Practical criticism - walking the walk

What does a president look like, a friend asks. It's a good question, especially as my wise ArtsJournal colleague Apollinaire Scherr has already drawn attention to Obama's 'loping physical grace', adding:

'I've spent so much of my life reflecting on the meaning of movement, I can't help feeling that our President-Elect's liquid ease bodes well: it's such a rare quality among politicians, who usually seem all bungled up in their bodies, though Bill Clinton had some of that expansiveness - except more in the flesh, which turned out to spell trouble, yes it did)...'

British prime minister Gordon Brown, shifting uncomfortably inside his skin as if it scratches him, is absolutely a 'bungled up' figure. But how do we want a president - any political leader - to move? Absolute monarchs don't need to move at all - we, their cowed and snotty subjects, eddy around their monumental stillness. If they do move, we're in trouble - Elizabeth I preparing to box someone's ears, or Louis XIV disrupting the sclerotic control of Versailles. In contrast, some of the best-loved political leaders have had a homely relationship to their own body: bustling Lloyd George, Churchill's stumpy teddy bear, the astoundingly unaffected Mandela.

Authoritarians need to try harder, which is why they teeter on the edge of ridicule. Buffed-up Putin and cosmetically enhanced Berlusconi are desperate for us to smell the testosterone. I'd love to know whether Dubya adopted his cowboy swagger early, or if it developed as he began his political career, determined, as Oliver Stone's new movie has it, to 'out-Texas Texas.' Bush junior's walk, rounding at the hip, was a gift to caricaturists, careening down the Darwinian scale from good-ol' boy to poorly-briefed chimp.

Without getting carried away, Obama is already developing into his own icon. He has the 'liquid ease' that Apollinaire observes, but also the gift of stillness, a promise of calm reflection rather than bellicose over-reaction. Or maybe I'm hoping too much. Only 76 days to go before we find out...

How do we want a leader to move? Does physical assurance suggest grace or resolute image control? And what else have you spotted about Obama's movement?

November 11, 2008 5:34 PM | | Comments (8) |


A propos of Vera's comments, Obama is an ectomorph -- the body type that builds connective tissue -- and nerve tissue -- intelligence in the whole body.

Love the way everyone has picked up something different in the Obama style, even when we all start with his grace and deliberation. Suggests that, even though he's set what we might call the template of his persona, it could develop in any number of directions. In four years' time will we think of him as Bruce's Muhammad Ali (a little punch drunk, maybe)? Or as George's post-Dalai-Lama guru? Vera, I love the idea that he's a man of tendon rather than muscle, which gives me hope that physical flexibility will be a sign of intellectual suppleness. This isn't an age for hard-bod assertion.

(By the way, I was tickled to read Colson Whitehead's op-ed piece in the New York Times, in which he rejoiced that America had at last elected a guy who looked like him to the White House: a skinny black guy. Truly, these are stirring, ectomorphic times.)

Good call about his forward-leaning posture, George, which to me is more an actor's trick than a dancer. Dancers are all about spine and legs - following the line. Actors hit you between the eyes with their words, and that's what the Prez-elect is doing here - commanding attention on what he's about to say.

How do we want a guru to move is possibly an even trickier question than the one about leaders. And even more iconic than Oprah? Those are bold words, Mr Russell. I'm pulsating, I tell you.

Yes, AND does anyone notice the head forward posture? Is this a visionary's posture (third eye leading)? Is it developmental, psychological? What is the cultural meaning of that posture and what does it communicate or model to us (consciously to movement professionals, unconsciously to most everyone else)?

Since we as a culture appear to be setting up this man as the first American hero in at least 25 years (Oprah? the Dalai Lama might be a non-American model of a cultural hero, and it's ironic that we had to out-source heroism to Asia), it behooves us to discuss this fully.

Y'all ever hear of Aristotle? He as much as said that the stately wise man would, should walk in slow deliberate steps, or, we might say, with liquid ease. There's a slippery line between majestic grace and slick self-absorption. Muhammad Ali compared to bruisers, sluggers, and other contenders to the throne of The Greatest.

Of course, we're just talking style, not tax policies.

obama's choreography is in the sinews/tendons: not the muscles (putin AND bush), but in the fibrous cords that connect muscle with bone — not usually even thought about until damaged in sport or dance. the med dictionary points out that tendon fibres are like fibreglass, only much much more flexible and resilient, and that they transmit force, allow joint rotation, and store and return energy like springs, saving metabolic effort in the muscles. (basketball reach is in the tendons: they power its dance.) in stillness, they control the muscles ready for movement — a body not posed for fight or flight, immobile but actively balancing within. nobody consumes steroids or pumps to bulk up tendons, and the line of grace is in the tendons...

Jeffery and Tarot Reader, thanks so much for your comments. From The Lion King to The Godfather is a pretty mind-boggling range of reference. You see, this is why people talk about Obama being burdnened with expectation...

'Stroll' is a great word, by the way, Jeffery. That sense of ease... will take another look at Pacino's Corleone and compare the moves.

obama's is your fundamental southside chicago, 'ain't i bad' stroll. the same can be said of jesse jackson's glide. it can best be found, however, toward the end of 'godfather I', when michael corleone (al pacino), strolls away following the hit on his brother-in-law. he's the don then, he's the man.

Of course Obama moves even better than any other. He dances like the king...lion? Next election lets have a Queen of Sheba to match Solomon. Who will be Sheba, we found Solomon?

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on November 11, 2008 5:34 PM.

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