Taking Flight

Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain
Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain

I am busy writing when one of my sisters calls and invites me to a dance concert at the last minute. I want to decline–I’m writing, after all– but what she describes sounds too innovative to miss. And I have a passionate appreciation of dance. Getting out will be a nice break for me, too.

Two other sisters, one able-bodied and one a quadruple amputee, were dancing together and the final part of their documentary was being finished during the performance. SOAR: Dance Concert and Documentary Finale was comprised of not only these two dancers, but four other dance troupes, including Polaris Dance Theater, The Portland Ballet, Kemba Shannon Dance Ensemble, and the exceptional high school group Jefferson Dancers. I had to save my writing and go.

The moment Kiera Brinkley begins to dance with the Polaris Dance Theater, the effect is startling. Everyone else is longer-limbed and can stand fully upright. Kiera sits and stands, but differently, her legs being what most of consider our thighs only. Having lost most of her lower limbs as well as her forearms and hands due to a catastrophic infection as a toddler, she has had a lifetime of practice getting around with her unique body. I imagine the rest of the audience wonders what they are in for. How can she possibly engage with the other dancers effectively and skillfully, contribute a creative spark that was integral to the choreography?

Easily. Or at least that is how it appears. What will power was developed to dance this way? She reaches and turns, swoops and sweeps alongside the others, mirrors their movements in ways that are refreshing and surprising. Her torso is very strong, her focus intense. Yet there is a lightness, a transcendent quality to her dancing from and across the floor. She is devoted to each movement as much as each dancer, perhaps more so. In time her differences seem less so. My eye is drawn to the overall troupe, the designs they configure, the story they impart. She is a rigorous, essential part of the whole as it organically shapes the spaces and then breaks apart. Makes the stage an organism that functions only as well as each dancer, including Keira.

Later, Keira and her sister, Uriah Boyd, whose body is what we might expect a dancer’s to appear, dance together the piece choreographed by Melissa St. Clair. Their interactions are intimate, so connected that it is hard to tell where one’s energy departs from the other’s. Their bodily communications are crisp and clean, sensuous and cerebral all at once, a telegraphing of complex feelings. Their adoration of dancerly movement and their faith in an absolute porousness of physical boundaries wields power.

The documentary is being completed after two years. It tells of the sisters, their lives together as they grew up, their individual love of dance that became a shared living dream. When a clip is shown, my heart comes forth to welcome and applaud their work, their visions.

But that concert has provoked many thoughts, not just of their performances, but of how all bodies are shaped and what that means to us privately and collectively in our culture. Last night I admired many female dancers who did not meet the long-held expectations of a dancer type: reed slimness, good height, lightness and grace, length of neck and fine shape shoulder. Willowy, perhaps. I don’t know all the requirements, as I am not a dancer, but we, if we care to admire and support dancers, may hold a certain image in our minds. The fact is, times have changed considerably since I studied dance sporadically as child and youth. Modern or contemporary dance offers more opportunities to those who do not fit a classical ballet build. And how we, the audience, benefits. What I saw heartened me. It wasn’t enough that the music was exceptional and the choreography was excellent. These dancers were not uniform at all. They were short and tall, stocky and slender, moved softly or with bravado, were dynamic, intriguing, self-defining even as they merged with the whole.

The communion of creativity, the union of many talents is a marvel to see, even if we don’t always feel comfortable or agree. There are many sparks in the world that ignite flames of creative energy. I wonder who out there gives up because they feel they are too “different.” Who tucks away a dream due to being told they do not fit the bill? And why should it take such courage to present the best of what we have? The truth is, it takes a strong ego within a persistent person to forge ahead despite the odds.

I danced once, long ago. Decades ago I attended an international arts camp, called Interlochen National Music Camp when I was young. I studied cello and voice, a little harp, and writing, as well. But my secret desire was to learn modern dance in the dance building overlooking a shimmering blue lake. I had stopped by the studios for years (my father taught at Interlochen many summers, as well), heard the rhythmic thump of bare feet on the special floors, watched perspiration soak their leotards, noted how they laced up toe shoes with meticulous care. I’d taken a few dance classes over the years but had focused on music, writing, figure skating and other endeavors.

