My good friend Elfin and I recently collaborated on a theatre piece that involved having the actors move/dance as they spoke their lines — an Anne Bogart kind of thing — and I found myself working with the actors on their movements — in essence, choreographing — because, a quarter century ago, I was actually a dancer: performer, teacher, choreographer. Yes, another life completely.
At the less than supple age of 29, about fifteen years past the time I should have started and at an age when most male dancers are hitting their prime, I took up dancing. This wasn't an entirely serendipitous decision. I had had some premonitions as far back as fifth grade, from the neatest teacher in the universe: Miss Ziegler. She looked a little like Sally Field, but wore her blond hair bobbed, almost F. Scott Fitzgeraldian in shortness. At the end of the day she would often drag out a scratched Yamaha nylon-stringed guitar and drag us out of our itchy self-consciousness long enough to sing songs.
One day, rainy, in the interregnum between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she wheeled in a movie projector. We hadn't had a movie in a while, and she hadn't mentioned this all week, so we grudgingly transformed a bit of our early winter torpor into interest. She turned the lights off.
A few frames with numbers (of course we counted down out loud), then a brief bit of leader, then a title, with a blast of symphonic music behind it: "The Magic of Dance." A bunch of us groaned. She, for her part, kept cool and let the movie run.
I have only the sketchiest memory now about what the narrator, Edward Villella, first said; which came first — the pictures of the New York City Ballet in class or in performance; whether he began or ended with a rendition of Giselle. But I do remember that what Villella said spoke powerfully to a part of me that thrilled to this fusion of idea and body, to the possibility that something as nebulous and irritating as an idea (which I'd only just begun to create with any certainty) could shape space and time into something as solid as an afternoon snack.
I can recall even now Villella arcing through the air in a ballistic grand jetĂ© that seemed to take forever to complete; his Apollo, the soft lines of his white costume clinging to his robust body, his pirouettes sharp, unerring, his hand gestures languid, fluent, tight. And he said something which I have never forgotten (and I'm still amazed that my eleven-year old brain retained it at all): "In dance, total freedom comes from total control." I watched the movie again after school while Miss Ziegler sat and did papers.
But where I grew up boys didn't dance, and it wasn't until college that dance and I met again, in a series of musicals (the usual suspects: Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Applause). I liked the discipline and clannishness of dance and the dancers. Our choreographer would always have us come early for a short class, and I got my first exposure to the French of the classroom and the length tendons will (and will not) stretch in a dĂ©veloppĂ© or a forward port de bras in fourth position. I felt privileged in doing this, imbued with seriousness, slightly bohemian or gypsy and therefore special, selected. We dressed for rehearsal in the rattiest clothes we could find, our commitment measured in inverse ratio to how torn our torn leg warmers were or how loosely our sweatshirts hung on us. (This is a trait I've noticed among dancers, who seem to lug around an endless wardrobe of deshabille to offset the formality of their training.) I pursued dancing for a little bit in graduate school, even thought about going to New York. But, as with many things, it just never happened for a variety of perfectly good, and perfectly lame, excuses.
So why take it up again at twenty-nine? Because twenty-nine bordered thirty. At the time thirty years old loomed as an ominous fulcrum. Balancing the seven years I'd spent since graduate school crafting a professional self was the not-quite-tamed desire to move in a world wider than just salary and retirement planning. Which side would teeter up to the light, which side drop to darkness? I had no doubt about the answer. So I started taking ballet classes every day, sometimes with adults at night, sometimes with the after-school crowd in the afternoon. (Picture a stocky youngish balding man in black tights among flocks of girls with pink shoes and tendons as pliable as warm licorice.) Soon I started taking two classes a day, and then branched into jazz and modern, sometimes even going to classes on Saturday mornings (often well before my body awoke).
I was teaching at a private school at the time, and I convinced the administration to let me teach dance as my coaching requirement. So I taught ballet and modern and jazz, and I choreographed pieces for the students' spring dance concert. I also started doing some performances with local dance companies as well as choreographing — and before I knew it I was a dancer. True, fifteen years late and destined not to go much beyond where I spun and stretched. But I danced; I had become a dancer. I followed this regimen for two years, to the age of 31, before a number of things convinced me to move on.
