The Caged Bird

Dance is the only art form that speaks of prayer and blasphemy in the same language.

Before time started ticking in atomic clocks and ancient animal debris fueled our hunger for travel and luxury, humans lifted their hands to the skies in ancient dance, a song to the gods, asking for good fortune, rain, a good harvest, a healthy child. Dance was the song, the medium of the prayer. It was the language of community, a public supplication to the god that breathed wind and rain and roamed the sky.

But time has changed and we have changed, as an organism, a culture, a mind. Nature has turned into steel and concrete canyons, thousands of reflecting eyes in which we see our fragmentation. The world has shrunk, but we’ve drifted apart, faster than the continents. We see each other not in the flesh, but in thousands of bits traveling through space in arteries of light. I am no longer eyes, body and touch, but an endless stream of updates, texts and instgrammed moments. I don’t know the side effects of this particular addiction yet. In time, we shall all know.

Somewhere along this endless stream chronicled as history, came along the French and the king in his mirrored hall, and harnessed dance, caught it, placed it in a cage with rules and obligations.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

writes Maya Angelou. She is not writing about dance, but the mind supplies the narrative even when it is uncalled for. I think of ballet as the caged bird, an ancient artform reborn with rules.

Somewhere along the road we began to think in dichotomies, in borders drawn on water: night and day, black and white, woman and man. Shimmering borders that seem absolute. Thus came also the arts of the mind: painting, literature, music and poetry and the art of the body: dance.

I was recently at a ballet recital. It was one of the “nude” ballets, that modern choreographers are fond of putting together and presenting to eager audiences. A man and a woman, in minimalist leotards, on a stage together. Bodies entwining. I am intrigued and ashamed. I feel that intimacy is violated in the dusky lights of the stage even though this is a performance. At the end I clap, with everyone else. The loud noise shatters the moment I want to savor, the moment when the danseur gently touched the hand of the ballerina, brushed her body. There is something that appeals to the very ancient part of my brain in that touch, in the close contact of hands and torso.

After the performance, I discuss something mundanely existential with a platonic friend. We dip into the dance performance of the evening. “That touch was…” I leave the sentence hanging between us. “ Carnal”, he says. The trill of the r hangs like an unpleasant expletive. As an afterthought, he hovers the bottle over my glass. “More?” “Sure”. Chiraz, when poured slowly, has an oddly seductive quality, the bruised grape blood flickering in the dim room. Carnal. Dance for years was among the persecuted art forms, forbidden, because it inspired lust and carnality. A blasphemy.

Somewhere, far below in the glass canyon between the two buildings, an ambulance wails. Someone is bleeding on a gurney beneath fluorescent lights. The body is so frail in these moments, when it hovers on the brink of death or on the brink of touch.


silver and exact

What bothers me is that I cannot see myself. Not in the way I see others. I cannot, to paraphrase Atticus Finch, walk in another man’s shoes, see the world how he sees it, feel the wind falling on his face, the sun shine on his arms, experience his joy and excitement. As a child, I used to look into people’s eyes. The polite thing to do, my mother said. I used to gaze into my mother’s hazel ones (so different from my washed out blue), but all I saw was my own face reflected in the retina. When I first heard the age-old adage, the eyes are the mirror of the soul, I always thought it meant that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul of the person we are looking at. Growing up I understood that the eyes of the other person are the mirror to our own soul.

So I stopped looking into eyes of others. Because in them, yet another mirror.

College was a kaleidoscope of human mirrors: professors, fellow students, boyfriends. Too many ways to see oneself, and one night, overwhelmed, alone and homesick, I, clutching a pair of worn out ballet slippers, went into the ballet studio. The lights had been dimmed. I lay on the cold Marley floor and mentally traced the patterns on the ceiling. In the mirror, I could find myself. I stood up and put on my slippers. Looking was easier than I thought.  In the mirror, I saw myself or perhaps a version of myself, someone who could only exist in this space and in this moment.  I prepared in fourth, good, old-school Vaganova fourth, and turned my half-formed pirouettes, until I was only a blur on the silver surface.

Dancing is a way of being blindfolded. Because when moving, when dancing, when pirouetting, looking at oneself from any angle is impossible. Perhaps that is what bothers me about dancing, and about ballet. The external mirrors that become the ultimate judge and executor, dealing sentences in harsh silvery light.

