conflate all of these sweet baby dances to a passionate art practice. Based on the number of people out there emulating her now (just search under #personalpractice), it appears I am not the only one so encouraged by the reminder that process can be product and reconnecting to the ritual joy of moving in your body is a power that, with the proper attention and commitment, can be yours.
Click here to order the book.
Click here to listen to the audio version.