I used to leave notes in my mother’s purse asking her questions I was too shy to ask out loud. The last one I left, around age 11, read, I want to learn how to dance. Will you let me take a class?
My dance experience up to that point included the following: a single pre-school recital in which a sea of confused children flailed to a record of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” played at too fast a speed. Living room performances by me and my sister, namely interpretive dance to the oddest of my parent’s reel-to-reel’s, Martin Denny’s Exotica (oh how I wish my parent’s had been into home movies. I would love to see a 3rd grade me dancing to Quiet Village?) Sis and I also had a poorly rehearsed disco routine to something off my (still) cherished Saturday Night Fever album.
I loved watching Dance Fever. And Solid Gold. And Fame.
But my mother never mentioned my note. Maybe she never found it. Maybe she was waiting for me to bring it up again (which I didn’t). Maybe she was hoping that I’d just stick with piano. Regardless, I never took a class.
In college, I was introduced to contemporary dance. Watching it, at least. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater came to my school and I got to see not only their signature piece, Revelations, but also a very intimate piece for two dancers, so unlike anything I’d ever seen that it left me slack-jawed and swoony. It reminded me of why I’d left that note for my mother so many years before; My body was a mystery at best, an enemy at worst. Always had been. The idea that you could be so thoroughly at home in your own skin, in the weight of your bones and the motion of your muscles, amazed me. And those motions, precise and heartfelt, could become something beautiful that made people feel.
I started attending the student dance performances, hoping to feel that awe again. Hoping that some of their body knowledge would fling from their fingertips right into my blood. On rare occasion, a piece would move me that way. Other times, it felt like a big cliché and was almost painful to watch. Once, just once, I took a one-night intro class to modern dance. My slothful body was so unaccustomed to any kind of athletic rigor at that point, that I felt broken and sore for a week afterwards.
I went back to watching. Or rather, I went back to nothing. I graduated, moved to Portland and was then poor enough that spending money on a dance performance was too much of a gamble. And the memory of that first Alvin Ailey dance that struck me so hard drifted off to some corner of my brain. And the note I’d left, the impulse beneath it, became a memory of my shyness rather than a memory of wanting to find a better way to be in my body. Until this week, the only dance I’d seen in Portland was on a movie screen in Wim Wender’s amazing documentary, Piña.
So I decided to try a sampler. This weekend, Polaris Dance Theater performed selections from their ten year run. And like other kinds of samplers, this one’s packaging wasn’t very fancy – their small practice space as opposed to a large theater stage. And like other kinds of samplers, some offerings appealed to me more than others. And because they had so many pieces of so many different styles to move through, I never had the chance to sink into the experience of any given one. It left me wanting more of the good stuff.
My jaw never dropped. My swoons were all small-scale. But still…those bodies.
I love how in contemporary dance, the bodies don’t all fill the same frame. My favorite dancer in this troupe was short and muscular and every move she made felt real and unrehearsed. One dancer was willowy and ballet-strong. One was a quadruple amputee. And they all knew the length of their bones and the pull of their muscles. They knew how to move anguish through their ribs and whip joy from their brows. It gave me a brief taste of that old longing and even though I’ll never gracefully glide across a dance studio, it was a fresh reminder of how much better I feel in my bones than I once did. That’s probably worth a stag leap, a plié or at least an electric slide.
Alvin Ailey was the first big show I ever worked in the theater. I watched from my spot on the downstage wall, amazed like you. They did this piece called Thirst that scrambled me. Never seen anything like it before. I had the chance to work with a number of great dance companies there. A couple of weeks back, we went to see Pilobolus. So great. I need more dance in my life.
Clark, I read your post about Pilobolus. It was one of the things that got me thinking about dance again. Definitely need more of it.