But one year I chose as an elective class in modern dance. I started in a beginning class, then was placed in an intermediate class. I was anxious about failure but my happiness overcame temerity. I worked hard to keep up, pushed my body in ways I had never experienced, felt pain and knew fulfillment. This was nothing like the long hours practicing a stringed instrument or singing art songs. Here, I could move. I could express everything, mold feeling, morph the lines of body with effort and discipline. Everything about dance began to animate my being, even when I wasn’t there. It opened doors that took me to the depths of wordlessness, into silence. It was diving into a still pool only to discern other worlds. I often felt as though I should give up but he instructor one day kept me afterwards.

“You should dance,” she said. “You have natural ability. You have the passion. You come to it from your heart.”

My face reddened. “Oh, no, I haven’t really studied. I am so behind others here. And I am fourteen–it’s too late now.”

“Nonsense. I first began earnestly to study dance in college. And I have danced professionally and also teach. Think about it.”

Her words were carried like a gift to my next orchestra rehearsal. I thought of my hometown, the lack of serious dance instruction. The expectations of my musical family and the way singing and playing cello made me feel–really, as good as dancing, just different. My unrelenting love and need of writing. I returned to each modern dance class and worked hard and felt freed, entranced, inspired creatively. But I didn’t take more classes beyond the camp. I didn’t agree with my teacher. I knew to dance truly well took more than I could give in many ways, not the least being time and dedication. And I envisioned myself being a writer or a singer or combination.

I stayed with music for a few more years, but writing–it was ever with me, in my thoughts and dreams and doing. To perform before an audience required many opportunities. Writing was available every moment–a pencil and paper, a typewriter, then a computer. I didn’t need so much to be read as to just write something every day, make it shine. Oh, I have danced in casual situations and now at Zumba at the gym. I think of taking flamenco; the May schedule is nearby. Early heart disease changed the way I  accomplish physical goals; it doesn’t have to stop me from trying and enjoying myself..

But I wrote a novel about a dancer ten years ago, yet to be submitted for publication. Here is the gist of it: Sophia is six feet tall. She has a body that is powerful and elegant but not thin. She has managed her own dance company of intergenerational dancers who have bodies of all shapes and sizes, with skills as diverse as their skin color and age. But then Sophia experiences a loss beyond understanding when her husband dies mysteriously and she is harmed in the process. She cannot dance. She cannot even speak. She has lost her truth and power. The story takes us into her well of grief and out again, follows her footsteps as she learns again to trust her body and mind as well as her soul. Sophia discovers those who can accept and love her when she cannot yet love herself. And she begins to heal and give back, to even aid a photojournalist who is lost in a state of burnout and a woman under the spell of a cruel man. And creative work helps untether Sophia from her own misery.

This is what I was thinking last night as I watched the dancers on stage, was moved by Kiera Brinkley and her sister: Art can transform both artist and viewer like little else. It gets the job done when our imaginations light up. Liberates. Edifies. Not that these are new ideas, of course, but what impact they have when I stop and observe others carefully. Dance is a part of a vast network of disciplines and persons who love creating so much they devote their lives to it. Take difficult risks to share what matters most. But everyone can create some way, some thing. All can share their story, at home or in the world. It is a matter of beginning. Why not make something wonderful of what we have and who we are? Give ourselves whatever wings fit us, fly a little more.

The Dancers by Arthur Mathews
The Dancers by Arthur Mathews

(You can learn more about SOAR on Facebook.)

Tango for Sale

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She said they didn’t have any great skills but that’s why people enrolled in dance lessons, right? So they saw their new ad and here they were.

Sadie was a talker but they both shared a lot, how they liked to do things that required far less sweat–watching movies, enjoying six course meals, mastering the art of checkers. Carlos was a factory worker so when he was off, he was done. Sadie was manager of a tapas café until the owner’s daughter took her job. Now she worked at her aunt’s collection business.

“Collection stinks. How can I harass people who don’t have the money to meet basic needs? It’s indecent.”

Janelle tried to not listen as she showed a student how to stretch, but how could you avoid such a voice? She couldn’t imagine what it was like getting Sadie’s phone calls or living with that decibel. But the way he patted her shoulder, brushed her bangs from her eyes and bent down to kiss her long nose–some might say large–said it all. He was handsome in a beat-up way, Janelle thought. Must be newlyweds.

