Posts Tagged ‘contact improvisation’

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60 Seconds Dance

April 2, 2012

In the fall of 2011, we had the opportunity to do an extended rehearsal with some very talented dancers and free divers.  One of the main goals was to develop techniques and skills for the human dancers to move with each other underwater as gracefully and harmoniously as the dolphins do.  Here is one of our more successful exercises, presented as a 60 second screen dance (an out-of-competition offering in appreciation of the 60secondsdance.dk competition) since one minute is roughly the time we have to work together while we hold a single breath:

We were lucky to be working with a perfectly complimentary ensemble. Kathleen Fisher (previously featured in ‘Trio Corkscrew“) is an impeccably trained professional dancer with many years experience in the water, and a ‘natural’ at free diving. Jillian Rutledge, new to Dolphin Dance, is a trained free diver who is a ‘natural’ at the dance. Both have plenty of experience moving with wild dolphins in the ocean.

Perhaps, given all this experience, the surprising thing is that it took work and rehearsal to become coordinated! The dolphins make underwater coordination look effortless…but for the humans, it requires a real focused effort.

We worked not only on the technical aspects of diving and breath holding, but also on an approach to movement that honors an environment where the weight of our bodies is completely supported. We worked on expanding our peripheral vision and increasing our sensitivity to water flow on our skin, so we could ‘keep track’ of our fellow dancers, stay close to them, stay with them in their movement intentions. We danced on the beach, in the back yard of our rented apartment and of course, in the ocean. We regularly made 1 minute or longer dances that traversed a water column greater than 40 feet deep.

In some ways, it always felt as easeful and sensuous as it appears. But it is also a fact that no matter how warm the water, we were always freezing by the end of a rehearsal session. We were also often exhausted – working on limited oxygen can be profoundly tiring!

Just as important as the skills we honed was the development of our relationships. Working with an intention for ease, grace and harmony it felt very natural to develop a sweet camaraderie. I wonder if it is this way for the dolphins? They are always so gentle and generous with us. It is hard to resist imagining that the dolphins’ personalities may be shaped by their continuous practice of ease, grace and harmony in their every move.

We knew we had accomplished something when one day towards the end of our time together, as we made our long swim back to shore from rehearsing among ourselves in a bay where the dolphins had not appeared, we realized that we felt just as satisfied as if we had been dancing with the dolphins.

Chisa, Kathleen, Jilly

Chisa Hidaka, Kathleen Fisher, Jillian Rutledge; photo by Benjamin Harley

Posted by Chisa Hidaka

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Contact Improvisation with Wild Dolphins

May 17, 2011

An interview with director Chisa Hidaka provides a compelling perspective into the experience of dancing with wild dolphins.  She also eloquently explains the broader mission of the Dolphin Dance Project, to encourage respect for and protection of wild dolphins and their habitat.  (If you would like to know more about the threats to their well-being, please visit our ‘Protect’ page.)

Features Chisa Hidaka (speaker and dancer), Erzsi Palko (dancer) and wild Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and Pacific Spinner Dolphins. Underwater videography by Bryce Groark, Brett LeMaster, Loui Terrier, Benjamin Harley and Chisa Hidaka.  Produced and edited by Benjamin Harley. Video of the interview and sample clip of contact improvisation filmed by Sanford Lewis and provided courtesy of his ‘Contact Improvisation: An Intimate Dance‘ production

This video clip is an example of the kind of context we intend to provide in the feature length documentary we are developing.  Our goal is to give the audience  a profound appreciation for these human-dolphin interactions, exploring their significance with the help of expert scientists and artists, incorporating knowledge of dolphin biology and cognition and how humans communicate with body language and dance.  (If you haven’t seen our first film,’Together: Dancing with Spinner Dolphins,’ visit our website, and if you would like to support future productions of the Dolphin Dance Project, please visit our ‘Donate’ page.)

Chisa was inspired to found the Dolphin Dance Project when she recognized that improvised dance, specifically the practice of contact improvisation, enabled a depth of communication with wild dolphins comparable to what she experienced with human dancers.  Training in this form hones our ability to perceive, interpret and understand the physical communication of others – a skill sometimes called “physical listening” – as well as our technical facility to respond and deepen the conversation. The art of contact improvisation proves to be very precious indeed when it can facilitate mutual understanding between two intelligent species in such a direct and intimate way.

