30 April 2013

Dancing in the street

April nearly slipped away without the chance to post a monthly pattern from Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. I had chosen a pattern & taken some photos for it, but there hasn't been time to do the writing part...so I decided instead to focus on No. 63: DANCING IN THE STREET. I like the idea of this pattern, but have wondered a few times how I might work it in. Considering the warmer weather/change of season, as well as what's happening in Florence tonight (more details on this below), it seems quite appropriate for this last day of April. 

'Dancing in the Street' is of course fairly self-explanatory, but I will describe where Alexander goes with the concept. He begins by asking, "Why is it that people don't dance in the streets today?" As he points out, many cultures have managed to stay in touch with what he believe is a basic need, but outdoor dancing is quite absent in 'modern' societies. The pattern suggests a resolution that includes some type of covered structure with a raised platform & space for refreshment stalls, which is surrounded by a paved area. Realizing that the mere existence of a simple built form is not enough in and of itself, he suggests building them in places where there are a number of local musicians who might otherwise not have a place to share their music. Citing the controversy over regulating street musicians in the San Francisco Bay area (in progress at the time the book was being written), he says, "It is in this atmosphere that we propose the pattern. Where there is feeling for the importance of the activity re-emerging, then the right setting can actualize it and give it roots."

For me, this seems to be the key to the pattern: as opposed to the common wisdom that form should follow function, sometimes the form (i.e. structure) is what invites/permits an activity to occur in the first place. Time and time again, I have found that creating a new space—or reworking an existing one—can influence/encourage/stimulate an activity that may not otherwise be possible. On a small, personal scale, this has certainly been true for the homes I've lived in. It brings to mind something I read once about how much easier it traditionally was for 'housewives' to be writers than painters. I recall that one writer used her ironing board as a desk—talk about efficient! On the other hand, painting large canvases can require a considerable amount of space. Sometimes I dream about having enough room for multiple easels and all of my canvases, but as it is, when I want to oil paint I need to do some furniture-rearranging first (and it therefore doesn't happen as naturally or often as I would like).

Getting back to the pattern at hand, while the 'architecture' that Alexander describes to facilitate it doesn't seem to have evolved anywhere in Florence, this doesn't mean there's no dancing in the streets. One place you might see people dancing is Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest & most famous bridge. From when spring first begins to warm up the city, and lasting until it's too chilly to strum a guitar outdoors, music wafts from the bridge as Claudio Spadi plays his guitar while singing Italian, English, Spanish & Portuguese songs in the evenings (often accompanied by his guitar- and violin-playing friend). Sometimes it's a young couple dancing, perhaps on their honeymoon, and intoxicated by the setting sun, a familiar, favorite song and the romance of walking across a bridge that's stretched across the Arno for nearly seven-hundred years. (One time, after a couple had finished swaying to a ballad, the man got down on his knee and proposed!) Or it may be a pair of four- or five-year-olds twirling, fascinated by their skirt-flaring potential. Other times it's a local care-giver who does enough clapping & dancing for both herself and the wheelchair-bound woman she brings to the bridge.

Another example was one night last summer, when the little sandwich shop in the narrow street that runs below our apartment stayed open late to host a birthday party. As those so-familiar strains of tango music started up, many people were drawn to their windows to witness the dramatic tango-esque strutting happening down in the street. I love how some of the passersby would pause to join in for a few minutes of impromptu dancing...

And I can't help but think of the final scene in the movie Pane e Tulipani (Bread & Tulips): there's a merry little music-filled gathering at the edge of a Venetian canal, with the main character dancing happily with her recently-found soul mate.


As I mentioned in my last post, celebration has definitely been in the air as the earth wakes up again. (And my, is it full of good smells these days!) Liberation Day was last Thursday, which meant a pontea 'bridge', i.e. long weekendfor most people...and tomorrow we are heading into a mid-week break for Labor Day. Plenty of reasons to dance. But
'Dancing in the Street' is especially relevant tonight, which is a notte bianca ('white night'). For the past several years, Florence has sponsored at least one of these long evenings of art & music. Performances are organized in piazzas all over the city, and many shops, restaurants & museums will stay open as late as 3 or 4am. A program for this year's notte bianca, with the theme 'volare' (to fly), can be found here.

As my daughter & I walked along the river at dusk tonight, we came upon the first sign of the special night ahead: yellow LEDs spelling 'BE HAPPY' along Ponte Vecchio. Here's one last gesture of celebratory yellow for the month—and a little reminder to 'be happy'...


And this seems like a fitting way to end the post ~


{Past entries & more information about Christopher Alexander's patterns can be found here.}


  1. Older towns that still have band rotundas and "sound shells" generally use them.
    But it is sad to see so many new places springing up with no such provision.And costly to add them as an afterthought! I've been to and performed in many street celebrations, from simple busking to holiday concerts.Great fun!
    And now I'll be singing "Volare" for the rest of the day!

    1. It's always a good feeling to see such things being used - seems to indicate a healthy/natural state of balance.
      Sounds like such fun to have been a part of local performances - nice memories to have!
      - Lisa


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