They wanted to live better, lower stress, they said. Janelle and Baron had an ad in the neighborhood weekly but this month they’d run a special. First three classes for ten bucks each, then after that the regular rate of twenty an hour. Or ten for one-forty, a real savings. Not so many people wanted dance lessons when they had trouble paying bills. It netted them a half-dozen newbie so far.

“I gotta keep myself in shape,” Sadie said, rolling her eyes. “I’m edging toward thirty-seven and you know where that leads.”

Janelle smiled and handed her a schedule.

Carlos watched the group learning the tango.  He seemed restless; Janelle assumed Sadie had dragged him there. He didn’t ask questions, shrugged with hands in pockets. But in ten minutes it became apparent the guy had a sense of rhythm. He tapped his foot, bounced a little as he paced, and studied the moves.

“Sign us up for this one. I can tell he likes it.” Sadie beamed at her man and he shot her a hundred-watt smile.

Janelle took her check for three lessons and talked over attire and rules of the dance floor. Just to be clear. Sadie had worn a long brown sweater, tight jeans and heavy boots.

Baron whisked by, then paused. “You like tango?” He was the expert on this dance.

Sadie shrugged. “We like games, checkers or dominoes, t.v. shows after work. I don’t watch football like him but I used to play volleyball awhile back. I had a bike, rode it every day. Got ripped off. Tango, yeah, well, I used to dance a long time ago. I’m game to try anything and I love Latin music. And Carlos.” Her laugh boomed in the small space and a few people looked her way.

The couple hustled out the door, Sadie waving like they were old friends, saying they’d be back.

Baron chuckled as he stepped back on the floor. “He might be a natural.What a couple of characters!”

Janelle threw him a sideways glance. Her husband: six feet three, a balding redhead, brown eyes that could scald or light her up depending on his mood. He never took off the long necklace with crystal and jade pendants. He denied being superstitious but she knew better.

Of course, she was not a flawless fifty. A bit soft, okay rounder than she’d planned. But she had thick, long, silvery hair; it saved Janelle from despair some days. Ridiculous. But every morning after the mirror check she said aloud, “I’m still a dancer and a better teacher.”

“I bet the woman can dance,” Janelle confided in Baron that night as they closed up. “And that Carlos may be a natural.”

“In the end it doesn’t matter, darling girl. Two more students! We’ll make a decent profit this session.”

He rapped the scarred wooden desk top three times.

The next week the couple turned up. Carlos seemed embarrassed and Sadie did not when they bungled their first steps.  They took a sail around the room to loosen up more despite Janelle and Baron’s frowns. The group appeared more relaxed with the breezy twosome there. Baron noted it felt less like pulling teeth to get them to commit to the steps.

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“Look,” Sadie told everyone, “just act like you know what you’re doing and mirror our teachers’ movements–they’re perfect!”

Carlos held her tightly. They were stiff in each other’s arms. Then tango music crescendoed, intense rhythms shaking up melody, Sadie’s laugh punctuating their goofs.

The room felt good, the atmosphere livelier.

“See?” Janelle whispered. “Though they could be a little more serious.”

He nodded slowly, eyes on the new couple.

There were twelve total on the floor. The ones who improved were those who let down their guard a bit. It wasn’t just feet, arms and head placements. The tango was a passionate dance, a lover’s dance, and relayed what words couldn’t begin to say. Some people were too scared to welcome that sort of power. Others would find their way. And some, like Carlos and Sadie, got in the thick of it because they wanted to be right there.

The second class was a success; everyone learned what they were supposed to, on time. The group began to jell. The third class demanded more, putting  more complicated steps together quickly. Confidence was required.

Sadie leaned into Carlos as they veered away to the group’s edge. She’d worn a floral skirt and scuffed red dance shoes and when he guided her she responded with the trust needed to move in concert. They executed more difficult moves, moved instinctively. They were engrossed, enchanted–by the music’s heat, the challenge of the dance, each other.