The interview was conducted at Earthdance, originally the communal home of a group of visionary contact improvisers, now a beautiful retreat where the form continues to be developed and taught.  (If you are interested to learn more about this form, there are workshops and classes year round – visit http://www.earthdance.net/ )  Sanford Lewis, who is currently producing a documentary about the dance form, “Contact Improvisation: an Intimate Dance,” filmed the interview. The producer of numerous environmental films, Sanford provides more information about his new work at http://ContactImprovOnScreen.com.

Dolphins communicate through body language as much or more than we do. Whether or not dolphins have a concept of “dance” similar to ours, their intentional, communicative and beautiful movement is exactly what we mean by the term.  Perhaps they understand it better than us, for we are discovering that, “When you approach dolphins with dance, they recognize it as intelligence.”

– Posted by Benjamin Harley

Ben and Chisa Improvise, Video Still: Sanford Lewis

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Was That Choreographed?

April 4, 2011

The Dolphin Dance Project is well embarked on developing its next film which will feature multiple human dancers.  We have been scouting for talented improvisers who can dance exquisitely underwater while maintaining relationships with dolphins and fellow humans at the same time.  We have been honored to be joined by some very talented dancers (and some very talented dolphins too) for practice sessions, and we look forward to more rehearsals in the coming months.

On a recent trip, we fortuitously met Matisha who has years of experience with wild dolphins, and a website of his own (www.SongofHome.com) where he shares videos, music, and other inspirations he has received from these extraordinary fellow creatures.  Having met Matisha underwater, already in the company of dolphins, it was amazing to see – with almost no words exchanged – everyone naturally begin to dance together.

In this clip ‘Dolphin Choreography’, we see a beautiful set of changing relationships.  A dolphin leaves his pod, approaches a couple of human dancers, engages one of them, as the other human joins the ‘chorus’ of the pod.  Dolphins negotiate like this with each other all the time, understanding who wants to be with whom, joining in, separating, coming back.  But in this case, a dolphin invites the humans to participate.  It is a remarkable example of mutual understanding that these intuitive humans and (dare we say) ‘open minded’ dolphins can participate actively in this exchange.

(as always, this video will look better if you choose 720p and press the fullscreen button in the lower right hand corner, or watch on Vimeo – http://vimeo.com/21578920 )

As dancers, the humans have trained their abilities to perceive and understand shifting relationships as they are expressed through movement.  This is one of the essential building blocks of human choreography.  In a sense, dolphins are natural choreographers – and dancers have the training to engage with them intelligently.  In future posts, we will look more closely at these parallels between human ‘terrestrial’ dance and the natural way dolphins communicate as they move together.

We are actively developing this work, but we still have a long ways to go to finance it.  Working hard writing grants, we know that many foundations are in difficult economic situations. Do you know any dolphin lovers who might consider supporting our work? We would be grateful for an introduction.

We have a number of ways to thank you for donations you make, including our new poster  (below)… you can see them all on our ‘Donate’ page.  For no cost at all, you can do a lot to help us expand the project by simply tweeting or facebook ‘liking’ our website or forwarding links to your friends.

As much as anything else, however, we value your appreciation.  Thank you for your continued interest in the Dolphin Dance Project.

Please check our website for a list of upcoming screenings of our first film “Together: Dancing With Spinner Dolphins” – there are two screenings in NYC in April, one in May, one in LA, CA in June …

Join the Pod

Just like dolphins invite us to join their pod, we invite you to join our company and help support the Dolphin Dance Project

 

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Popping the Cork on an Exciting New Year!

January 6, 2011

We’re ringing in the New Year with a sneak preview of things to come…more human dancers! Here is a lovely moment caught in an exceptional single shot last summer in Bimini by producer Ben Harley:  a sweet young Atlantic Spotted dolphin dives directly towards Kathleen Fisher and me and leads us, with a clear intention, in a basic dolphin ‘figure’ that we call the ‘corkscrew’.

