“A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”
— Martha Graham, Mother of American Modern Dance
My first death began the day I made the decision to end my performance career with LA Contemporary Dance Company (LACDC). After twenty years of training in and performing Dance (capital D), I left my last performance with the company unsure of my future as a Dancer. And while Dance has remained a very large part of my life - as a choreographer, teacher, patron, and ambassador - my life as Dancer feels further and further passed. Now, when I say Dancer, I don’t mean dance-trained performer, or movement artist, or physical actor. I mean a bona fide foot pointing, leg kicking, hip shaking, head rolling, body leaping, French-word using, spinning, turning, posing, reaching Dancer. Even my time as a practitioner of Dance (in its most “traditional” Westernized form) has dwindled, as the majority of my physical practice has gone to yoga and other fitness or somatic practices.
This became viscerally clear over the past two weeks during the LACDC 2019 Summer Intensive. I dropped-in for only 3 morning classes of this two-week-long workshop and my body is still feeling it. This annual intensive is something I’ve been involved with since 2011, not only as a participant, but also facilitator and teacher. However, this July was the first time in 8 years that I simply participated. And though I was warmly welcomed with open arms by the company and instructors, it doesn’t change the fact that I was there as a paying guest, rather than active company member. But it was more than just this change of status that had me feeling like a former life was on its way out. The classes felt equally familiar and foreign. And we’re talking Dance classes. Professional-level you-better-know-what-you’re-doing-or-you’ll-get-hurt Dance classes. And while my body recognized physical patterns, I didn’t always recognize the new shapes or sensations my body was making. It was as though I was stepping into my childhood home, redecorated by a strange new family. The joy of movement was met with the sorrow of a life unfulfilled.
It’s as if my feet are split, standing in two worlds getting further and further away from each other (which is especially painful as much of my flexibility has been lost). One foot remains in my first life: the life of a Dancer. A Dancer who, with the right focus, care, and determination, could have gone on to enjoy many more years on stage dancing groundbreaking choreography for notable choreographers. That is the life unfulfilled. The second foot, stretched eagerly in front of me, is attempting to stabilize in a world reserved for leadership, creation, and education. There may even be some avenues for performance and dance (lower case D) in this new world. But the two worlds could never meet. Or rather, I’m not interested in them meeting, because my new world is in active interrogation of Dance (back to the capital D) as we’ve known it.
Interestingly, this internal identity split mimics my current external professional split. For my work with AMDA, I am actively educating, coaching, and guiding the next generation of professional Dancers, assisting young adults to give birth to a life they are destined to one day lose. Simultaneously, my work with LEAP has me advising Dancers either entering, dealing with, or in recognition of their pending “first death.” To be holding space for both ends of this Dance life-cycle while simultaneously questioning Dance’s role in my life (or my life’s role in Dance?) can be overwhelming and confusing. How do I continue to develop Bodies in Play, a concept that very intentionally removed the word Dance from its approach, while effectively supporting the Dancers I work with?
I think it comes down two important affirmations:
Firstly, in order to make any effective change - to an industry, to a community, to a concept - we must be working from within. With my seasoned dancers of the LEAP program, I have a hand in developing future policy makers, leaders, educators, and patrons for Dance (as well as other performance genres that may not yet exist). With my younger population at AMDA, I have the opportunity inspire change from the ground up. In a recent class, I reminded my students that they are the next generation of Dance. We, their teachers, can only speak to how the industry has been or is now, but it will be up to them as to how it develops.
The second affirmation, as contradictory as it may sound, can be summed up by the great words of Cassie from A Chorus Line - because with all due respect to Martha and the prevailing belief that a Dancer’s career ends at 30 - “God I’m a Dancer. A Dancer Dances.”