HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Movement with Grace
Interview with Sarah L. Kaufman, author of The Art of Grace and Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic of the Washington Post. Published in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.
Tell us how you came to write this book.
I wrote this book because, as a critic and chronicler of beauty and grace for some 30 years, I simply wanted to learn more about what moved me most. I wanted to broaden my understanding of grace, and to follow it through time and geography and everyday life.
The more I contemplated why grace is so enduring and seductive, the more I sought to develop theories of grace—because I couldn’t find them anywhere else. There are books on love, and books on beauty, but where was the wide- ranging book on grace, ordinary, everyday, you-and-me grace? This seemed odd, considering that grace underpins major religions, is a prized quality in the arts and is cherished as a character trait. What connects these different aspects of grace? How can we bring them all into our lives? I thought these were ideas worth spreading.
But before I got to all that, I had one of those “aha” moments that got me thinking about grace in general. Here’s how it happened. I’ve always loved classic films, and I decided to write an essay on the way actors moved and gestured in the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And in studying films from that era, I realized that some of the legendary stars—Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant—possessed something unusual, an elegance that seemed entirely natural. The word “grace” just dropped into my mind: that’s what they had. The beautiful way they moved expressed something about their inner qualities (or so they made us think!). Here was a dancer-like grace, embodied by non-dancers.
I became very excited about the whole notion of grace, and this drove me to more questions, especially about the social and spiritual aspects of grace. How do they relate to the physical? Is grace inherent, or can it be learned and acquired? Here was a challenge, and a great pleasure.
Why is grace important?
I view grace as an expression of the best of ourselves. From a scientific point of view, it is the result of a healthy brain and a healthy body, with our billions of brain cells firing together in the right way, enabling us to move our skel- eton smoothly and efficiently. From a social point of view, grace comprises putting others first, thinking of their feelings, being empathetic and kind. And these qualities are essential to social harmony. Grace leads to good feelings and good times.
From a spiritual point of view, grace moves us to be generous and loving, to give rather than take, to think of others before ourselves. In short, grace allows us to slow down and view the big picture, and to exercise love rather than judgment. And in valuing grace, which is what I hope to inspire with my book, we are also taking care of ourselves in a profound, full way—caring for our physical, social and spiritual health. This opens us up to joy, fulfillment, human connections, just about everything that makes life good.
Grace has at least two aspects: physical, and philosophical or spiritual. How do you explain grace as an idea?
The way I approach it, grace is a philosophy of living. It’s an art that we can practice, and through which we can express our best selves. It combines ease, generosity and “fellow-feeling,” or empathy. Grace reminds us to hold the door open for the person behind us, and to really listen to what our children are saying, with the goal of understanding, rather than jumping in to correct. It reminds us to be kind to others, to give our time and atten- tion generously. What’s so exciting about grace is that those moments of showing warmth and compassion are often when we feel most happy with ourselves. So grace ignites this terrific feedback loop of contentment, from you to me and back to you.
Grace also reminds us to take care of ourselves with love and gentleness, to maintain our soul’s home—this amazing physical instrument that we inhabit. Grace reminds us to take walks and enjoy the outdoors and luxuriate in moving with buoyancy and ease. It reminds us to counteract evil, to stand up for ourselves and for those who need support.
Noticing grace is also part of this worldview, this art. By being open to grace, we get that rush of happy feeling—gratitude, admiration, maybe even love—as we experience, say, Roger Federer’s tap dance on the tennis court, or as we appreciate that lovely person who welcomes us into her home, or who helps us out when we’ve tripped and dumped our purse out on the sidewalk.
How do you recognize grace in people’s movements, gestures, actions?
I look for a sense of ease and naturalness, and the absence of effort. Graceful people make us feel good, and that comes through in smooth actions as well as in comforting, not-making-a-big-deal-of-it behavior.
What do you see happening to grace today?
We’ve all experienced rudeness and pushiness and unnecessary roughness as we go about our days. Sidewalks, shops and subways are crowded, and many folks unfortunately don’t pay much attention to their physical impact on others. They may not be thinking about whether someone minds if they sprawl across two seats on the bus, or if they text during a movie and distract the rest of us.
