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Body Language Ephemerals

My body whispers to me in dance class, and mornings after long rehearsals:  the language is often subtle, but with an edge of admonition – a sharp, but fleeting pain in my lower back, an aching knee, hips that pop during leg swings, an ankle that doesn’t want to bear the crushing pressure of one more jump. “Is it worth it?” she poses. “You know, a lifetime of dance has its price.”

The toll extracted for decades of dance I see all too often in my fellow dancers:  surgeries to scrape jagged cartilage off patella, physical therapy for excruciating bulging disks that limit spine flexibility, ankles, backs and knees that ache deeply from too much wear and tear. And yet we trudge on, dancing through the pain, for …. What? For an art form in which we are destined to eventually lose our fluency?

Of all the arts disciplines, dance is the most heartbreaking in which to age. A painter can refine her brush strokes in middle age, an actor add the rich hues of life experience to his embodiments, a musician continue to train hands and fingers to command instruments, a writer expand her dominion over words. But as dancers, our art relies on a physicality that is arduous, and fleeting. And as the increasing numbers of silver strands that highlight my hair tell me, I’m at least a decade older than most of those in the classes I take, and my time is running out.

How much longer will I be able to hang on, to perform in both class and on stage, to maneuver both physically and mentally through those phrases and exercises that have us springing from the floor, turning and twisting and hitting impossible shapes in the air, bearing all of our weight on one hand in a dive while balancing the rest just so above us, inverted, and spiraling down to our backs so quickly that there is no time for error without risking injury or completely ruining the flow of the movement? And when I can no longer do that part, then I must give up those moments I love as much as the challenge and energy of the dancing; the meditative beginning of class connecting our bodies to floor  — wholly yielding our weight and our skin to an entrusted friend as we pull arms and legs to the fetal and C curves, the gentle leg stretches on our backs, warming our instruments slowly as the drummer plays a soft rhythm, each of us focused inward yet aware of the bodies who share this space with us.

It’s those transient elements in life that I find myself mourning at times, even while I am still experiencing them. From phases of living that last years to the momentary golden glow that is a prelude to twilight, they are times when the intensity is far too dense to endure forever. In winter, I yearn for the rapture of those sudden, fast-moving storms on warm spring nights. How does one preserve the passion and movement of a southern thunderstorm in late April, the wind making the tree tops dance? If only we could bottle and store that dynamic energy and sense of exhilaration as the wind gusts sultry breaths through the night and heat lighting illuminates the clouds in staccato flashes. Who wouldn’t want to unleash the passionate dance of a powerful thunderstorm into the quiet, dull gray of winter?

Dance is a storm  — powerful, sudden, exhilarating, and then gone. Those moments of leaping, spinning wildly through the air, or the slow, soulful painting of flesh upon empty space require being utterly present in every inch of your body and mind, a heightened sense of awareness like that of the approaching rain. Those times on stage or in the studio when nothing else exists except that kinesthetic and spiritual intensity of marrying body and soul are flashes of electricity, the surge of wind before it dies, leaving us grounded again. Dance may water fertile ground for future growth, but it is only the memory of the movement and perhaps inspiration that lingers after the stage is dark. Nothing you can touch, or grasp, or hoard. And not only is the dance itself ephemeral, but the time we are allotted to speak this ancient and yet contemporary language is fleeting as well.

I spent much of my 40th birthday in dance studios; two hours in an advanced modern class at Vanderbilt University, and then three hours in front of Martin O’Connor’s camera at Franklin School of Performing Arts. It was undoubtedly a vain and narcissistic thing to commission a personal photo shoot, but I wanted some record of myself as a dancer at 40. Something that I could look at in twenty years and think, yes, that’s when I could still jump, or when my legs still had definition, when I still had some flexibility and a sense of balance. That’s when the passion of this language that speaks volumes without a word could still be spoken through my body.

It was an honor to spend that time with Martin, who has photographed so many dancers in Nashville and beyond, for in addition to being an amazing human being, he is a master at his craft. His artistry is in capturing the peak of the storm. That moment in dance, if it were thunderstorm, when the lightning flashes across the sky and the trees swirl their limbs in concentric circles. That place where we fly, suspended in air and space, defying gravity by force of muscle and sheer iron will. And there is it, frozen in his camera. Frozen in a way that we can look back at it and see what we can never really see when we’re dancing – take time to absorb the shapes of the body, the flow of hair and costume, the lines of tendons.

Somehow, though static, his photographs capture the essence of movement. They dance, even though forever frozen. And in an art form so transient in so many ways, this is a gift beyond words.