Blackbird

5 Feb

Down the dim hallway toward the dance studio I trod, a chubby six year old in black leotard and tights. At the time, I had no consciousness of my body other than a vague unease. There were foods I wasn’t allowed to eat. There were clothes that didn’t fit. There were rules. My mother’s hovering and persistent directive, “Suck in your stomach”, taught me that something was not right about my body. Being “me” was not okay, in a body that was not right and which certainly didn’t belong to me but to her. At six years old, I understood these precepts intuitively, under the landscape of my growing mind. Over the years that followed to self-consciousness, rejection of the body as it was, through each stage, was the norm. My mother obviously despised her own physicality and attempting to control my body was a way to control and calm feelings about her own body- hatred.

But I was only six. I was just. . . . me.

Miss Mona’s School of Dance was a long respected dance establishment in Roanoke and every Thursday at 6 pm I’d put on my black leotard, black tights and those small leather slippers that weren’t the shoes I’d read about in the library book from school, the red ones with the laces and hard toes like small hard cups wrapped in satin. I would gaze at the portraits of the ballerinas in the plate glass window at Miss Mona’s, their long arms and long legs lifted in grace and arching white. Tiny pointed pink feet, ankles bound in ribbons, short flowing dresses or fluffy sparkling tutus. The curve of their thighs in arabesque were like the edges of a taught bow, their arms like giant wings trailing dark feathers of space like ravens against the deep summer sky. Ballerinas were “big girls”, 12 maybe 13. It seemed to me then that becoming a ballerina was what happened when one grew up and in some instinctive way I suppose it came to symbolize a right of passage. The becoming of a woman meant donning hard toed shoes and launching into open flight.

I can remember the piano at Miss Mona’s like a hundred hammers on bells, the clanging refrain as I walked across a smooth wooden dance floor toward a small group of girls. Lyrical line after line of “Meet Me in St Louis. . .Louis” was the only unifying cadence within the wild clackety clacks, squeals and laughter from the room hidden from view of the barre. Behind the blue accordion partition, staccato smacks peppered with laughter rolled over the quiet of the ballet room. That day I stood in barre class with other tinier girls, their leotards bunching at their little bums, tights folding in creases at their knees. So small their ballet clothes lay about them like skin on a baby elephant. But mine were tight…stretched, like a seal’s skin ready to burst.

I didn’t know. I was just. . . .me.

But Miss Mona, the ginger haired matriarch of the barre awakened me. She stood, leaning heavily on her cane as she eyed me from the sideline. “You are too big to be a ballerina. We need to talk about tap class for you.” Listening to the girls next door, the class I eventually attended rather than ballet, I can’t recall feeling anything. No sadness or disappointment. I accepted the judgment of adults as Truth. It just was.

Too big to be a ballerina.

Too big.

When Miss Mona died in 2006, my mother gave me her obituary from the newspaper and I carried it in my wallet for nearly three years for no other reason, but that I just couldn’t bring myself to remove it.

I loved her.
I hated her.
This woman who was the mistress of the barre, of sublime body perfection.

This woman who owned the secrets of flight.

They say the body has its own tale to tell. That memories begin to store in our very cells from before we are born. Muscle and cell memory, the body is a complex consciousness all its own. It operates beyond our control in tandem with the environment without much need for a pilot. And in over many years, I have worked to own this frame of mine, to claim it, to come to love it, to treat it with compassion. This journey in part has been about transforming the outer strength I built early on into inner strength of mind and spirit. And so it is no surprise to me that inner expression, which first began in the written voice of Beloved, moved into art and now finally into dance. As I look back, many times in which I connected to music, I danced into my higher self. No one dancing with me…. a joyful moving meditative prayer to the Universe.

During Lenten traveling this past spring, I stumbled upon a unique dance group in Charlottesville. The 5Rhythms method created by Gabrielle Roth offers expression and healing, spiritual enlightenment and oneness through free form dance. Conscious dancers move to patterns of music designed in “waves”, each one making a unique musical narrative arch. The invitation for the dancer is to move in the body’s unique voice to express the inner drama. It allows the body to tell its story and to be “seen” and from that revealing to be “heard”. But heard by the conscious self. The narrative is experienced as a separate voice. What story is my body telling, this alien thing my consciousness rides around in? That question has been pressing me. . .hard. In yoga class, every posture which opens the heart or my hips has been intensely uncomfortable in more ways than the physical. I’m very fit, but my flexibility has reached a limit. I rise daily feeling like a living rug burn. The muscles refuse to listen, so I decided I had to learn to hear them instead. I have to learn how to listen to my own body’s story. And it has volumes to tell.

