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  • Nicole (Johnson) Williams

26. creativity and play – the pathway home

Updated: Sep 14

~ a reflection after reading “Mind at Play” from the book, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephan Nachmanovitch and “What do we mean by creativity?” from the book, Action Research and Reflective Practice: Creative and visual methods to facilitate reflection and learning by Paul McIntosh.The latter was a bit more difficult to get through. The tone was linear and scientific in nature. And while I’m growing to appreciate this style of writing as I learn more about scholarly research and how it is used to advance the field, I couldn’t help but to be distracted by the masculine tone of the work (out of 20+ authors cited in the chapter, less than five were from female contributors).

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack All dressed in black, black, black With silver buttons, buttons, buttons All down her back, back back…



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My family sang and clapped to entice me to take my first bobbling steps down the narrow hallway of our small two-bedroom apartment. I stood… and bopped… and finally, two-stepped my way down to the other end of the hall, clapping my hands as my community reached out to receive me.

My first dance.

A few years later, my dance journey continued as a young girl around age 5. My parents put my sister and me in ballet and tap at The Dancer Studio as a cute activity that came with a tutu. For the first of many times, the way dance showed up and functioned in my life began to transform. I would later understand that what we believed to be purely recreational was actually the bedrock of a years-long relationship with my own movement that sought validation from external entities, while devaluing my own deep sense of knowing. Not long after, when my parents divorced, we left The Dancer Studio as seasons began to change.

My mother began to bring me along with her to a West African dance class in the recreational studio at Wayne State University on Friday nights. The teacher would go across the floor first, showing the step while the drums played on. We learned welcome dances, fertility dances, celebratory dances, war dances. She would teach us a few steps center floor, then progressions that traveled, and we’d end in a circle, with dancers taking turns combining steps we’d learned in class (and some that were already a part of our movement vocabulary) in the center of the circle as an improvised duet with the drummers (the class structure and pedagogy were all there). There were as many different ages, shapes, and sizes in the room as there were dancers. I felt welcome and I danced with ease and joy. I also felt guided; like my body just knew what to do. I don’t remember getting many corrections about placement or comportment. Once I embodied the steps and songs that corresponded to each dance, I was free. This dance functioned as a community, a ritual, an affirmation, and so much more. I danced in many West African and Afro-Cuban communities over the years to come. This core memory would be a stable foundation that I would come to value greatly many years later.

Eventually, my curiosities about dance and the moving body grew, and by high school I felt I was a good enough mover to explore different types of dance. The gatekeeper, however, to this somatic way of knowing was classical ballet. I spent many years after that training my body to move in ways that were deemed acceptable, valuable, and desirable. Always striving for control and “correctness.” By the time my life necessitated the types of dance that required the movement that my body naturally had to offer, I had no idea how to find it.

By age 32, I had been dancing professionally for half my life. So many years were spent adding layer upon layer of technical proficiency, signifying value and credibility as an artist, among other benefits. And with every layer that was cemented into my body, the voice of my own knowing grew faint and unrecognizable.

I find stark parallels between my physical dancing body and my intuitive knowing Self. There is much about my Self that is natural, intuitive, and aligned that I have learned to alter/cover over the years. With different practices and habits, I’ve learned to perform in a way that is acceptable and valuable to society, but now, in this time of rebuilding as I step into my newest season of knowing, I have found that it is imperative to unearth my own voice in order to access the deep ancestral recipes that will inform me, keep me, guide me, and usher me forward with clear intention and purpose.

By age 32, I had grown and given birth to a human, gotten married, grown and given birth to another human, gotten divorced, and was faced with a great and difficult season of deconstruction and re-creation. But as I sat at the blank canvas, ready to create anew, I found that I had no idea how to even start. Fortunately, my journey had brought me from the busy city of Detroit, to a rural area in western Massachusetts, right off the Connecticut River. Here, in the stillness, I was able to revisit my Self. Through pleasure and play, I am able to peel back layers of technique and training to reveal the function of movement in my life, at its core; intentionally pursuing pleasure as a guiding force away from societal norms and toward intuitive and abolitionist healing.

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (adrienne maree brown)

In this new place, I’ve been able to engage my inner Fool/Trickster/Holy Buffoon/Shaman and, “channel the straight talk of the unconscious without the fear or shame that inhibits normal adults,” (Nachmanovitch, p. 47). I’ve trusted and used my voice to advocate for myself in ways that were abnormal in my old life. I’ve been safe enough to have the courage and privilege to play.

The nature of my employment as a dance teaching artist living in residency at a high school affords me consistent opportunities to seek truth through creation. Each trimester, I present new work performed by my students. This keeps me in a constant state of seeking, uncovering, and creating. As McIntosh quotes Margret Boden in his chapter, What do we mean by creativity, “…In these puzzles I test things out, remove things, return them, and remember the steps I have taken to reach a current point, until at last a new shape emerges, or the rings separate, or the ball is liberated,” (McIntosh, p. 88). It is in this fashion that I work to understand my own coherent totality.

I hope you continue to follow this recorded journey inward. In the past month, I’ve been deeply devoted to the concepts of pleasure and play as activism; “exploring movement that is pleasing to my body; developing a practice of honoring/uncovering/decoding my own native tongue,” (Williams, 2022) and spending, “intentional time embracing my voice, exploring my own movement, and reflecting on its origins,” (Williams, 2022).




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