Baron and Janelle watched in surprise. They’d been practicing. They had, it seemed, real promise. Everyone stole admiring glances at them. Sadie and Carlos were beautiful to behold; their electric presence brought back Janelle’s and Baron’s past, when they were young, fresh, excited by the grand emotion of it all.

“I love those kids,” Baron told her as they watched the floor and the students. “Carlos and Sadie have the spirit. How can you teach the essence of tango? I know we didn’t teach that in three classes.”

“No, but we still get to show them the way. Look at them glow.”

She said it with such reverence that Baron slipped an arm around her waist. He absently touched the necklace. He wondered over  the new couple.

“They’ve got something besides talent, Janelle. They know something, a secret that makes them good so fast.”

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She shook her head but the way he said it, his hand on those darned pendants–she knew what he meant. She shivered a little and followed their moves. Turning in the light and shadow, their bodies in sync, their profound silence infused with something Janelle couldn’t name. When the song drew to a close, all the students clapped for each other. They were so pleased to have taken this class. And they had two stars in the making right before them. They were drawn to Sadie and Carlos–the first pink-faced and panting, the second animated and shiny with sweat–like bees to clover. They lingered awhile, chatting until Janelle and her husband had to lock up.

When the students trailed out, the two teachers sat and looked at each other. They were having success. Happiness coursed through them like a veritable transfusion. Janelle got up and settled on her husband’s knees. He closed his arms around her.

The fourth week came and they waited and waited for Sadie and Carlos to come through the door. The students took their places. The tango music swelled; work got underway. Janelle looked at the clock, at the door. Baron called the commands, adjusted a few couples’ positions and threw her a glance, fingering the pendants. Everyone seemed stiffer than usual, not quite on task. They missed their inspiration, waited for the golden couple.

“It has to be another appointment or the flu. Or maybe they ran out of money and just didn’t want to tell us.”

“No,” Baron said. “Tango meant too much already. They should be here.”

The fifth week, no show, no call. Janelle tried Sadie’s number but  no answer. The sixth week everyone took their places without a word; if the other two showed, good and if not, well, a mystery. Janelle was on the phone–there had been so much interest lately–when Carlos walked in. The room erupted in cheerful greetings until they saw he was unshaven, hair a mess, and eyes dull. The group gathered around him, hands to chests.

“What, Carlos?” Janelle put her hand on his arm.

“Sadie has a weak heart. Can you imagine her with a bum ticker? Yeah, I knew. And she had more and more trouble breathing.” His eyes filled. “Had to have surgery. She’s not so great.”

It was clear he didn’t know when or even if she’d get back. But she was home. Their shock and sympathy were a soft murmur.

“We’ll go see her, okay, Carlos?” Baron spoke with firmness. He grabbed the tango CD from the player and got his jacket.

Janelle got her coat and one by one they all prepared to follow.  When they trooped upstairs and the neighbor who’d been staying with her left, they squeezed into the bedroom where she lay, eyes suddenly wide. It was a little strange, being in this intimate space with someone who had seemed far different. Her presence had been so big at the studio. Now, she looked very small.

The new friends shared encouragement in near-whispers. Sadie listened and an easy smile usurped her frailness, while her eyes tried to hide fear, pain, grief. She seemed nearly transparent. So young to be lying there. Such an ill-begotten and terribly unwanted thing possessed her. But she held out her hands to them in thanks.

And then the music started. She heard the tango boldly wending its way into her room with its smooth, sly beauty, sensual and bittersweet, wrapping her in vivid life. She closed her eyes and she was dancing, feet strong and body lithe as she pulled it into her faulty heart. Carlos was there showing her the way. Her spirit leapt. There were lights like stars and a broad swath of velvety blue and she danced right to the moon. It was what she’d needed.

Carlos sat on her bed to make certain her chest rose up and down and he felt the music seep into her marrow and his. The crowd filed out of the bedroom like a collective sigh.

Baron and Janelle called out to the two left behind.

“See you both sooner than you think!”

“We’ll pray for speedy healing and more dance!”