Some cultures believe that a mirror captures the soul. The eye of the little god, wrote Sylvia Plath. Once again the eye and the mirror are synchronized. Eyes are like mirrors. My mother’s eyes and my own acne-marked teenaged face rising from the black liquid iris. I have surely looked into the eye of this god for countless hours in the confined space that is the ballet studio. I have seen the reflection of other women and men, dancers whom I thought were superior to me. I wondered if what I saw in their reflection was what they saw of themselves. We were looking at the same image but from different worlds. “We see things not as they are, but as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, those tired heavy words tumbling into the world through her journals.

My mind and body have shared an uneasy space for many years. For those I refused to look into the mirror, for fear of finally knowing that this is how I am going to appear for the rest of my life. This is my body, the shape that I will live in. The only shape that I will live in. Ballet forced the confrontation of the two antagonists. The body that bluntly refuses the societal standards. The mind that aspires to conform to them. Even my numerous attempts to reduce the body to a starving saint of fashion have done little to melt away the mutinous mountains of fat. I feel their burning weight in the mirror of the ballet studio. It all  comes down to looking and seeing.

But dancing, in its purest, truest, brightest form (whatever that may be) is being blindfolded, oblivious to the shape, and open to the flow, for lack of a better word. I hold onto those moments like a child trying to hold a fistful of sand. I go back and back, back to the studio, back to the pain, and sweat and blood and tears, like a moth burning in the lamp on a warm summer night. Every step, every turn, a reclaiming of space. Am I body or a mind? Does it matter?

Reclaiming Space and Embracing the Cliche

Last week, I ran away from Camp Ballet, but just for an hour.

Modern class.

Basic Level.

I like ballet, because it is structured, organized and disciplined, but at times, it encourages harshness. It makes you turn to the mirror and seek out all the little (and big!) things that need fixing. In beginner and basic level classes, the amount of center work is limited due to time constraints (the class is on 60 min after all), and sometimes all there is to class is barre.Barre is important, perhaps the most important thing for the beginner student, but the habitual routine of plié-tendu-developpe at the barre shrinks one’s personal dancing space. Within weeks, the sense of space, the sense of freedom, the sense of flying through time deteriorates.

It happened to me. I unlearned moving in space. So yesterday, when the teacher showed her “little dance etude” as she called it, I stood watching with mouth open, in fear. All of a sudden, there was no structure; there was just legs and arms making shapes in space, moving across the floor, moving on the floor, whirling in space. The freedom was exhilarating. Moving in space is an entirely different thing.

But it is also a treacherous thing. The instructor encourages us to dance with feeling. What does she mean? What does it mean to dance with feeling? In ballet, movements do not have a predefined emotional structure (at least, in my opinion, but then again I’m no pro ballet dancer or dance critic).  What I’m trying to say (I guess…) is that an arabesque can be both and expression of grief and an expression of joy. It can be tragic or exuberant; the particular flavor is given to the movement by the choreographic context and the interpretation of the dancer. But an increasing trend in modern dance is to infuse everything with a sense of tragedy aka dancing out my broken heart.

If you’re brave enough to venture into the videojungle, you’ll find countless of examples of modern choreography that somehow involves grief, sorrow or loss. Not that this makes a choreography bad. Not  at all. It’s just that in a beginner class, it’s so easy to do the cliché without stopping to think: what does this piece truly mean to me?

Here are some modern/lyrical pieces set to popular songs

Almost Lover by A Fine Frenzy

Fragile by Delta Goodrem

I love the floorwork in this one…

A Life in Grand Allegro

For the past year or two I’ve been living in a constant state of what if. I aimed high all throughout my high school years, but my trajectory was wrong and I ended up landing somewhere where I did not plan to be. Luckily, about at the time that my trajectory started going wrong, ballet came into my life. First, it was something just to fill my college resume.

At a time when I feel like nothing is worth it, I am glad ballet is worth it. Every measure of music, every tendue, every grand battement are worth it.

Reading the blogs of more seasoned adult dancers, I have begun to dream of the possibility of having a life in dance. Not the professional kind, of course. My view of reality is not yet that distorted.

I feel like a part of me has been cheated in some way. I did want to dance all throughout my childhood, but for reasons related to me and for other reasons far out of my control, I was never able to. I know, I know. There are tragedies far worse than not being to dance as a child. I would have never made it in the professional world. And dance does not owe anything to anyone, least of all to someone like me.

