Boxers and Dancers

“Ballet and boxing require the single person to spend a lot of time with one’s self, and it’s very mental as a well as physical.” (Zoe Emilie Henrot, artistic director of the St. Paul Ballet)

“Movement is probably the biggest thing.” (Dalton Outlaw, founder of Element Boxing)

Kurt Vonnegut used to distinguish between “swoopers” and “bashers”. Some people write quick first drafts and spend a lot of time editing them into shape, while others work slowly, sentence by sentence, getting each of them right the first time around. Not only did he think that these types correlated roughly with the gender of the writer (you can guess how), he also thought they expressed different life attitudes. “Swoopers,” he suggested, “find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place,” while bashers are forever trying to figure out “What in heck is really going on?” (Timequake, p. 119)

In Monday’s post, I made a similar sort of distinction. I said that you’re free to think of yourself as a “boxer” or a “dancer” when deciding on a rhetorical posture for your paragraph. While I originally made the distinction in the spirit of “You don’t like that idea? I’ve got others,” as Marshall McLuhan put it, I’ve come to see that it may indicate two fundamentally different, but equally valid, attitudes to discourse. One may be more valid in some disciplines than the other, I should say, but there’s plenty of room in the academy for both kinds. There may even be plenty of room in each of us to try our hands (and feet) at both at different times. Indeed Muhammad Ali is often described as dancing in the ring. Jennifer Beals is surely a bit of a knockout.

And a little Googling brings us something rather amazing. It turns out that the St. Paul Ballet has collaborated with a boxing gym, Element Boxing, to put on a performance that reveals what dancers can learn from boxers and what boxers can learn from dancers. I sometimes argue with my fellow writing instructors about how “transferable” formal writings skills, like paragraphing and the composition of school essays, are to other contexts. Well, if boxers and dancers are able to teach each other skills across the boundary between art and sport, I’m going to remain hopeful about the the boundary between academic and professional writing, even classic and romantic style. If writing can be like an iceberg, surely a writer can be a like a dancer, or like a boxer. Indeed, as Hemingway probably understood as well as anyone ever has, whether you’re a writer or a boxer or a dancer — and even if you’re an iceberg — it’s all about the “the dignity of movement.”

As I said in my last post, remember that there is no single moment in a fight or a dance, and certainly not a in a career, that makes or breaks you. Even Jennifer Beals falls on her first attempt at the audition. Even “The Greatest” lost “The Fight of the Century”. The important thing is to work on your discipline every day (or at least every other day), building the skills that will serve you, round after round, sequence after sequence, paragraph after paragraph, moment after moment. Let the bell save you now and then. If you fall, pick yourself up and start again. Whatever you do, please remember to think kindly of the reader and make sure they’re on the same page, i.e., in the same ring or on the same floor. Don’t treat someone who came to fight as though it’s just a dance — they’ll think you’re making fun of them. And — for obvious reasons — do not punch someone who just wanted to dance.

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