It’s kind of a shame that Lady Gaga had to go and make it all confusing. She has taken full control and ownership of the word “gaga”, planted her over-the-top avant-garde flag into the heart of it and tattooed her outrageous persona onto the word in such a permanent way that few people can now see it any other way.
Of course, way before there was Her Majesty Gaga, there was gaga the game, an intrinsic part of the Jewish summer camp experience, a type of mini-dedgeball that, thankfully for us counselors, kept the fifth-graders occupied for hours on end.
And even before that, “gaga” was simply part of the limited vocabulary of the newborn, the gurgled vocalization that you try to interpret as an actual word with meaning but is really just a jumbled precursor to real language.
Yet the Gaga as I speak of it here, refers neither to the current It-Girl of pop music nor the nostalgic game of many a Jewish youth. Rather, I’m talking about the unique movement vocabulary – a language of its own if you will – developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and used as the foundation for the training of the dancers of the Batsheva Dance Company.
It’s more a philosophy of movement, really, and one of the main tenants is that anyone can do it. The non-dancer gaga classes at the Suzanne Dellal Centre have become hugely popular, with several offered each day for those who never intended and never plan to be dancers but have for some reason decided to connect with the pleasure of their bodies on a regular basis.
I arrived about fifteen minutes early to register for my first month of classes last week. One is not allowed to register for just one Gaga class, it is required that one signs up for a full month since Gaga cannot be fully experienced in a single session but rather is a process that is built upon and thus requires a commitment. Or so they say. Could be just a marketing ploy but hey, let’s go with it. They also claim that the experience can vary significantly with different teachers. This tends to be the case with most things, actually.
So, okay, I’m willing to give Gaga a chance for a full month. After all, this is the movement language of contemporary Israel and I’m curious as to what it has to say about its people.
After signing the release of liability papers, I was handed a sheet of Gaga Work Instructions, advice for how to approach the class and get the most out of the experience. Among other things, it makes clear that one cannot arrive late (“If you are late, give up. Go do something else that is pleasant. Come tomorrow”). Silence is to be observed at all times in the class (except for the teacher who speaks the entire time), meaning no questions during the process. Of course, when asked to make noises and sounds as part of the exercises, that is obviously encouraged.
Gaga seems to be, as far as I have experienced it, largely about peeling away layers of artifice and tapping into the raw, internal energy of oneself. The visual image of what one looks like is irrelevant. There is no such thing as a correct position or an ideal to be achieved, the way ballet demands precise placement of the arms, where the turnout of your legs can always be better, the height of your extended leg can always reach a bit higher.
Mirrors are forbidden, which for a dance class, is a rather revolutionary requirement. But it underlines the point that gaga is not about what you see but rather what you feel. The teacher’s job is to provide the structure to push you to the edge and then bring you back to safety and to do so using imagery that challenges you to experience your own body in a fresh, unfamiliar way.
To do all this requires a rather serious effort to release all the barriers and judgments that have been pressed into our brains, the voices that tell us how ridiculous we feel or the tendency we all have look at ourselves from the outside and decide that we’re doing something wrong or not as good as the person next to us or that we did it better yesterday or that our body was just never meant to move in this way.
How often in life do we decide, without any actual feedback or indication from anyone else, that we’re simply not good enough, that we should be better? Gaga covers that social mirror, asks you to quiet the voices that call for caution, and then allows the soul of the body to emerge and conquer the hesitations of the mind.