But all is not lost! I see so many promising signs of grace. I feel that young people are growing up, by and large, with more tolerance for difference than in generations past. “Don’t be judgy”—that’s an honest value among millen- nials, and one I heartily endorse, even when my own children remind me of it! Look at how Jimmy Carter publicly handled his cancer diagnosis, with such equanimity, and even cheerfulness as he expressed gratitude for a full life. So grace absolutely still exists; it’s up to us to look for it, to appreciate it, to enact it ourselves—and to savor it.
People often associate “grace,” or a certain notion of it, with Christianity, but it is a concept thoroughly embedded in Jewish tradition and sources. What did you learn about Jewish grace?
God’s unlimited, unconditional love for all creation is a cornerstone of the Bible. The first mention of grace in the Bible is in reference to Noah, who found grace in the eyes of God. As a rabbi I interviewed for the book told me, there was something about Noah that God found really lovable, though there’s not a lot of direct explanation of what, exactly, it was about Noah that led God to see in him the presence of grace. I find it significant that Noah seems to have been simply a decent guy who could be trusted to care. God entrusted him with the duty of care, caring for his family and vulnerable creatures in a time of upheaval and stress. This is a beautiful expression of grace.
We can view our own graceful acts—in deepening human connections, and infusing our life and work with purpose and meaning, and in treating others with respect and dignity—as reflections of God’s grace. They are our response to the grace we’ve received from God. God has poured his grace onto us, and we pour it forth to others. There’s that feedback loop again!
What are the educational implications of grace? Why, and how, should our readership of educators consider imparting grace to their students?
I think we’ve overvalued competitiveness and winning. One has only to look around at the world today to see how inequalities and imposed separations are creating misery. Grace is the medium through which different people can live together with tolerance toward all and harm to none, as philosophers have urged since ancient times.
There are so many ways to teach and model tolerance and acceptance— grace—in the classroom. Emphasizing empathy, for instance, asking students to think of how another child feels when others are whispering or texting and excluding him. Teaching gentleness, courtesy and patience—these are not frivolous qualities, they are essential to good relationships, at work, at home, in a community. Spotlighting kids’ academic achievements is good, but it’s also crucial to notice and praise students every day when they are kind, when they stand up for a child who’s being bullied, when they show consideration for the quiet kid on the fringes.
Many of our schools are small with limited time and resources for athletics. Drawing upon your knowledge of and love for dance, what advice do you have for schools in this area?
Here’s a fun fact: the reason we have a brain is to move. The complicated orchestration of movement is a fully cerebral process! (In the book I delve into the brain science behind grace; that’s one of my favorite chapters.) So if kids are sitting all day at their desks, they’re not taking full advantage of their brainpower. Our moving bodies literally shape our brains. Exercise helps us think and learn by raising growth-factor chemicals in the brain, which build new connections between the brain cells involved in learning. The more complicated the physical coordination involved—say, in dance or tennis—the bigger the brain boost, because the brain is more challenged. Brain cells need a physical workout in order to grow.
Research also shows that after a complicated fitness routine, students score better on tasks demanding a high degree of attention than those who had pursued less-taxing activity. And those who don’t exercise at all score the worst.
Why do I go into the brain benefits of exercise in a book about grace? Because we become more graceful movers, with smoother, more con- nected movement, the more we move. We need the habit of moving. And when we’re in the habit of moving, with an invigorated body, we feel better, we’re healthier, we’re more at ease...and we’re more prone to
spread those good vibes to others. As I mentioned before, grace is about taking care of ourselves as well as others—and that care loops around and around, feeding on itself.
We tend to put the brain first and body second, but we need to understand that they are tied together. Athletics, martial arts, dance—these are not fluffy extras. They’re essential for health and for academic success. You can’t go forward on your educational or your spiritual path if you don’t have a healthy body—and brain—to take you there. You need a sound physical structure so you can focus on other things without the distrac- tions of disease and discomfort.
That’s my major thesis: grace involves and supports the whole person, and ripples outward, enriching and nurturing the community, too.
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The study and practice of the arts can serve as a powerful vehicle for learning. This issue presents ways that the arts can deepen intellectual inquiry as well as sparking creativity, engage students' hearts and minds in science, literature, and all aspects of Jewish studies, expose learners to provocative, contemporary issues of culture and politics, and draw meaningful connections across the curriculum and among people.
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