Taking Flight

Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain
Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain

I am busy writing when one of my sisters calls and invites me to a dance concert at the last minute. I want to decline–I’m writing, after all– but what she describes sounds too innovative to miss. And I have a passionate appreciation of dance. Getting out will be a nice break for me, too.

Two other sisters, one able-bodied and one a quadruple amputee, were dancing together and the final part of their documentary was being finished during the performance. SOAR: Dance Concert and Documentary Finale was comprised of not only these two dancers, but four other dance troupes, including Polaris Dance Theater, The Portland Ballet, Kemba Shannon Dance Ensemble, and the exceptional high school group Jefferson Dancers. I had to save my writing and go.

The moment Kiera Brinkley begins to dance with the Polaris Dance Theater, the effect is startling. Everyone else is longer-limbed and can stand fully upright. Kiera sits and stands, but differently, her legs being what most of consider our thighs only. Having lost most of her lower limbs as well as her forearms and hands due to a catastrophic infection as a toddler, she has had a lifetime of practice getting around with her unique body. I imagine the rest of the audience wonders what they are in for. How can she possibly engage with the other dancers effectively and skillfully, contribute a creative spark that was integral to the choreography?

Easily. Or at least that is how it appears. What will power was developed to dance this way? She reaches and turns, swoops and sweeps alongside the others, mirrors their movements in ways that are refreshing and surprising. Her torso is very strong, her focus intense. Yet there is a lightness, a transcendent quality to her dancing from and across the floor. She is devoted to each movement as much as each dancer, perhaps more so. In time her differences seem less so. My eye is drawn to the overall troupe, the designs they configure, the story they impart. She is a rigorous, essential part of the whole as it organically shapes the spaces and then breaks apart. Makes the stage an organism that functions only as well as each dancer, including Keira.

Later, Keira and her sister, Uriah Boyd, whose body is what we might expect a dancer’s to appear, dance together the piece choreographed by Melissa St. Clair. Their interactions are intimate, so connected that it is hard to tell where one’s energy departs from the other’s. Their bodily communications are crisp and clean, sensuous and cerebral all at once, a telegraphing of complex feelings. Their adoration of dancerly movement and their faith in an absolute porousness of physical boundaries wields power.

The documentary is being completed after two years. It tells of the sisters, their lives together as they grew up, their individual love of dance that became a shared living dream. When a clip is shown, my heart comes forth to welcome and applaud their work, their visions.

But that concert has provoked many thoughts, not just of their performances, but of how all bodies are shaped and what that means to us privately and collectively in our culture. Last night I admired many female dancers who did not meet the long-held expectations of a dancer type: reed slimness, good height, lightness and grace, length of neck and fine shape shoulder. Willowy, perhaps. I don’t know all the requirements, as I am not a dancer, but we, if we care to admire and support dancers, may hold a certain image in our minds. The fact is, times have changed considerably since I studied dance sporadically as child and youth. Modern or contemporary dance offers more opportunities to those who do not fit a classical ballet build. And how we, the audience, benefits. What I saw heartened me. It wasn’t enough that the music was exceptional and the choreography was excellent. These dancers were not uniform at all. They were short and tall, stocky and slender, moved softly or with bravado, were dynamic, intriguing, self-defining even as they merged with the whole.

The communion of creativity, the union of many talents is a marvel to see, even if we don’t always feel comfortable or agree. There are many sparks in the world that ignite flames of creative energy. I wonder who out there gives up because they feel they are too “different.” Who tucks away a dream due to being told they do not fit the bill? And why should it take such courage to present the best of what we have? The truth is, it takes a strong ego within a persistent person to forge ahead despite the odds.

I danced once, long ago. Decades ago I attended an international arts camp, called Interlochen National Music Camp when I was young. I studied cello and voice, a little harp, and writing, as well. But my secret desire was to learn modern dance in the dance building overlooking a shimmering blue lake. I had stopped by the studios for years (my father taught at Interlochen many summers, as well), heard the rhythmic thump of bare feet on the special floors, watched perspiration soak their leotards, noted how they laced up toe shoes with meticulous care. I’d taken a few dance classes over the years but had focused on music, writing, figure skating and other endeavors.

But one year I chose as an elective class in modern dance. I started in a beginning class, then was placed in an intermediate class. I was anxious about failure but my happiness overcame temerity. I worked hard to keep up, pushed my body in ways I had never experienced, felt pain and knew fulfillment. This was nothing like the long hours practicing a stringed instrument or singing art songs. Here, I could move. I could express everything, mold feeling, morph the lines of body with effort and discipline. Everything about dance began to animate my being, even when I wasn’t there. It opened doors that took me to the depths of wordlessness, into silence. It was diving into a still pool only to discern other worlds. I often felt as though I should give up but he instructor one day kept me afterwards.

“You should dance,” she said. “You have natural ability. You have the passion. You come to it from your heart.”

My face reddened. “Oh, no, I haven’t really studied. I am so behind others here. And I am fourteen–it’s too late now.”

“Nonsense. I first began earnestly to study dance in college. And I have danced professionally and also teach. Think about it.”

Her words were carried like a gift to my next orchestra rehearsal. I thought of my hometown, the lack of serious dance instruction. The expectations of my musical family and the way singing and playing cello made me feel–really, as good as dancing, just different. My unrelenting love and need of writing. I returned to each modern dance class and worked hard and felt freed, entranced, inspired creatively. But I didn’t take more classes beyond the camp. I didn’t agree with my teacher. I knew to dance truly well took more than I could give in many ways, not the least being time and dedication. And I envisioned myself being a writer or a singer or combination.

I stayed with music for a few more years, but writing–it was ever with me, in my thoughts and dreams and doing. To perform before an audience required many opportunities. Writing was available every moment–a pencil and paper, a typewriter, then a computer. I didn’t need so much to be read as to just write something every day, make it shine. Oh, I have danced in casual situations and now at Zumba at the gym. I think of taking flamenco; the May schedule is nearby. Early heart disease changed the way I  accomplish physical goals; it doesn’t have to stop me from trying and enjoying myself..

But I wrote a novel about a dancer ten years ago, yet to be submitted for publication. Here is the gist of it: Sophia is six feet tall. She has a body that is powerful and elegant but not thin. She has managed her own dance company of intergenerational dancers who have bodies of all shapes and sizes, with skills as diverse as their skin color and age. But then Sophia experiences a loss beyond understanding when her husband dies mysteriously and she is harmed in the process. She cannot dance. She cannot even speak. She has lost her truth and power. The story takes us into her well of grief and out again, follows her footsteps as she learns again to trust her body and mind as well as her soul. Sophia discovers those who can accept and love her when she cannot yet love herself. And she begins to heal and give back, to even aid a photojournalist who is lost in a state of burnout and a woman under the spell of a cruel man. And creative work helps untether Sophia from her own misery.

This is what I was thinking last night as I watched the dancers on stage, was moved by Kiera Brinkley and her sister: Art can transform both artist and viewer like little else. It gets the job done when our imaginations light up. Liberates. Edifies. Not that these are new ideas, of course, but what impact they have when I stop and observe others carefully. Dance is a part of a vast network of disciplines and persons who love creating so much they devote their lives to it. Take difficult risks to share what matters most. But everyone can create some way, some thing. All can share their story, at home or in the world. It is a matter of beginning. Why not make something wonderful of what we have and who we are? Give ourselves whatever wings fit us, fly a little more.

The Dancers by Arthur Mathews
The Dancers by Arthur Mathews

(You can learn more about SOAR on Facebook.)

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