A week ago, as a part of the 21 Days of Love, I attended my first conscious dance session. Feeling quite uneasy, I entered the Fry Spring Beach Club in Charlottesville and immediately tensed from the interior cold. The heat is low in preparation for ninety minutes of constant movement. Reluctantly, I peeled off layer upon layer, like the years that have passed since the days of Miss Mona’s studio. I felt shy, intensely awkward. . .for the first time in many years. However, stepping out into the low lights, I became quickly aware of the sacred safety of this environment. All come here to engage in healing or enlightenment. It isn’t a competition or a show. One can remain alone or engage with others; there is total freedom from judgment. The invitation is to connect to the rhythms of the musical wave, and let the body sing.

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Standing, arms folded against the cold on the edge of the great ballroom floor, my first moves were spontaneous: the positions.

First …slide to second. Third, my favorite…and then a slide out to fourth.

Not brave enough for fifth yet and feeling pretentious, I began simple stretches and to slide a bit. But, a surprise ronde de jambe became the introduction to the next ninety minutes. One must be barefoot for grounding, and by the time I left the studio, I had danced blood blisters onto the bottoms of my toes. From the outside, an onlooker might think we had all taken mind altering drugs and were moving through whatever state of consciousness a psychotropic substance had awakened. (Basically, a bunch of “New Agey” white folk flailing about in semi rhythmic abandon.) But, my body voice is passionate and emotive, despite its intense fear of turning inward and completely letting go in front of absolute strangers. I found a bent bow within me that came absolutely and powerfully unstrung, so much so that I injured a leg muscle pretty severely. Balance, I learned has more than one meaning in this case. The musical pieces, which comprised the beginning of the first wave, elicited a wall of palpable energy from me. Brick on brick, a perimeter of stone was laid around my raw self and then at the wave’s height, behind it, I became bare to the core.

My unique personal narrative erupted into verse and refrain, singing as easy as breathing. My mind cannot structure it; I struggle now to find words to even describe. Sense memory returns to the ballet room, the movements somehow executed effortlessly in my current physical state. For now, I am tall and lean. . .strong. But the body also remembers other pages …

of curiosity…

of ambiguity…

of love…

of sex…

of joy…

of grief and loss

of the Infinite.

Dancing what I never knew existed within me, one song pushed forth scratching and clawing into the air in rhythmic anger like a tigress. Lost within another pulsing refrain my wrists twined, wrapped in memories of a lost love. A waltz took me into a ballroom many years ago where I learned to trust enough to let a beloved lead. At the denouement of another song, my shoulders reversed to cover my heart, chin brushing the bareness of my shoulders, as if I held myself in my own arms. At one point I was a tightrope walker, balancing the invisible wire of change. And I wanted to leap from it and soar. The desire for balance evaporated in the furnace of inner fire. . .only in movement could the enormity of my emotion be set free.

A story doesn’t makes it path known until the soles meet the smoothness of the floor, but then the frame bends and fluctuates like the pines in the winter wind. A whole memoir of the body is sorted into tales and in the telling, an awareness comes of being lit inward like a tiny candle. We live inside our rational consciousness for so long, seeing our bodies separate from our self concepts. The reflective surface of culture encourages us to tell ourselves a body “truth”, but the authentic story within is already there. And this body, which is tinier than our souls must be carried by it, so we must come to love it, this instrument of our earthly being.

This type of dancing reduces me to my most surrendered point…the point of birth…the point of fear ..the point of allowing…the point of joy…the oneness that is at heart of all. It is the fullest expression of intimacy with the higher self that I have found. I understand Rumi so much more now, his whirling and whirling into oneness of the Divine.

I left the session spent, an exorcism of the past danced out in a dimly lit ballroom in the dark cold of a winter January night. And next week I will return, to turn and turn again in the telling of a tale I have yet to hear, and from which  to hopefully gain more insight.

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