Has the dolphin noticed that we were practicing moving with each other like dolphins?  Does he intend to show us?  Has his interest simply been piqued to join in?  One thing is certain, there is an attempt to engage in a moment of meaningful, shared movement – we are all listening to each other, we are all working hard to be connected.

Kathleen is a beautiful dancer, whom I met years ago, when she lived in NYC, dancing for the Trisha Brown Company. Kathleen has been living in Bimini for several years in order to spend more time with dolphins.  Following my week with Diana Reiss’ research trip last August, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her as the Dolphin Dance Project begins to explore the possibilities for composing dances with multiple humans.

In 2011, our goal is to develop this work and for several humans to dance with each other like the dolphins dance amongst themselves – fluid groupings of synchronous members gliding and twirling, often in unison, sometimes in tender physical contact. I am  eager to experience the dolphins’ reactions. How will they dance with us if we can show them that humans can be cooperative and harmonious underwater, just like them? Will it mean something to the dolphins? As dancers, we can also explore the emotional impact on us of moving this way together.  We will be asking questions like these and documenting them on video as we develop the material for the feature length dance film and documentary we aspire to make.

As we work on the next phase of our project, we will offer more of these previews … and we will continue to let you know about additional screenings of “Together,” our award-winning debut film. In January, we have a few screenings in NYC:

On January 15 between 4 and 8.30 pm, “Together” will screen during the Japanese American and Japanese in America (JAJA) New Year’s party at the Japanese American Association (JAA) Hall at 15 West 44 Street, 11 floor. Admission is free and you will enjoy many performances and exhibits by Japanese and Japanese American artists living in NYC.

On January 27th at 6 pm, our festival tour continues with a screening of  “Together” on the Big Screen Project, a huge new outdoor screen near 6th Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets in NYC as part of the 39th annual Dance on Camera Festival. The best viewing will be from Bar Basque, which will be hosting the Dance on Camera short film celebration that evening; but “Together” and the other short dance films in the program will be visible from the street, the Eventi Hotel plaza and Foodparc.

If you can’t join us on the 27th, the Big Screen Project will show “Together” and the Dance on Camera shorts program several times following the celebration. For specific dates and times, please check their calendar.

As always – thank you so much for continuing to support us through your Facebook ‘likes,’ Tweets, word-of-mouth and your attendance at our screenings.

Happy New Year!

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Moving Together

April 26, 2010

Holding each other’s gaze, we twirl. Keeping his eye on mine, my dolphin partner swims in excited circles, leading me around and around and down. Never taking my eyes off his, I undulate, twist and corkscrew to show my enthusiasm for our interaction by mimicking him as best I can while adding a bit of my own ‘flair’. ‘Let’s twirl and twirl  together some more!’ is what I mean. I have forgotten about breathing for a moment…but once I feel the urge to breathe, I realize I am already ascending, following my dolphin partner who is now spiraling around and up. Somehow, we ‘decided’ to turn up towards the surface at the same moment…how exactly is obvious in a way…we just started to ascend when we felt like it. At the same time it’s marvelously mysterious. It is as if he magically knew when I would need to breathe…and I magically sensed that we needed to finish our short dance so he could rejoin his family, who were doing twirls and swirls of their own as they traveled past beneath us.

This blog is about the power of dance to unite…to help us move together. In part, it is my response to ‘Why Dance Matters,’ a virtual celebration of World Dance Day.

But before I get into that…I want to thank the many of you who read my previous blog post on The Cove and who have added comments of your own. The protection of dolphins and their habitat is, of course, exceedingly important to me. So I’m really thrilled that some of the conversation about that is happening on my blog! This post doesn’t focus on the movie directly, but I hope the ideas I’ll discuss – synchrony and empathy – will have resonance – particularly with regard to improving communication between American and Japanese people about protecting dolphins.

It is a beautiful coincidence that dolphins and humans share the ability and inclination to communicate through synchrony – actions like mirroring and imitation.

