So … with tomorrow being the 5 YEAR anniversary of the accident (fondly known as “Hooray! Sarah’s Still Alive! Day”), I feel it appropriate to post a reflection today.
In late fall, after much cheering on from all of you, I signed up for a Master Class with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
I was scared, then I was nervous, then I was excited.
So, I did some reasearch and ordered some new dancewear. Paid for fast shipping and everything. (Thanks a lot DC area and your 2 dancewear stores. You fail.) Got it. Got super excited. Tried it all on.
And cried. Hard.
Putting on a leotard and capris for the first time in 5 years really magnified what I’d lost. Wearing something I’d basically LIVED in for 23 years, I hated how I looked. HATED it. And I’ve never been one to hate my body. I mean, yes, I knew I’d put on some weight … but to have a leotard that was ALREADY a size up from all my old ones be too small? To have the one-size-fits-all capris pull to nearly transparent across my thighs?
Yah, lots of crying.
Considering I didn’t have time to order a new leotard, or exchange it, I was stuck. And the idea of wearing things too small (to a class I wasn’t sure I could make it though in the first place) was enough for me to cry myself to sleep, thinking my idea of going was misguided and really, I should just forget all about it.
Saturday morning dawned, and the husband … who HATES it when money is wasted … dragged me out of bed and told me I was going, as I’d already paid. So I shoved myself into the too small dancewear, pulled my hair into a bun, grabbed a pair of sweats just in case. And sniffled my way there.
Getting to the Kennedy Center I was greeted by a beautiful elderly lady, who moved with a fluidity you rarely see. I would not be shocked in the slightest if she was a prima ballerina in her youth. While escorting me upstairs she asked how long I’d been dancing. I told her my story (the short version) and she leaned over and hugged me.
“Ballet … no, modern, I think. Am I right?” She was. “I’m so very glad you’re back to dance today. Congratulations.”
Oh man. After that it was ALRIGHT CLASS, LET’S DO THIS.
Walking into the room, there were about 10 other students. And clearly, I was nearly a decade older than every. single. one of them. I tossed my stuff in a corner, and began to stretch. After about 5 minutes of this, our instructor walked in. Quite unexpectedly, he was the company’s director of choreography, Robert Swinston.* With no warning (and no time to shed my sweatpants), he launched us into the first routine.
I’d forgotten that in a Master Class nothing is taught at half speed. It’s full on, full out, from the very first step.
90 minutes. 90 minutes of steps deceptively simple looking. Of twists and leaps and quite literally flinging ourselves around the room. 90 minutes physically harder than anything I remember doing.
I fell … often … in the first 15 minutes. And I laughed … every time. Which earned glares from other dancers. But also the praise of our instructor “Why shouldn’t she laugh? Falling is silly. You have to have fun with it, laugh, pick yourself back up. If you’re not enjoying yourself, if you’re taking yourself too seriously, you shouldn’t have the honor of calling yourself a dancer.”
That didn’t win me any friends … but it did make me glow. And gave me the courage to get up and re-attempt the step I’d just crashed out of.
I fell a lot. (So did everyone else.) I missed nearly every single arm movement (it’s been oh … 15 years since I’ve taken ballet. You don’t use matched arm and foot placements in modern!). I had to stop twice, as my back wouldn’t support holding a certain position. I laughed (loudly), I sweated (heavily), I made a fool of myself (often), and I forgot that my leotard didn’t fit.
When he began to cool us down I started to get excited. I’d made it! I’d actually made it though a class, NOW, that I’d been too chicken to take back in the height of my dance career.
As we were all packing up I overheard a couple local college kids complaining that the choreography had been “too easy” and they’d been “expecting … MORE.” Made bold by my sense of accomplishment I walked over and snapped “You’ve CLEARLY never seen this company perform. Their entire style is based on doing basic movements PERFECTLY.” From behind me, someone else piped up, addressing the girl I’d just scolded. “Doing one movement perfectly, holding it, really feeling it and making your audience feel it, too, is much MUCH harder than going through a series where you only need to hit the end step on the right beat. Go back to your ballet class, little girl. Leave this to the adults.”
Turns out, the company was rehearsing for the night’s performance, just after our class. The company dancers had begun filing into the room as we packed up.
The complainer flounced away, and the woman laughed. The DoC walked up, clearly amused by what had just happened, and turned to me. “So what’s your story? You clearly have modern training … some Martha Graham, right? You were the only one in the room who knew what they were doing or even TRIED. But something’s off. You were rock solid on your left, but every time we focused on the right, you fell. Why?”
As I explained about the accident and my resulting back issues, you could see the wheels turning. Without asking permission (a dance master never does), he started probing my back, and taking me through some steps. Then, standing back, he asked me to cover some of the steps we’d done in class. While going through them, a couple of the company members came up and began to fill in the empty spaces. It turns out, the series of steps that we’d done in class were actually one member’s movements from a full routine. As the empty spaces with filled with others, it all made sense.
It was magical. And stunningly beautiful.
After many, many thanks to everyone, I left. By the time I got outside, guests were arriving for another afternoon show. Standing there in my leotard and sweats, I was quite the standout among the formalwear. But I barely noticed.
I found a place to wait for my ride, and slowly … as the adrenaline slipped away … what had happened started to hit me. I’d danced, something I’d never thought I would do again. And I’d done so for the DoC of my dream company … with the company members themselves. I’d had two major players in the dance world recognize me for what I once was and encourage me back. And I’d thrown it all in the face of that voice inside me that echoed what so many doctors have been telling me for the last five years.
I started shaking. And I cried. And felt the urge to vomit from the emotion of it all.
And as the cool December air dried my tears, I looked down at my feet…
… and thought maybe, JUST MAYBE, they would lead me back to a place where what I’d once been would become what I AM.
* A quick excerpt from his bio: “… attended the Juilliard School, where he received a BFA in Dance. He danced with the Martha Graham Apprentice Company, the José Limón Dance Company, and with Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theatre.” Holy big deal, Batman.
** Photo taken about 20 minutes after I left the studio. This really was the moment it hit me.