It’s funny having coaching and dance on the same day because it allows me to reflect on myself both as a leader and a participant. If I good day with the kids, I seem to have a good time at YDT, and if practice is tough so is rehearsal. I’m not sure exactly why this is… I just started coaching in late February and I’m still getting the hang of things. A few weeks ago I was teaching the kids choreo for the new routine and didn’t notice that one of them had fallen behind. She had made a comment about how she wasn’t getting it, but because of her comedic tone I assumed she was just joking and continued teaching. Before I knew it, she started crying about how I was teaching top fast and stormed out of practice. That evening at YDT I myself was having trouble with the choreography, and I think my experience earlier that day exacerbated my frustration at rehearsal. On top of feeling upset with myself for struggling to learn as quickly as everyone else, I was even more upset with myself for putting another person through the same thing earlier that day. Today practice went well and I’m feeling really great here at YDT. I guess since practice ends just an hour before YDT, chances are I’ll arrive at YDT in the same mood I was in when I left practice, but I think I’m also just becoming more sensitive to how it feels to work with someone that’s at a much different place in their dance education. I don’t see myself changing at every single YDT rehearsal, but over the course of the semester I have certainly improved. If I am as patient with the members of my cheer team as Matthew and Renee have been with us I think we will reap the benefits.
I was expecting with twice as much rehearsal time this semester that YDT would become tiresome at some points, but if anything, it has become even more enjoyable. Last semester we mostly just played around with things, and it’s amazing to see everything come together this semester. I’m really enjoying House of the Rising Sun. I had never really done modern before joining YDT and it was definitely difficult for me to adapt to the modern style first semester. The choreography in House of the Rising Sun is much more technical and suites my style and background better. I’m also a big fan of these super long warmups with Renee. I feel more solid and more aware of my body, and the skills we’re building with her are surfacing beyond the walls of BRL. At first I had trouble understanding Renee’s corrections-she doesn’t like to explain things using typical dancer lingo (maybe because she doesn’t want us to get wrapped up in our expectations of what a perfect dancer looks like in terms of things like turnout and flexibility?)-but over time all the little things she has commented on, even the ones I didn’t completely understand, have made a difference in my body. I think that before YDT I had a lot of muscles that I just wasn’t using correctly, and I was trying to push my body to do things it just isn’t made to do. I appreciate that Renee gives everyone different advice based on how they are built and treats dance how most people treat something like yoga-as something personal that looks and feels different on every person. What makes dance unique is that it is not only a sport, but an art form, and it is this artistic quality that causes many people to push their bodies to the limit, or even past the limit of what is considered safe. This project has pushed us, but only in a way that makes us stronger. I look forward to continuing to work with Renee and can’t wait to see how the project grows, and how we all grow with it.
After the first or second “House” rehearsal I asked Renee if she wanted me to call a cab. “I can’t just flag one down from here, can I?” she said. “Uber works too,” she said. And, “I saw those legs go up,” she said.
I wouldn’t have considered the legs “up,” but it had been a solid 90o arabesque day, no wobbles. Like weather, it wasn’t reliable or constant, but my balance was mostly sunny for that rehearsal.
I also know it was early on in the rehearsal process because my next question was about what else I could do. I told Renee how appreciative I was of the organization and centering of the Floor-Barre warm-up, but I craved strength through any suggestion of further exercises to prepare for our future work, and I suppose, the performance.
Strength is subjective and relative, but losing it has worried me for ages, I realize. Every summer while traveling or at camp I think that surely hiking only a few miles or a little leisurely swimming will mean returning with a tan, lots of stories, and no strength. The first week of college, too: I went to dance auditions daily so that I was attending regular ballet classes. In the YDT information session before the Trisha Brown project (attendance: three – Aren, Emily, and Me), I asked if I should worry about staying in shape for the rehearsals and I asked about whether the guest choreographers would give any technique or strengthening classes in our allotted six hours a week.
