I’ll say it sometimes, dropped into the lull of a conversation about somebody’s graceful movement.
Or somebody might ask, ‘You know, what do you call it, that step?’ and I will answer without thinking, ‘that is the pas de basque’ or I will say, ‘that was a ballonné’ and keep to myself how the hands may have been more precise.
Then to quizzical and bemused faces, I will explain it quietly, ‘I was a dancer, once.‘
When I was a young girl I loved the feeling of my hip flexor stretched to pointed toe in a fluid, long movement. The smell of a new leather ballet shoe and the extension of my torso while my legs shifted into fifth position with hands at two; ready to leap into that old and elegant language of bone and body.
I craved the forward propulsion of movement that came from the pirouette and the barre exercises that dominated my classes. The discipline of dance taught me to prize technique in every aspect of my life. Everything I learn now starts the same way – the movement in completion, then breaking down the steps until I have mastered each technique before bringing it all together. Ballet taught me the strategy of moving artfully from one place to another, step by carefully selected step. Technique will take you places talent alone cannot, so now my fingers move over the keyboard as fast as my thoughts move and my knife can dance across a chopping board. In learning to dance, I learned how to learn and learned how to execute.
Then I learned at 5’2” with curved, wide hips and too busty for my height, I would never be a ballerina. So I turned my attention elsewhere, put my ballet shoes away and took two buses to music lessons instead. For a long time, if left to my own devices on an empty stage, the dance would erupt from within me, my body didn’t know I wasn’t a dancer anymore. I would shut myself in the living room at any chance, turning up the stereo to dance freely. I would commandeer the empty school assembly hall in the brief moments of early morning to practice the steps that were not yet faded from memory.
Last week, I found myself alone in the gym, looking at the open space and remembering I was a dancer, once. I did not resist the urge to cartwheel, leap, lift and spin my extended right leg into a twist and finish in a plié. No one saw or questioned, laughed or scoffed. I just danced, as I am prone to do.
As it turns out, I can still pirouette, precise and straight from east to west across the room, and land a leap with leg extended and toe arched into submission. I can still feel the fibre of muscle and definition that lies underneath the soft curves of my body that will bend when asked, into concave and convex shapes or spread into a split with ease. The difference is that now my body dances alone in the dark, unwatched.
In all my dancing, I danced alone. To dance together requires a shared language, an assented understanding between two parties. Regardless of whether you dance for an audience, if you dance with another, you must dance for them too. That is what I have wanted to learn.
The first time I was taken to the dance floor with a partner – my hips froze and my body found resolution. Resolution to not move, to not engage. I needed language that I had no words for and nothing to take the place of words. Words couldn’t tumble out of my lips to make sense of what I didn’t understand or the questions I couldn’t ask.
Alone in the room, with an empty floor and only my own rhythm to follow, I can effortlessly freestyle and push my body beyond imagined limits. I am unhindered by the thought of who is watching or with me. I can make my own steps and choose the most interesting ways to move across the floor.
When I am not alone in the room, each of my steps is a response and will be responded too. My breath must change to accommodate new rhythms. Patience and bravery is required in new ways. All of a sudden I am aware of my dance space and the space of another. My body is less willing to leap and spin so freely; for the first time I lose confidence in my technique. Technique that has never failed me before.
By now, you should know this is both a true story about dance and a metaphor. I am a paradox of confidence and innocence, sometimes imagining more quickly than I can learn and sometimes learning more than I can practice. But there are a few things I know to be true.
I am changed. Still insecure, wary of misstep, but also brave I step into rhythm; willing to try without the security of technique to guide me. I am intrepidly exploring trust that makes me brave.
In this moment of exploration and discovery, I realise how much I have missed being taught. I have missed instruction and the security of being guided to perfect technique. And my desire is perfection that bears creation, experimentation and re-creation. I want to move more than I ever have, but a new way of dancing.
These old moves have been my safety net, the trusted and known. Suddenly I am inspired to new rhythms. I want new language for my tongue to stumble over and finesse until I speak this language with ease. I find myself wanting to dance for another, to move beyond technique to intuition.
I want to practice as I have never practiced before, bending flesh to my will and making beauty from my sweat, strain and gasping breath.
A long time ago, I wrote a poem about learning to dance. I find myself here, nearly twenty years later still learning and wanting to learn.
we will listen to the air for a while
competing and combining in breath and gasp
from two sets of crimson lips
tarnished hips and bruises
from this dance you teach
I will not run or hide
I will try a little harder
keep slightly closer,
imitate and learn this rhythm
you already know
but there is peace coming
neither will care who
knew what when we began
this will be our dance for a time
i will learn the things you speak
and never speak
that from limb and soul
peace does grow
what is new to me
can be new again for you
a gift to another, my other
a thousand more will rise and descend
in sweet and heavy songs
and the ghosts will go
leaving us to dance
speaking to only each other