In looking for a way to describe the flow and filigree of dance, the best metaphor is quantum physics, with its elements of space, time, uncertainty, and motion, and informing all these, energy. Einstein showed that despite our commonsense notions, space is not empty emptiness but instead is a substance shaped by the bodies occupying it, and shaping those bodies in return. Dancers whittle this space with their bodies, carving out the universe moment by moment, movement by movement, mimicking the jig of quarks and the orbital reel of the planets. A vocabulary of rules reins in each of Einstein's choreographies: electromagnetism, the weak and strong forces — and for dancers, gravity, the master choreographer that they must always obey. But far from restricting the dancer's creativity, gravity gives it latitude and resilience because only through that obedience — Villella's "freedom through control" — can dancers transform gravity's clinch into a beauty that makes luminous the grace and mystery that attends each moment and each breath of our lives. The dancer's translation of gravity confirms what we already know: all life moves as a choreography of intricate attractions as intimate as skin and as glorious as the fractal beauty of the cosmos.
Aside from, or in addition to, this more aesthetic education, though, I learned a lot about what it means to be a man (portentous comment, no?). Certain things did not come easily to a 29-year old body trained in football and basketball, with heavy thighs and an upper chest like a weightlifter's. I was invariably the only male in class and was always chagrined by the seemingly tendonless stretch of young, pink-glowing bodies. When they slid gracefully into full splits like a pair of shears in a tailor's hand, I made a shallow V. Where they rippled their arms like the breathy sweep of a second hand on an expensive watch, my arms ratcheted around like the arthritic second hand on those clunky old school clocks. Where they pulled like taffy, I was hard candy; where they skimmed and flitted, I waded.
Naturally there came a time, after several months of this disciplined exposure of my body's dirty laundry, when I had to seriously get in touch with why I had decided to punish myself this way. I'm sure this time comes to all dancers, and all artists, but I think it comes with a special poignancy to an older dancer who wishes he were a younger dancer. My failure to be even an unreasonable facsimile of Nureyev was rusting the joints of any self-worth that might have been loitering around for an encouraging pat on the head. It was not a very nice rack I had stretched myself on.
What a crucial moment that was, in both senses of "crucial." I had tasted failure, or so it seemed. Not all the good will in the world was going to give me full turnout. I'd believed, naively, that my noble acceptance of the challenge would have somehow automatically transformed me; but the only automatic thing was Terpsichore's indifference to my good intentions. I was angry, and the anger threatened to make any progress or enjoyment of dance impossible. It was a kind of wood alcohol and I was being blinded by drinking it.
As I said before, I think anyone who wants to be an artist goes through this coronation of failure; it's not particularly novel or interesting. What is interesting is how I had to change to accommodate these new images of myself as a naked failure. I had reacted to my insufficiencies in typical male fashion: I was going to give myself no loving quarter, no time off for good behavior. Which told me much about how men do, and don't, endure. Men endure best, will go through forests of pain and privation, when they're reasonably assured that they'll gain some profits from their efforts. The body, then, is an instrument that should tolerate no weakness nor exhibit any hesitation. Men are not good long-haul people for the most part because their intimacy with their bodies is often purely contractual, like stabling a thoroughbred to earn money at the races.
Dancing had broken that contract of denial and forced me to see "me" in a very startling new light. If I was going to dance I couldn't use my body like a racehorse until it dropped dead in its tracks. I had to nurture this hunk of flesh, pamper it with patient regard and tender congratulations. If I continued to use is as a machine, I could only expect that anger at it one feels when a machine gives in to entropy.
But that was not all. Mind and body became more integrated. The defense/prosecutor coalition I'd been using to judge myself gave way to a gossipy quilting bee. And suddenly (though it took a while for that "suddenly" to bloom), I understood more clearly what women had understood for a long time, what Steinbeck has Ma Joad say in The Grapes of Wrath: "Man, he lives in jerks....Woman, it's all one flow, a stream...[that] goes right on." I had wanted to jerk my body over the threshold of ignorance into the honeymoon of accomplishment, forgetting all the tiny marriages and truces along the way that would knot mind and body, idea and expression, into a strong, durable, accomplished state of being.
I'm not speaking here as if this is the way men and women really are; this was dance, after all, not real life. All I mean is that in the process of becoming an artist I had to recognize and make use of certain traits that have been, rightly or wrongly, designated feminine, such as softness and delicacy of movement and expression, as well as treat my body much more "femininely," as an integrated partnership between muscle and mind, not as an anxious truce with each distrusting each. The more I danced, the more I described and thought of myself as a dancer, the less I was able to think of myself as a male, a man, a masculine creature. I was a better dancer for the balance; I was a dancer because of the balance.
I never did go to New York, of course. I choreographed for local groups, took classes when I could, performed a few more times — and then moved on to other things. But I'm glad I took the challenge, even though I never got noticed by Arlene Croce or courted by Peter Martins, because it showed me that becoming a person and an artist is much more interesting and curious — "curiouser and curiouser" as time goes on — than being neatly enwrapped by the cartouche of "man" and thus made to play a game of limits.