So my question to Renee wasn’t new or unique. She gently inhaled in the way she does when she’s telling us what our bodies are telling her, but this time it was a world, a career, a lifetime of bodies that gave her the words she spoke to me. Contrary to later iterations of “more” of “it’s not enough, not enough,” she told me to believe what she believes: that by coming and working on the principles she gives us during Floor-Barre time after time – focusing on length, opposition, organization, and under no circumstances tightening – the strength and desired body would come.
Waiting until Saturday was hard.
Renee’s plan required too much trust, it was too uncertain, and mostly, it was too early in the rehearsal process. But of course, what she advised eventually happened. I used an enormous amount of brain energy to convince my body to do less. While feeling a taught slack-line stretched so tightly from toe to scalp that nothing in my body wavered, I had to somehow relax around it. Tight was short while long was smooth and stable and spacious. It was all about finding space.
In our first conversation, Renee alluded to something akin to an “aha” moment: the proverbial light bulb or eureka that seemed highly unlikely in our four short months. But one day, on the second side of the final Floor-Barre exercise, we turned over and lengthened one leg on the floor with our backs in line with our bodies while plié-ing our free leg high and to the side. And without Renee’s words or hands, my hip found space and my leg floated. Everything was soft in a held, lengthened way, and I found the freedom to move. It was really cathartic, like pressing send at 11:59 after writing a paper all day, or stepping into a long overdue shower. Even better was the next rehearsal when I found it again, along with the affirmation that I hadn’t just been lucky.
The point though, goes back to the trust I put in Renee despite any uncertainties, expectations, or reservations.
The performance was about love, diversity, heritage and beauty. But it was built on trust.
Trust in Renee with our bodies. Seeing the slightest imbalance between heart and hips. Reading the delicate overworking of an anxious ankle. Hearing our voracity to push everything and patiently, calmly, telling us to believe in length, opposition, and – of course – story.
Trust in Matthew to each week untangle the jumble of folk songs, personal stories, and mismatched dancers while following a sporadic schedule and high pressure time limit.
Trust in Caroline’s wings.
Trust in Holly’s hips.
Trust in MC’s hearts of palm.
Trust in our knees and strong bases to support us through heart, mind, and soul…
Trust in the music and in ourselves to translate the music. Trust to illustrate the mood, and be the tumbleweed.
Trust in our voices to carry the words and place them just-so in front of the world. Trust in our voices to reach the man in the aisle seat, and trust in our voices to reach the woman on the street.
Trust in the musicians.
Trust in the audience to care and to listen.
Trust in our hair not to spontaneously unravel.
Trust in “one little girl,” in MC delivering Karlanna’s words of mothers and lettuce and toughness.
Trust in our months of work that could never be more than glimpsed in a 25-minute proscenium production.
Trust in sharing, not proving.
Trust in our bodies that we built. The smooth, racecars we slowly learned to drive as Renee moved to the passenger seat.
Trust in Emily for masterminding a project that incorporated so much and impacted so many.
Trust in the movement to carry our messages, and trust in ourselves to dance it.
lying on my back
on a saturday afternoon
with my legs bent and my hands around my waist and my thumbs pressed lightly against the skin on my back
i felt clarity
through my right thumb
during the q&a
on the saturday
of our performance
renee explained that for her
beauty and clarity are one
the clearer a diamond is
the better light shines
from renee’s lips
came words similar
to those you had spoken
had ever been clear about anything
before that saturday afternoon
when i was lying on my back.
white halls white rooms white streets white studios
(what is white fragility besides an anxious protection of white violence)
home demanding unyielding unwavering pushing sometimes beating
had not settled into itself
into an economy of desire
or through an economy of abjection
of black matter living
of black sugar burnt in my bowl
something about lengthening
(what is it about lying on the floor)
and having renee
grab pull watch lay her hands on me and tell me and everyone every time all the time and
there was a straining
which had not been altogether unpleasant
quite the contrary
that i let go of
the tension and holding things together
as i tried to let
in my lower body
and the clarity just came.
