Dancing with Courage

I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. I danced at Cal, and in my college years, I spent a lot of time at Zellerbach, watching performances and the rehearsals and master classes of the touring companies. My classes were held down the street, in an old wooden church at the edge of campus that had been converted into the most gorgeous dance space I have ever been in.
Alvin Ailey dancers are, of course, masters of the art. Bad ass masters of dance and they do what all good artists do with their art: move people. Sitting in the audience, the choreography split me open and I became, from my seat, courageous from the company pushing back at what I have seen as limits on my own ability.
There was a time that I danced so intensively that I had thought going professional was something I would try for but I began to falter in dance as I faltered in so many other parts of my life because of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. I was in so much pain at the time that it felt that any use of my joints was destroying them. It felt, in moving, that I was wearing them down with sandpaper. Of course, it was an infection of Lyme Disease, but when I was twenty I could hardly walk and had no answers. I’d been working with a physical therapist for months and was only getting worse. My physical therapist was stumped and told me that I needed to never bend forward again (seriously. To never bend forward again. As if a person could even promise such a thing. As if asking a dancer to permanently remove such a basic movement as forward spinal flexion was nothing). At the time, I acquiesced only because all I worried that I wouldn’t even be able to walk by the time that I was thirty if I kept doing what I was doing.
Movement is the purest form of joy to me. It is how I know myself; it is how I have always known myself the best. I started swim lessons before I could walk and gymnastics soon after. I took dance classes and springboard diving and soccer and I ran everywhere. I ran after my brother and his friends, I ran to the market for my mom, I ran with my dog. I danced nearly as much as I ran and I poured my babysitting and then lifeguarding money into dance lessons when my parents refused to pay for more than two a week. During the summers, I was at a dance studio every day. I organized my life around classes, practices and competitions and began to work with physical therapists when pain started creeping into my body. We all brushed it off as something that comes with dance, with contact sports and I had had some traumatic injuries, falls and sprains. Only I never really healed from them. I danced, though, until I wasn’t able to walk or stand for long periods of time, until it felt like bending my knees and spine was ruining my joints. Until my joints felt on fire from just being. I gave it all up before I was twenty.
About ten years ago, when I was hooking up to an IV morning and night yet was only marginally better from when I had moved back home with my parents, I also stopped going to dance shows because I was eaten through with envy at all the things I could no longer and perhaps, would never do again. At the time, I was barely functional and was filled with rage as I sat in the theater watching dance.
This time, sitting in the theater at the first dance show I’ve been to in nearly a decade, I was moved. In watching the dances, it felt like my limits were expanded. As if my understanding of humanity and of what I can ask of my body were opened up, tenfold. I felt courageous.
Instead of becoming immobile after that one physical therapist’s directive, I became a pilates instructor instead and, though going through the certification program flared up every single one of my aching joints, I became a more efficient mover and developed better alignment. In a blessed coincidence, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease towards the end of my pilates certification and jumped right into treatment. I soon learned how much of my pain was illness complicating injury. I had injuries, many of them: ankle, jaw, nose, knees, spinal injuries. What Lyme did, though, was to complicate them. It slowed down the healing and added layers and intensity of pain to the injuries. Over the years, I have spent so much time learning about creating a balanced, fluid body and now have healthy, stable and completely pain-free joints. Still, I’ve resisted going back to many of the things that once grounded me and fed my soul. After last week, though, I think it’s time to go back to dance.

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