Watch wild dolphins and their synchrony is stunning. Bonded pairs – whether mother/calf or life-long buddies – often swim together side by side – making the same arc, turning at the same time, even taking simultaneous breaths – as they express their close relationship with each other. Larger groups of dolphins are even more amazing, moving effortlessly in a kind of unison that is wonderfully fluid…at times absolute…but easily accommodating the youngster who needs to take a breath sooner than the rest…or a pair who twirl off for a ‘quickie’…a group who veer off momentarily for a swirling game of ‘chase’…but then return to a synchronously moving pod.

Humans also use synchronous movement to express relatedness. We are masters of imitation and this ability is related to our capacity for empathy. For example, when we are in agreement with each other, we often take on similar postures, gestures, facial expressions and speech cadences with our conversation partner (a tendency well-described by sociologists and psychologists). Often, we do not even realize that we are acting so similarly…yet if we don’t…if the other person doesn’t take on a similar tone or posture, we are likely to have the feeling that the other person just ‘didn’t get it,’ or that maybe they were just ‘going along’ with the conversation and really didn’t agree with us at all.

Some neurobiologists believe that the presence of ‘mirror neurons’ explains the connection between mimicry and the feeling of empathy (references at the end of the post). First discovered in monkeys, ‘mirror neurons’ are brain cells that fire both when we do an action as well as when we see someone else do an action. It is believed that when these ‘mirror neurons’ fire, we sense what it might be like for ourselves to act in the same way that the person we are watching is acting. In our minds, we ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ – and through that experience, it is believed, we come to understand the other person’s point of view, motivation or feeling – we develop empathy.

There is evidence to suggest that humans and dolphins have ‘mirror neurons’ but science wasn’t the basis for me to approach wild dolphins through synchronous movement…rather, it was DANCE!

Most of you know that I’m an avid and long-time practitioner of Contact Improvisation, a form of dance that depends heavily on the kind same of ‘magical’ connection with one’s human dance partner as I describe in ‘twirling’ with a wild dolphin. In Contact Improvisation, dancers we connect through touch and sharing weight (partnering) as well as seeing or even hearing our partner move. The connection allows us to discover the dance between us – a ‘place’ where shared movement seems magically to occur – as if neither dancer were leading, but both are following some enchanted Dance that arises from and guides both dancers.

Synchrony is definitely one of the ways through which we develop a sense of connection in improvised dance. When someone approaches me at a dance jam moving in a manner similar or complimentary to me, I understand immediately that this person is interested in dancing with me. In the simple act of imitation, they not only say, ‘I want to join you,’ but also, ‘I understand what you are doing, and I like it!’ Having left some of his own ideas aside in order to bother to dance like me, he also communicates respect – even deference for my dancing. A measure of trust is generated. We are doing the same actions – our bodies must be experiencing similar sensations. I know he knows very viscerally how I feel.

So, I reply, ‘OK, let’s dance!’ – not in words, but in my movements. I might continue in an imitative mode – so now I’m imitating him imitating me. We might just actually laugh about the absurdity of that (there’s plenty of spontaneous laughter at Contact Improvisation jams). Or maybe I elaborate by adding new movement elements or even contrast – theme and variation. As we play back and forth, the lines between leader and follower blur…until we both become participants in a shared collaborative dance whose creation seems to come from both of us and neither of us. When we start in synchrony, on common ground, it often seems easy to get to such a ‘magical’ dance.

With Contact Improvisation jams as a reference, it was easy to recognize the synchronous motion that goes on during wild dolphin socialization as a kind of expression about their relatedness. And it was easy to sense that synchrony would be an appropriate way to approach wild dolphins – that wild dolphins would likely understand what I ‘meant’. It seemed obvious that wild dolphins and Contact Improvisers use synchronous motion to express similar things: I like you…I respect you…I understand you and want to join you…

My dance ‘investigations’ are completely (and delightfully!) unscientific…so it was great to find some ‘real’ research that corroborates my experiences. In a recent publication, Denise Herzing, PhD reported mirroring, imitation and synchrony in the interaction of wild Atlantic Spotted dolphins with human researchers in the waters around the Bahamas. Attempting to use a simple keyboard to try to establish communication with the wild dolphins, she found that cooperative use of the keyboard between humans and wild dolphins was most likely when there was synchronous movement (and eye contact) between human and dolphin.

