My body is a quiet ecstasy.
I have just left the third of our three-hour rehearsals of Blues Suite. Of House of The Rising Sun, to be more exact – Renee is setting it on us, and the though the expression is new to me, it now makes perfect sense.
At the beginning of this year, I could not have imagined my body doing the things it has just done. Sure, there is work to do. Sure, my attempts at following and Renee’s movements, her embodiment, are on an entirely different plane of existence. I probably cannot yet even perceive all the differences. But for once in my life – for one thing, in my busy, achievement-oriented Yale life – I am okay with this. I know there is work to do. I will do it, as best as I can. I look forward to it. But for once – how unlike me – I am also satisfied.
It’s funny to think about, too, in relation to Ailey. Excellence, said Renee when she visited my African American arts course, today. “Excellence is contagious.” That’s what Ailey is, what it strives for – and of course, how could it not, as a black company in a white world of “high” art, especially in the 1960s? The necessity of being twice as good, of course. But, strangely enough, for me, this is the one space right now where I am freed from that. In the rest of my life, Excellence – Brilliance – has become a heavier and heavier weight. When I dance, somehow, that burden is lifted. Oh, I am working hard. But the angst is absent. The striving is a joy.
Perhaps this is because I have never “really” danced before. Never seriously, I mean – another loaded word. Unlike maybe everyone else in this group, I have no classical training. No ballet – except for some stretch of months at 4 years old. When Renee says “arabesque,” I think of 1000 stories, on 1000 nights – but I don’t know if the leg is bent or straight. There were some Jazz classes, in middle school. A smattering of hip hop, afro-Brazilian, across coasts and grades and continents. Capoeira, if that counts. Aikido, a 10-year habit. And of course I have always moved.
But I never imagined my body doing these things. Even two weeks ago, when she began to show us Blues Suite – there seemed to be no way. No one had shaped me, given me ballerina bones to lift my leg like that.
Now, two weeks later, as things begin to work – no matter how imperfect, how far off – I cannot contain my joy.
And of course it has been longer, it has been weeks and weeks of Renee’s hands on our legs as we lay on the floor, as we learned to find the space in our hips.
But dance, unlike everything else, has never been a striving, never an existential competition. It is something about embodiment, I think. However alienated I get from my body, dance does not work like that. I cannot be alienated from my dancing.
I think there is something else there as well – perhaps something more.
It was not just the impossibility of the technique that washed over me on that first day. On the first day, when Renee was to begin setting Blues Suite, she began with a story. House of the Rising Sun: Three prostitutes, a brothel. The older woman, resigned, a veteran of the trade. The middle woman, knowing it is probably too late, but still at that window. And the youngest, unbroken, ready to break something. Ready to tear off her skin.
As she explained this story, she did not simply speak. Her shoulders fit to her silences – the curve of her neck spoke of the oldest woman’s weariness. I happened to be sitting in the front of the studio, right near her. When she spoke of the youngest girl, she held my eyes. You’re young, she said. Maybe you don’t really understand what goes on here. Maybe, the first time, they try to make it seem nice. It’s an occasion. You get to use the biggest bed.
I was frozen. I forced my chest to soften.
Later, when Renee spoke at the symposium, and again, during class, I understood better. It is about telling a story, she said. She was told: the audience will forgive an off night, technically. But the audience will never forgive you if you don’t tell the story.
I remember my aunt, a singer, giving me a tip: know what you are going to say when you take a breath.
She was telling us a story. The story is the impetus behind the motion.
So I softened my chest. Being trapped, hope at the window, and hopelessness. Feeling dirty. No way to wash, or to leave. Loving and hating each other. The wild call of the passing train. Faced with this brothel, these women, I knew I needed to understand – if not exactly, then to come to it in my own way.
And Renee, who can already dance this, embodied the story as she spoke.
Perhaps dancing is mostly empathy.
In any case, that may be part of the pleasure. I realized today that as I learned the steps, I also learned the feelings. As I learned the feelings, the steps came easier. When I felt how to reach with my leg, the opposition she always talks about, I learned something about hope. And the reaching became easier. As my spine curved to those signature Ailey contractions, as my energy turned both inwards and outwards, I learned something about a large kind of pain. Even if I cannot put it into words. And my shoulder came over properly. And maybe this is the joy, and the difficulty, and the pain. And the striving: the stakes are in the story. First to understand, and then to tell.
Renee makes this intuitive. In class, she stands upright, light and sure as if she had giant wings, catching the air behind her. But she doesn’t. You must lead with this, she says, always. And lays her hand on her chest, near her heart.