Alternative title: and I have come to answer the questions ‘heritage?’ ‘diversity? ‘beauty?’ with ‘love‘.
I have learned the only tool I possess capable of good in this world is my love. Love of another, love of ‘the other’, love of curiosity and creativity and joy. [Love of ideas, of experimentation.] Love of cooperation, interaction, interdependence. Of perseverance. Of attempt. Of failure. Of the pieces of God reflected in early morning windows and in the eyes of passersby. Everything must come from love, must spring from that ever-deep well.
It took me a long time, too long, to learn that my love might also be self-directed. That my care for everything external could only be enriched, and not degraded, by care for myself.
As I have learned to love myself, slowly, I have encountered love’s great companion: gratitude. [How wonderful it is to care intensely, to feel intensely; and how terrible and frightening it is, too.] I am uncovering the threads that link me with other minds and other souls. I am learning how I might fit in to the tender web of human connection. And I now give thanks constantly, for the love that envelops me, and that I may in turn extend to the world.
Afterword:When I wrote this passage in December, it was wonderfully true; I believed myself awake for the first time in a long time. Now, after having spent the semester with Renee and Matthew, it is somehow even stronger than true. I no longer believe it to be, but know it to be. And with that certainty comes incredible gratitude, particularly to Matthew and Renee for their mentoring, and to the YDT dancers for their invested companionship. Thanks and love, thanks and love.
“smaller” is not a correction i have ever gotten before while dancing. in horton class at the ailey school, it seemed as though ms. forsythe and mr. myers couldn’t go five minutes without demanding we take up more space, travel more, increase our use of movement dynamics, to reach farther and project farther and give more.
initially, ms. robinson’s note to me that i needed to hold back in my movement made me feel defensive – an unusual reaction for me in the studio. dancers are used to critique; we grow used to picking ourselves apart to pinpoint what must be improved. we learn over years of training to not take it personally and to remain objective in our pursuit for perfection. but these words had more of an initial emotional impact than other technical corrections.
as a mixed race woman, i constantly wrestle with the reality that the worlds through which i move often require that i make myself smaller – to make myself more acceptable to those around me, to more easily fit the narrative in place. this chameleon nature is exhausting.
but in the past couple of years, as i have solidified my identity a bit more, i’ve started to fight this constant tailoring of my persona. i am beginning to reconcile who i feel i truly am with who i am in the context of studying at an elite institution, of being in a committed relationship with a white man, of being in a field of employment dominated 70-30 by whites and 80-20 by men. all of that work over years in the studio, learning to give more of myself and project my truth, is now beginning to show up in my real life.
some of this is fear-driven. it feels incredibly important to me to not be marginalized or made invisible. every day i witness this in online spaces happening to people incredibly similar to me by people similar to me, and it’s disillusioning to say the least. rather than allowing society to tear me down, i want my experiences and the reality of how i move through the world to be validated – and if i don’t advocate for myself, who will?
but this week i noticed something – the loudest voices, even the ones i agree with, are often the least effective at getting their point across. their ideological opponents lock onto something trivial – maybe in their choice of words, maybe in the construction of their argument – rather than focus on the content of what they are saying. their personal truth doesn’t reach anyone because of the spectacle of their delivery.
it must be the same in dance. years of dance training lend access to a remarkable authenticity that can be utilized to tell stories in movement. ms. robinson’s correction to me was not intended to make me smaller, but was a way to strip away superfluous embellishments in order to allow me to more directly broadcast the truth of the narrative. truths in and of themselves can be so complex that there shouldn’t be anything else to parse on top of that. there is a rare beauty in direct simplicity and i am so grateful to ms. robinson for helping to teach me how to channel that.
