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.)

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

The Heart Chronicles #5: Music to Fuel the Heart

The  transformative power of music is an old story; it has been with us from the beginning, even before we made our mark on this earth, or so I believe. It has the capacity to expand or distill our experiences as well as provoke us to think, feel, respond.  The years following my heart event in the woods–which I sometimes think of as “my heart affair”, a communal experience with Mother Nature, God, and my mortality–music became a light that illuminated the passages to more health and deeper well-being. 

Classical music had been a major focus in my life, perhaps an actual life force; it raised me as surely as my well-intentioned parents did. That was just the beginning. I cast an ever-widening net and was introduced to folk and bluegrass, jazz and blues, Motown and world music, with a little pop thrown in. It isn’t surprising, then, that music would be a trustworthy companion as I sought wholeness and health. I had three years of stepping out of the job market, so I often set up camp with the radio and a large collection of CDs. The orderly elegance of classical music was more than a balm to mind and spirit; it raised philosophical questions about human history, the ability to triumph over adversity and the nature of genius. But mainly, concertos made me happy; opera roused me; elegies swept over me like a diaphanous dream. Jazz ran a very close second and I couldn’t get enough of Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Eliane Elias, Karryn Allyson, Kurt Elling, Marian McPartland, Diane Reeves…

But what reached me most came from my Irish heritage, Celtic music, and a second and related form, flamenco. I had always loved this music, but after the matter of the heart affair, it loved me back harder.

How to describe what happened when those sounds erupted and careened out of the old Magnaplanar speakers in the living room? “Swoon” might be an apt word, but I was too busy waiting in the middle of the floor, feeling the rhythm in my feet and legs,  sensing the movement from one measure to the next as it travelled up my torso and into my spine where skin tingled with energy. By the time it reached my brain, in mere seconds, I was ignited by all that mattered: life.

I started to dance, arms raised with hands shaping the air or just loose and quiet at my sides, feet soft, then loud, tapping and then sweeping across the floor.  I could feel my heart gather its strength from the complicated beats that wove themselves around and within me. It was talking to me with a bright sound, making itself known by the beauty of its pumping, keeping me in sync with the music, and vice versa. The voices from the stereo entwined with my own, the musicians called out to me and my heart answered. It answered as though its own being, given over to flights of fancy and sidesteps of glee, weeping tears that stayed pure in the blood and releasing  joy that made pain lustrous in   hollows of loss.  It was a heart that understood the music and the music understood it in return. There was something deeply respectful about the exchange even as it felt a little dangerous: my heart rate increased and sometimes protested as sweat sprang at my chest and forehead–but it kept on pounding.

It was duende, the spark of life, melancholy and ecstasy that issued from the guitars and vibrant voices, the complex clapping of hands and relentless dancing feet. It, too, was the ancient magic of Gaelic words falling over me like a veil, the mystery of life and death that played upon the uillean pipes and whistles, the beating of the bodhran as must have been done ’round a fire burning into the night long ago. I could hear my ancestors singing. I could feel the thrumming of their feet on earth. I stepped forward and raised my hands once more.

So it was that music once more came to my rescue, informed and disciplined me. It gifted me with solace and happiness. It made me bold when I felt like retreating. Notes and beats that stirred the air provided me release when there were not words enough. The sound of voices travelling across cultures and time found me; I felt right at home as I forged a passage to a new life, feet firm on the ground.