The music played on. Carlos lay beside her and stroked her face. She breathed his tenderness and they fell asleep, tango taking them away._wsb_410x262_CornerT

Sing Your Sorrow, Dance Your Joy

I was in the center of downtown Portland for our yearly Galaxy Dance Festival with my family and we watched with admiration each performance. They all swirled and implored, flirted and defied, brought an emphatic ending to one line of music and started anew with a flourish. The costumes and faces were infused with color and feeling. Stories unfolded, frenetic and quiet, subtle, intense.

And there were the women of India, their peacock majesty, each face strongly defined. Their beauty alone stuns. The dances tease and taunt, demand our attention, even with the tiniest movement of fingers and eyes. No one can say they are not illustrious and rarified in their offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a youthful modern dance group dancing in the fountain, leaping and strutting. They made the spouting water another partner in their choreographic designs. I watched a child of four or so jump in with them, body quick and at ease, her movements mimicking their own. She is a dancer already, and she was without fear or constraint and strained against her mother’s hands when pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tango always mesmerizes me. I see the romance bloom in each small gesture, the angle of heads, the subtle shapes made with legs and arms, their feet quick and elegant as the couples turned and slid around the floor. The music, poignant and distinctive, beckons one into another world, another time.

But, in the end, it is the flamenco I most come to see. Duende, spark of life that gives us tears and laughter, unfurls before us. I hear it in the cantaora’s voice as she sings cante flamenco, feel it in the complex clapping of hands or palmas, the stomp and whisper of feet. Each bailora’s body and face hold the energy of the world together for those brief moments.

Cante flamenco speaks to me of the terrible sweetness of love. It brings the laughter of youthful dreams. The music and dance tell of hope gained and lost. The women and men, old and young, share their tales. Birth and death play out on this terrain, and also there is both compassion and passion that keep our lives moving from start to end. Flamenco is a light in the confounding darkness. Incandescent. Powerful. It is not for everyone, but it speaks to me. I yearn to join them but call out encouragement, whistle and clap., my feet drumming on the hot concrete.

I grew up dancing. I am not speaking of dance classes; I went to those for years but recall little of them. Dance came to me like running came to others–and I loved to run and tumble, too. I danced in the yard, in the living room, with or without music. Exulted in creating forms with sinew and soul. When I was fifteen I attended a renowned summer arts camp. The dance building overlooked a green lake and when I danced I felt as though I had left the room with mirrors and leapt above water and pines. I was that happy. But I had gone to Interlochen to study voice and cello, so dance was one of the secret doors to freedom. I savored every class and performance and held them close in order to take them back home for the long winter months.

In the novel I wrote, the main character is a dancer. She cannot speak a word of traumatic events, cannot move beyond the damage done. After months of inertia she finally finds her feet again–she dances the sorrow until it transmutes into joy. It speaks for her and she is saved, in part, by dancing her way through the barrier of grief and into life. Her body and soul reawaken.

I worked with Native American women in residential addictions treatment. Though I was the only white woman amid their community of fragile recovery, I saw that they needed more besides lectures and attentive listening. They had been betrayed and battered by life and people, had suffered some of the worst experiences I have ever been told. At the time it occurred to me they needed to share music in their own languages and tell stories old and new. This was good, but there was more to be done. There was too much memory of pain lodged in muscle and bone. The women were so taut with anger or they were bowed over with weariness that they forgot their bodies were their friends.

So, we stretched until they grumbled. And then we danced. We snaked around the room and down corridors where my co-workers stuck their heads out the doors. We shouted and clapped unison rhythms and danced into the field behind the treatment facility. And kept on dancing. This became a weekly happening and many more women joined us. They came not for therapy. They came for joy.

I would like to dance flamenco before I am too old. I have a tricky heart that won’t always do what it should despite several medical interventions. I would just like to pound my feet into the forgiving earth and shape air with my hands, move hands and hips as though every movement matters. I want to dance, as well as live this life, from my center.

We will see if I can find my way to learning flamenco. It could be that cante and baile are too much for this woman. I might swoon from the effort of it, and the crazy fun. Meanwhile, I dance around the house, across the street, under the trees. I dance with music blaring, alone, because it matters to my life. And if I ever happen to die dancing, my heart overcome with the wonder of it, I will be happy.

“My sorrow I express in song

For singing is crying

My joy I express in dance

For dancing is laughing!”

from Language of the Gypsies