I’ve danced with the very dolphins in Dr. Herzing’s report on several delightful past trips (including a very memorable one with friends last August). And…I’m excited to announce that I will be going on a research trip to this area with Dr. Herzing’s mentor, Diana Reiss, PhD in August this year! Dr. Reiss is a professor of Psychology at Hunter College, director of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. She is the researcher who used mirror recognition studies to show that dolphins express self awareness. As you can imagine, I’m very excited to be making the trip with her…stay tuned for some ‘real’ dolphin science coming your way on this blog soon!

Meantime, I am wondering…if we can use dance to reach across species – from human to dolphins…can we also use it to bridge a cultural gap?

Since I wrote my blog on The Cove, I’ve ‘met’ (mostly online) quite a few Japanese dolphin enthusiasts…and I’m beginning to understand that dolphins (and whales) raise difficult issues in the relationship between my two home countries – Japan and America. There is controversy and politics, strong emotions and unfortunately, lots of misunderstanding. How can we work together? How can we help American audiences understand that Japanese people are not ‘anti-cetacean’? That mostly, the antipathy to western pro-cetacean activism is less about dolphins and whales per se and more a retreat from potential embarrassment due to ‘outside pressure’? How can we help the many many Japanese people who love whales and dolphins to speak out and let the Japanese government know that holding on to whaling is not the way in which they want to assert Japanese sovereignty?

I am dreaming about working on Mikura Island…a place in Japan devoted to dolphin study, protection and eco-tourism. According to researcher Justin Gregg, PhD, who worked there for several years as part of the Dolphin Communications Project (DCP), ‘encounters with the dolphins there can be quite spectacular’. An American (DCP) and Japanese research group (formerly, the ICERC; now the Mikura tourism office) already work in collaboration there. I would love a chance to create a work of inter-species dance there through the collaboration of wild dolphins, Japanese and American people to inspire mutual understanding and cooperation in the efforts to protect dolphins and their environment in Japan and around the world. Are you an underwater-and-improvisational dancer, underwater cinematographer, composer, funder or cetacean-and-dance lover? Would you like to join in helping to realize a project like this? If so, please contact me!

[ For more on ‘mirror neurons’ start with…this NOVA show…or this article ]

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Following the Bubble Stream…

February 12, 2010

Following the Bubble Stream…

On this Valentine’s day (and the Lunar New Year), I’m excited to share an example of my very favorite human-dance ‘move,’ which I call ‘the swirl’. This ‘performance’ was documented on the first day of filming by our underwater cinematographer Bryce Groark.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also see it and a breakdown of the interaction in our new gallery.)

What an ecstatic moment! As I spiraled along the bottom with one dolphin, two others raced in to join, so that the four of us could ‘swirl’ up together to the surface. So magical!

In moments like this, when the wild dolphins allow me to join their beautiful underwater dance, I feel loved. I feel accepted. I feel joy. And watching this clip, the memory of that is what rushes back first.

Then, watching again, I marvel at how much of a ‘dance’ this moment is….undulating in time together we adjust our bodies and trajectories, all the while ‘listening’ to each other’s movements.  The first dolphin catches up to me, then crosses in front of me right to left, gracefully curving his/her body to look back at me…then two other dolphins join on either side of me…what a lovely spatial configuration we make as we rise up all together (click here to see still images from this sequence)! Like so many beautiful moments that unfold with any improvised dancing, no one could have choreographed it better. And to think…it was some tacit understanding between the dolphins and me that created this moment…amazing!

Caught up in the ‘dance’ with wild dolphins, I often wonder what the dolphins are ‘up to’? I wonder whether the dolphins are intentionally and knowingly making something ‘beautiful’ with me. I wonder whether the qualities that make these moments ‘beautiful’ to me are also ‘meaningful’ to them.

I have experienced ‘the swirl’ many times, and seen other humans caught up in it, too. I’ve experienced and seen it with Atlantic Spotted dolphins as well as these Pacific Spinner dolphins – so this is not a species-specific behavior. Yet I have not observed dolphins swirling in this way when they come up to the surface in the absence of a human. There must be some significance that is specific for the human-wild dolphin relationship in ‘the swirl’.

