The Importance of Storytelling

“Tell me a story.”

No matter what city, country, or culture, children all over the world have always made this imperative statement to someone older than them. To most parents, this is a burden when they’re just trying to get their kid to go to sleep. In traditions without a written language, like some tribes of Africa and Native America, storytelling is a core way to communicate and transmit information from one generation to the next. It can be via a song, a dance, some sort of performance, or just through mere verbal communication. Nonverbal cues help add to the context. The stories told can be wild fanciful fables, parables with lessons, or true stories of ancestors and other family members, dead or living. Some view storytelling as a way to dwell on the past, or make it ridiculous, but it is imperative to listen to that call and to tell the story that you need to tell, that needs to be heard, rather than keeping it bottled up inside you forever.

That’s part of the reason why I started this blog, and I feel like I’m straying from it somewhat. I don’t know if there is a National Storytelling Month, but tomorrow is the first day of October (!!) so I am going to declare it “That’s So Storytelling Month.” I always wanted to make my own holiday, and now I have.

I have so much that I want to release, to share, but since it’s not quite October yet (for a few minutes, anyhow) I’ll just tell about something that happened to me today.

Instead of kabuki class today, we had a guest lecturer come in. She was a dancer of kathak, a traditional dance style from North India. She introduced us to the world of kathak through speech, storytelling, activities, and performing herself. She was also wearing a lovely peacock-blue outfit with several golden anklets around her feet, jingling each time she moved. One of the activities she did was assign different emotions to different people, and the challenge was to display the emotion by performing the action. The action for everyone was the same: picking up (and sometimes putting down) a rose. With a class full of actors, there were some very talented performers. One girl, who I’ll call Eva, was tasked with the emotion of happiness. In her narrative, she stared forward as if she were blind and felt around on the ground for the rose. Once she palmed the rose, she put it to her face and smelled it, giving a giggle of recognition. This story said so my by saying so little. The instructor asked her to imagine the rose as an object of desire or a happy memory, and she performed it again. This time, Eva did the exact same actions, only kept her giggle to a mere smile and some wordless facial expressions, which communicated something entirely different.

Getting up and learning the dance moves was equally impressive. She talked about peacocks, and we did some movements that were reminiscent of the birds, using our hands, fingers, and wrists. I was in the front row, and though I don’t know quite exactly what happened – I was either really getting into the music, or was just shivering a little – but the instructor pointed me out as doing an “excellent peacock.” She had me come up next to her and show everyone what I just did. I didn’t quite remember, but tried to focus the best I could on being a peacock, and it caused a lot of giggles from the class, especially when she said “see how he moves from the chest?”

So maybe there is hope for me after all.

When we were dancing, she taught us a short poem to remember the principles of kathak. It went something like this: “where your hand goes, your wrist goes; where your wrist goes, your eyes go; where your eyes go, your head goes; where your head goes, your heart goes.” This was a nice way to picture the dance, as one of telling a fluid story through the body. I felt very happy, natural, and free doing the kathak movements. It didn’t require as much intense focus as kabuki, and it didn’t require as much skill as ballroom. Kathak allowed the body to flow where it wanted to go in natural movements. Maybe that’s why I excelled at it; after learning the movements, I was able to “tune out” and just let my body enjoy the moment, accept it, all the while committing the dance to memory, making it second nature. I hope to be able to one day study kathak and increase my skills in telling a story non-verbally, and maybe even experience more feelings of pure joy in motion.

She ended the class with a captivating dance that incorporated many emotions, with movements both gentle and stern. There were lots of turns and hand gestures, and at points she seemed to glide through the space, letting her hands lead her wherever they wanted her to go. She looked so free during the dance, especially with the spirals she made with her body and how her costume followed her movements. I was watching in awe and wonder, and it seemed like the dance could go on forever. When it did, however, we went around the room and introduced ourselves to her along with the reason why we chose this class. At my turn, I said that I enjoyed being here not only for the cultural benefit but because I haven’t taken a movement class in years, I enjoy the challenges and the physical activity, and it’s a great way to start off the week. Okay, maybe that last bit was overkill, but I felt my heart grow warmer when she said replied to me, saying, “You were very good. Keep moving.”

Somehow this turned into a post about dancing rather than about storytelling, but I guess one of the best parts about storytelling is getting lost in the story and then coming back to bring it full circle.

But some days, all I need to hear to keep me going, is a story that features me in the starring role.

“Keep moving.” It’s the start of a new story, and hopefully many more stories and positive experiences that can spin off in all directions, like a whirling, twirling, kathak dancer.