I recently followed the Painted Bunting with a group of amateur ornithologists as it frolicked near the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park. This spectacular bird, native to more southern regions, has captured a great deal of local media attention. The New York Times writes, “What he did was unremarkable: Duck, bob, peck, hop. Duck, bob, peck, hop.” Yes, a bird moving like a bird is unremarkable. Nevertheless, people are curious why the bird wandered so far off course. I was commenting to another bird watcher how indifferent the bird was to all the paparazzi, when through my binoculars I spied another blissfully indifferent flock of colorful birds. I broke off from the bird watchers in hot pursuit. The members of this flock were varied, some strapped with painted “buntings” of their own from which came wires strapped to their ears. Predominantly the female of the species, though not exclusively, their frolicking was not for foraging and thus more unusual. There was no discernible pattern to the gestures; just a constant forward progression for no apparent reason. The rhythm varied from individual to individual. This flock’s diverse movements starkly contrasted with the mechanics of hinging knees and elbows that predominated in the park. I am, of course, referring to the predictable orderly form employed by joggers and cyclists. But there was no order here. These were birds marching to the beat of their own drummer. A slice and punch of an arm was followed by a shake and a tip-toe. Lunges flowed into jumps, wiggles, and perhaps a turn. Witnessing this frenzy of seemingly purposeless motion, I wondered if perhaps I’d stumbled upon… fun?
After stalking the group for some time behind trees through my binoculars, I finally decided to get closer. You have to be careful when approaching creatures in the wild. You can’t just put out your palm for a sniff. You have to become one, for these were the illusive Dance Walkers of Prospect Park. They are a casual group organized by Joanne Nerenberg, who meet once every weekend, regardless of the season, to perform an improvised form of walking with music around the 3.35 mile loop. Nerenberg, known as the Kineticist, is a former Mark Morris dance instructor, mom of 2, and documentary filmmaker. The Kineticist is a platform to promote movement in everyday life. It’s an outgrowth of Body Job, a documentary she made in 2008 about 3 people who transform sedentary jobs into active, kinetic ones. She describes Dance Walk as “having a dance party in your living room, while walking through the park.”
If you read Intervals of Shame, you know how awkward I find jogging. I often wanted to break out of the monotony of that prescribed form. I find running useful for escaping predators and getting the first slice of pie, but otherwise not enjoyable. When I heard of Nerenberg’s group, I jumped at the chance to find joy amongst the Dance Walkers. “Time to put back on the mom onesie! I’m going on a Dance Walk!” Public frolic begs many personal questions. Could I get over my inhibitions? What are my inhibitions? What constitutes appropriate public movement anyway? Why do we only run or walk, when there are many possible ways to cover space? Was Dance Walk as ridiculous as it looks? I did know one thing for sure though. If I was going to answer these questions, I was going to need my tissues and fanny pack.
The Dance Walkers assemble each week on the “grassy triangle” 50 paces up from the park entrance at Grand Army Plaza. Bring your own ipod & earbuds. Everybody listens to their own music as they dance around the park loop. Music was actually my initial anxiety but then I remembered—no one can hear your music! In fact, Nerenberg is “…struck by the silence (of Dance Walk). When you’re inside it, you are inhabiting and embodying a musical score …The analogy to this is probably somebody listening to music on their earbuds and singing along. From the outside they seem crazy. From the inside they are inhabiting the fullness of the music and joining it, becoming one with it.” Still creating a good playlist is helpful. I was a little unprepared my first time and allowed Apple recommendations to lead me astray. I started off with the Best of the Doobie Brothers, who in case you don’t know are neither brothers, nor named Doobie. But I finally found my grove with Gnarls Barkley.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you I’m a former modern dancer. You’d assume this would be an asset, but it’s actually a liability because I’m kinetically “judgy” about myself. What movement vocabulary would I employ to get me through the park? The whole point of a dance walk is not to have this question and yet I did. This is an exercise in doing not thinking. Nerenberg revealed,
“Some people who come have no issues moving big and wild from the get-go. Others take time to warm up to it, to melt away their own self-consciousness. I am of the self-conscious stripe! So for me this has been a practice of speaking a certain language “out” loud, in public. I think the amount of joy I experience doing this practice is directly related to the amount of self-consciousness I have about it. In other words, it’s ecstatic not because I’m not embarrassed, but rather it’s ecstatic because I AM embarrassed (or once was…) and by going out there to assert this quirky expression, I overcome those issues for the sake of my own joy!”
Was I nervous about the potential for embarrassment? Of course I was! After all, I was about to join the Ministry of Silly Walks in a very public way. What if someone I knew saw me? It turns out…I already knew two of the dance walkers. So don’t be afraid. Chances are your friends are already doing this. As usual I was late to the trend, but how would other outsiders react to us? It was very interesting to see public reaction. People were generally supportive. Yes, we got some cheers, but the most curious reactions came from the joggers who became brief converts. Our presence seemed to give them permission to move how they wanted. They would sneak into the group, dance within the camouflage of our whimsy, and then reemerge only to return to running. Darn!
The truth is once you put on your earbuds you don’t even notice anyone else. The experience is very internal and you do loose yourself. Where jogging brought me shame, dance walking felt entirely shameless, liberating even. You barely even notice how far you’ve gone. I would not do it alone though. The flock mentality is crucial. It’s an experience that is outside the norm so the group provides comfort. Nerenberg stated, “Dance Walk is not meant to be performative or exhibitionistic, but great to do as a group, for buffer and cover and safety. It’s not for everybody!”
Soon I was passing the ornithologists at the LeFrak ice rink again, when I spotted the Painted Bunting in the brush. Saluting him, I no longer wondered why or how the Liberace of birds lingered so far north so long. It lingers whimsically because it can. Nor did I wonder how the bird could “duck, bob, peck, hop,” indifferently to outside attention. He was lost in his own unremarkable bird-ness. Similarly lost in my own unremarkable human-ness, I concluded dance walking is really not as ridiculous as it looks. The Painted Bunting has not been seen since January 3rd when the colder weather set in. However, you can still join the flight of the Dance Walkers every Saturday morning at 10am in the grassy triangle near Grand Army Plaza.
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