Now that I’m nearing a kind of conclusion of my sheltered childhood, I look at the choices I have made. I’m fortunate enough to be able to go to college. That I am grateful for every day. Yet, I sometimes wonder if this is really what I want and not what other people think I should want. Every morning I drink my coffee while looking at pictures of stockbrokers ripping through their ever thinning hair. That same hair has yet to recover from the massive amount of ripping that took place in  October 2008. And I wonder if four, five years from now on, I’ll be sitting with the same blank expression at some cubicle counting hours before I can go and sit some more in front of a TV set.

Will I do a disservice to myself by making my life about dance? Sure, I will need to get a day job. Anything that will pay for a small apartment somewhere in a big city with good dance opportunities. Somewhere where I can sit at night and listen to the sounds of city, taking in the millions of lonely hearts running somewhere, to all the meaningless places. I don’t know. I feel like I need to apologise in advance to my parents, because I’ll never become the successful doctor/lawyer/[insert some high status paying profession here]. I want to have a simple job so that I pursue my dream, my crazy dream. I want to dance.

Maybe I should even drop out of college, and save  my family and myself from financial distress. Because, paraphrasing Mr. Jobs, you can’t connect the points looking forwards, you can only connect the points looking backwards. Yet for someone who has neither the vision nor the talent of Mr. Jobs, dropping out is not the safe way to go.

Yet the idea will not leave me alone. I feel like I have nothing to lose. A few weeks ago, I  saw the following quote by Merce Cunningham on a poster.

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.

In an era, where numbers – whether the GPA on your college transcript or the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers one has is the measure of a woman/man- will that moment of being alive be enough, I wonder.

An Instrument to Paint the Poetry of Music


Ballerina A. Danilova. (This image is in the public domain).

 Every ballet studio should hang this sign on its door: “Leave yourself here. Henceforth thou art an instrument of the poetry of music”.

The Beginner Ballet Class Drama, Act 1

We’re roughly half way into class. “Take a break, put the barres away,” the instructor says. While most dancers move to the front of the class, I feel fear slowly trickling into my stomach. This is a beginner class, this is a beginner class, I keep telling myself. It says BEGINNER on the freakin’ schedule. So I’m going to be fine. But I don’t feel fine. We start with a bourree on the diagonal and then a wide lunge in fourth. “Pirouette en dedans,” Monsiuer Ballet proclaims. Wham! I almost do a faceplant. Monsieur chooses to let me bear my shame in silence and looks away. The same thing again. I almost hit the floor. By this time, all I want to do is limp to the back of the studio and disappear quietly though the door.

I somehow make it to the side and plant myself on the window sill fighting tears. A few very nice people come and ask me if I’m okay. I lie. I say I feel dizzy, my head hurts, but what’s more hurt is my pride. After the reverence, I run through the door as fast as I can.

I spend the entire week debating whether I am ever going to ballet class again. Must go to ballet class, must go to ballet class, I repeat over and over and over, but the fear is already there. It’s a bit like falling off a horse and not getting back immediately. I fell off a horse during riding class once, and instead of getting on, I lay in the dirt and cried. And while I lay sobbing on the ground, a quiet silent fear sowed its seeds. It was the same, silent fear that took hold of me after the epic pirouette fail. I still went to class the following week, but after the barre I ran away. No more pirouettes, no more across the floor, no more almost falls and no more Monsieur Ballet gracefully looking away to avoid seeing my insulting incompetence.

The following week. It’s almost the I-have-to-start-packing-if –I-want-to-go-to-ballet-class-time, and I sit at my desk and stare outside. I look at the clock. I watch as the minute handle slides forward. I’m waiting for it to hit ten to twelve. Now, I’ve missed the train. I’m not going to class.  I spend the next week simmering in the stew of fear. “I’ll fall again.” “I won’t be able to get my leg higher than 45 degrees”.  “I look like a fat sausage stuffed into a leotard”.

Until, I realize.

Ballet is not about me.

It is not about  my personality, my dreams, hopes and achievements. True, I may have dreams, hopes, fears. True, when I go to sleep, for a moment I let myself imagine what it would be like to dance on the stage of Bolshoi or at the Lincoln Center, being beautiful, light, elegant.  True, I feel bitter about not having the chance to start ballet earlier.

But when I go to ballet class, I have to leave all of that at the door. Because ballet class is not about my fears, my hopes and my dreams. It’s about training me as an instrument of dance. An instrument to paint the poetry of music.

Not all instruments are made equal.  Schubert’s Serenade sounds different when played on a 50 000 $ Steinway & Son than on a cheap electric piano. And the electric piano will never be a Steinway & Son, no matter how hard it tries, how well it’s cleaned and polished.  But a dedicated pianist can make even the little plastic thing sound pretty decent.