When I was about eleven years old, my family moved into a house on a Southern California palisade overlooking a country club that included a golf course, stables, a polo field, and a stadium. Sometimes I awoke to the sound of hoof beats—a horse pulling a sulky and its passenger around one of the rings below.
I don’t remember why my parents signed me up for riding lessons (although I can’t forget how the girls who owned, rode, and groomed their own mounts looked down on me). My strongest recollection is of a large, flea-bitten gray horse: Flying Cloud. He must have once been a competitor, because if I happened to ride him all by myself to the far part of the property, I could feel his energy change and see his ears prick up; he had spotted the fences set up at one end. Nothing I could do would stop him charging at one and then another and vaulting over them. Fortunately I knew enough to stand up a bit in the stirrups as he jumped.
Why this lengthy introduction to writing about a book that, weeks ago, arrived via snail mail? The book in question is JoAnna Mendl Shaw’s Physical Listening: A Dancer’s Interspieces Journey (published by Arnica Press in 2021). Perhaps I delayed because long ago, I was advised to stay away from horses if I expected to become a dancer, and because the book’s author creates works for her Equus Projects that skillfully mingle costumed dancers with horses and riders. Perhaps, too, because I worked with Shaw decades ago, when I taught in a summer arts camp in Lenox, Massachusetts. Now we both have gray hair. And grown sons.
Shaw’s book is a hefty volume: 8 x 11 inches, 1 ½ inches thick, and stuffed with relevant images, both large and very small. In the Introduction, she advises us that “Perhaps you will read this book cover to cover, but feel free to cherry pick.” A wise instruction to someone entering fascinating, unfamiliar territory. Early on, its author introduces three terms that you may not have heard applied to the equine world: sponging, tracking, and mirroring (sponging is defined as “our multi-sensory absorbing of energy and action when moving with a ridden horse”).
One of the things that intrigues me about Physical Listening is that it takes me into a world I knew nothing about, as well as inviting me to adventure in a world I know better (mothering, dancing, choreographing). Shaw practices Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and, making use of its strategies, she has created pieces at stables in New York, New Jersey, Staten Island, Ohio, Montana, Sweden, and more. In the two weeks she spent in Thailand with a small group of people, her husband, and elephants, the humans also played a game involving trust and weight while walking downhill—paired and, between them, balancing a single long stick on their index fingers.
On that same page, Shaw muses about a Toronto study of babies, in which the infants early on seem able to perceive differences among images of various monkeys, but “they lose that ability” when they begin to understand language. . .when they learn the concept of ‘monkey’ and ‘animal.’” I mention this in order to point out that Shaw has a wide-ranging mind. “Embodiment” is for her a fact, a concept, and a way of experiencing the world.
And her world is rich and varied. She has worked with young adults with autism, noticed how she and her husband synchronize paddling their kayak, and made use of a life-sized inflatable elephant. In the course of teaching a Physical Listening and Performance workshop with horses and students at the University of Buffalo, Shaw initially thought that the students didn’t move their torsos fluidly. Discovering that her colleague’s dog had recently birthed a litter, she then taught an “embodied lesson,” giving each student a puppy to hold.
Shaw’s chapters have many sections and bold-faced, underlined divisions, such as In Practice with Horses, In Practice in the Dance Studio, The Score, Objectives, and Comments. The use of the word “Journey” in the book’s titles is apt. In the chapter “Dancing: Making a Visual Installation,” she recollects a doodling game she played with her father. Now within the small square that starts some of her book’s sections, she scribbles a big convoluted shape of curving lines, then subtly transforms it into a swarm of animals and faces.
The author also acknowledges and analyzes her mistakes, as well as the adventures and their results. Imagine this: “we would enter the paddock and begin moving through the space functioning as a unison herd of four. Our pathways would wind between sunbathing equines. In this herd formation we tried to avoid spatially crowding or pushing the animals.”
I don’t know how to categorize this book; it defies all attempts to do so. I was comforted by Shaw’s advice to “cherry pick,” but I also spread the volume on my lap and leafed through it—now pausing to think, now reading for minutes on end, and relishing this alluring, new-to-me world.