Recently, I met Diana Reiss, PhD, a professor at Hunter College and the head of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. Dr. Reiss conducted the seminal experiments with dolphins and mirrors, demonstrating that dolphins express self-awareness. In the future, I’ll be writing more about Dr. Reiss’s fascinating research and working with her and other dolphin experts who can provide a scientific perspective on the functions and meanings of interactions like ‘the swirl’.  One of the fundamental goals of the Dolphin Dance Project is not only to share the beauty of these human-dolphin ‘dances,’ but to provide the most complete understanding of what transpires – based on the latest research into dolphin behavior and non-verbal communication.

bubble stream in swirlTo my knowledge, there isn’t any scientific literature about ‘the swirl,’ but another behavior that is seen in this clip – the bubble stream – has been well-described and analyzed by several researchers.

Did you see the dolphin on the left hand side making a small stream of bubbles as he/she races in to join us? In ‘the swirl’ it is a bit hard to discern…but here is a clip – also shot by Bryce – that shows the bubble stream well.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also watch it in our gallery.)

Scientists who have studied Spinner and other dolphin species have observed that dolphins often make a unique (or at least distinct) whistle while emitting the bubble stream, and that they sometimes display this behavior (sound and bubbles) when entering social situations. A study in Bottlenose dolphins showed that they can identify other dolphins through these whistles strengthening the possibility that these whistles function as names. Based on research like this, the bubble stream is believed to be something of a dolphin salutation – like a dolphin saying, ‘hi…i’m [whistle]…nice to see you.’ The bubbles are thought to provide emphasis, as the whistle can be made without the bubbles.

Does this mean that the dolphin in this clip was ‘talking’ to Bryce…saying, ‘hello’ and telling Bryce his/her name as Bryce was filming? Was the dolphin who joined ‘the swirl’ coming up to say ‘hello’ to me or maybe the other dolphins? Whether this behavior has the same function in dolphin-human communication as in dolphin-dolphin communication isn’t known. But it is certainly tempting to think of a dolphin offering me a polite hello!

In ‘the swirl’ you might have noticed that I make bubbles, too. It’s been very interesting watching myself on video these past few weeks and noticing how often I (inadvertently) made a bubble stream out of my snorkel. I wonder if the dolphins are amused at my clumsy ‘hello’?  They must think it a strange attempt with no whistle!  Do they ask themselves whether I do it ‘intentionally’? Or maybe they are too smart for that…maybe they know I’m just making bubbles…

One thing I always try to keep in mind, when I am musing about what the dolphins ‘think’…

Dolphins are large-brained social mammals like ourselves, but they live in a radically different environment from us and experience it through an anatomy and physiology that have significant differences from our own. Their brains and ‘thought patterns’ might actually be so different from ours that we can never truly understand what they think or feel. That might seem a little disappointing…but I believe it is absolutely critical to maintain that doubt. In part, it is because I believe this doubt allows us to be respectful – it keeps us from imposing too much of our own human feelings, expectations and thought patterns on the dolphins. Maintaining this respectful point of view, our scientific observations can be more objective. More important, we allow the mystery to be ever present. We make room in our imaginations for a sense of awe.

For me – as for many improvisors – this is the place where the dance takes place…between what is familiar – like body postures and spatial organizations …and what is mysterious – like the soul of my dancing partner(s), be they human or dolphin.

Even as the dancing and science raise questions, one thing is for sure. When we encounter wild dolphins, we humans feel immense joy, acceptance and even love; and this human reaction is a fact.It is certainly true for me, when wild dolphins surround me and allow me to join in their beautiful underwater dance. I am sure that those of you who have swum with wild dolphins feel the same way.

So I am eager for us to reflect to the dolphins what we feel so strongly in their presence. I want to encourage us, as a human species, to act in a way that is consistent with giving to the dolphins the same loving and accepting feelings they inspire in us. That might mean leaving them alone when they need to rest or feed. Or raising money or awareness about dolphins to protect them and their habitats. (For example, you might spread the word about ‘The Cove,’ which is making a big difference in Japan) It will mean different things for each of us, but for each of us, the action will likely make us feel even better…as loving actions always do.

May there be much love in our hearts on this Valentine’s day and every day!

Bubble Stream