Chapter 3: Performance as Transformative Experience. Performances fall into the category anthropologists call “rituals”—special events meant to enact effects, often symbolic, that are understood by the participants. The dancer puts on her costume—costume can be understood as worn performance, an expression to the world—styles her hair, applies stage makeup, glues rhinestones to her face. These are mere symbols, but they communicate to the audience—and to the dancer herself—that today is special, rare, and sacred and that the stakes are high. The almost-meditative ritual of getting ready prepares her mind and sharpens her focus. The stage, the spotlight, the supportive friends backstage all create a rarified moment and indicate the passage of sacred time. Neuroscientific research done recently at the Univ of Toronto showed that pre-performance rituals enhanced performance with impressive statistical significance. The brain transitions into identifiable and measurable altered neural states.

My argument is that writing is a ritualized performance as well. Just as the epic poets from classical antiquity began their works with an invocation to the muses—a sacred ritual initiated at the moment of composition that is re-enacted with each reading of the text. Writing and reading are both elements of a ritualized performative encounter, a shared experience.

Just like the dancer putting on her earrings and the writer engaging in conventions, the potential to affect an audience looms and the brain responds. We teach our students to make productive use of that sometimes terrifying but incredibly powerful energy that comes from getting ready to make ourselves vulnerable to the world. It is in this moment where we change our audience and we change ourselves. We rise to the expectations in those high-stakes moments. We tell our audience and ourselves that magic is about to happen. And it does.

Leigha prepares for the annual recital.