This post will be short, not only because I haven’t slept in 76 hours and am about to fly across the Atlantic, but mostly because it doesn’t need to be long. I don’t have very much to say, and usually I’d interpret that as some kind of problem, but today it’s fine. I’ve been thinking about Renee (because how can one not be thinking about Renee at all times?) and about a type of sentiment she expresses a lot in rehearsal. “I’m not sure yet,” “I can’t find words to tell you now,” “Bear with me.” I’m not a patient person, and phrases like these tend to set me on edge. But for some reason, when we’re all in that room (discovering, as she says; going on a journey together) and everything truly is in (in the space, in your body, in our story) and there’s just music and her words (sometimes the two blend together too well) it all just seems so okay. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know or you can’t say what, the what doesn’t really matter except when it’s happening right now. What matters is the why, the why you are reaching and why you are running and why you are where you are (in) and all the other whys that hold the narrative together while tugging it through time, invisible stitches attached to intangible puppet strings. That’s what the why is. And we never lose sight of the why because it’s in us (where we are), and it’s between us. Our house, the house we all built together, is built on the why, and sometimes you have a what to put up on the walls but it’s actually just whatever. I’m tired and I’m out of words. And that’s fine for now.
Something that I have been working on in rehearsals as we warm up on the floor is opening up the front of my hips, deep in the hip flexors and in between my bones and my stomach. I often either collapse there (when I’m being lazy) or tighten too much there (all other cases) but I can reach a longer line when that part of my body opens up. I think that this might be the key to telling a deeper story, but I’m still struggling with escaping my habits.
An old ballet teacher used to talk about the “deep, deep transversus muscles” which you felt low in your abdomen when you did a cough, but I always preferred the idea of a vacuum right on the inside of my hipbones rather than muscles, a long space that gets pulled and stretched like caramel. It feels comfortable and soothing to touch my fingers on that spot, curled over the spiked front of the curved plate of bone that makes up my pelvis, as I fall asleep.
In the Symposium the other week, Renée Robinson said, “you need to be strong to be vulnerable,” but I can’t often do that. I can’t escape the guards I put up as I dance. I straighten my spine and hold my neck still and stiffen my stomach muscles and tighten my hips. Maybe this comes from years of being the largest girl in the class in different dimensions: tallest as a gangly kid, wider as I became a woman. Maybe I’m trying to make myself compact and quick and sprightly, but I’m not any of those things. I like to dance calmly and luxuriously, and to do that fully I need to open my joints and let the soft inside of my hips remain unprotected.
As I watched Renee Robinson effortlessly transition between beautiful lines, a knot began to form in my gut. The section of Blues Suite that she was about to teach us was extremely technical and I was worried.
Growing up, I actively avoided ballet. Ask any dancer and they will tell you that this is not a very good strategy. A solid technical foundation will serve you well in almost every style.
It took we a while to find my niche in the dance world, but I eventually did. I never saw Asian dancers, my short athletic build is not the idealized dancer body, and my flexibility is severely lacking. My feet are flat. My turn out is minimal. Yet some how I made do. In high school I was introduced to modern dance and explored a lot of experimental and pedestrian-based movement. I realized that dancing is so much more than high kicks and many turns, its about musicality, movement quality, and expression. Most importantly, it’s about feeling good.
Against all odds, “Inheriting Ailey” makes me feel good.
On top of feeling self conscious about my flexibility and balance (which comes and goes), listening to the rich cultural context of the Ailey Company during the symposium made me question how I fit into a narrative that celebrates and honors African American history. Is this ballet for me? How in the world will I be able to do this piece justice with neither the strong technique nor cultural understanding? How can I follow in the footsteps of megastars in the dance world?
And yet, performing the piece makes me feel beautiful. Renee has a talent for making every dancer feel valued. Her confidence in my ability has heightened my confidence in myself. Furthermore, focusing my energy into musicality, movement quality, and expression has produced work that I am proud of. I have found that when I am able fit into the pockets of the music and am able to add layers of texture and emotion to the movement, my body not only performs but also communicates.
While this project is exploring inheritance, diversity, beauty, and love individually, it is also unintentionally spurring their interrelation. By inheriting love, I have found beauty in my diversity. As tiring and challenging as the work is, it makes me feel. And that feeling is good.
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.