Get Down on Your Hands and Knees

This semester, every class I teach begins with mopping the floor.  Well, not really.  It’s much more than mopping.  It’s more like a glorified floor-scrubbing /yoga/meditative/stretching ritual.  My students and I each grab a scrap of rag, wet it in our bucket, and kneel on the floor.  With our first exhalation, we extend our arms forward and slide the rag out along the floor.  On the inhalation, we face to the side and raise our arms above our head.  The sequence repeats, each student moving gradually across the classroom in silence.  The ritual is simple, but for me it encapsulates several of my past informative theater training experiences and the mixture of “Eastern” and “Western” traditions.

I first scrubbed the floor in a similar, kneeling manner in 2009 while attending a Butoh dance workshop at the Body Weather Farm in Hakushu, Japan.  The workshop was led my Min Tanaka, an impenetrable experimental dancer-turned farmer in his late sixties.  We trained for each day for nearly six hours on a raised wood stage in the orchard of Min’s farm.  Min would usually start class around seven thirty in the morning, so the other fourteen participants and I would usually gather around the stage just as the sun was rising.  There was no determined procedure for cleaning the stage.  Most of us bent in an upside-down V and pushed wet rags along the wood planks with our hands.  The more lazy ones (myself included) would slide the rag along the stage with our feet.  Sometimes it was pouring rain, but we would still wipe down the planks.  The dreaded buyo bugs would start biting even at that early hour, and the number of bites was usually a good indicator of how much the pests would ravage us during the morning’s session.

Min never guided our cleaning or participated himself.  Sometimes he stood smoking in a clump of trees by the stage and watched us work.  Sometimes he took an axe and hacked away at some brush.

The point of the cleaning was entirely practical.  The stage was exposed to the elements, and we spent hours each day rolling around on it.  Although we cleaned the stage together, I never particularly felt a sense of camaraderie with the other workshop participants during this preparation.  In fact, for me, the whole ritual brought about a sense of guilt.  I was never the first one to arrive, and the other students were much more convincing at doing a good job of actually wiping down the planks.  I often ended up having to retrace their tracks, awkwardly pushing my rag along and hoping no one else resented me for arriving late from breakfast.

Last summer, I found myself wiping the floor again, this time as George Keating’s assistant in our rehearsal room at the Northwestern Cherubs summer theater program for high school juniors.  George studied with a Kabuki (Japanese theater) master and began each of his rehearsals with a cleaning the floor ritual.  The process was the same as in my class described above, except with two crucial differences.  One: we didn’t use water.  While the process ended up wiping some fluff off the hardwood floor, the ritual was mostly that—a ritual—and was largely intended to humble, focus, and unify our ensemble of students.  Because of this, George and I participated in the process along with the students, signifying our equality with them and our group’s unity as an dramatic ensemble.  Throughout our five weeks of rehearsal, I observed how George’s ritual was invaluable for setting the tone for our work with the students.  The breathing quieted our thoughts and our minds, and the act of literally getting down to work on our hands and knees squashed those high school egos and told them we meant business.

When I started leading physical training for my own students this spring, my students claimed that the floor was too dirty and refused to lie down for stretching.  The next session, I introduced the floor cleaning ritual to my students.  They were not surprised at all when I asked them to clean.  Starting in lower school, Chinese students take responsibility for cleaning their classroom outside of class-time.  Usually, this task falls on the shoulders of the head of the class, a student selected for his or her superior grades and character.  Therefore, my students were somewhat perplexed when I told them that, rather than allowing the more responsible students to shoulder the work, all of us would clean together, after class started.  They were even more perplexed when I required that they accomplish their mopping through a ritualized sequence of breathing and movement.  And no mops would be involved.

Every time we clean the floor, we draw on the respect for space and demand for hard work and humility that are quite traditional of classrooms in China and Japan.  But the democratization of this process to emphasize collaboration and include both instructor and students, both “good” and “bad,” is perhaps something quite new.


3 Responses to “Get Down on Your Hands and Knees”
  1. dana says:

    You know I love this.

    Well said, M.

  2. deborah davis says:

    what comes next?

  3. Allie Gallerani says:

    the last paragraph is incredible. and you know i love the cherubs shout out 🙂
    can’t wait to read more!

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