This past January, I received some of the worst news I’ve received in my life: my 19 year old niece had committed suicide. Being a continent away from my brother and his family with little that I could do for them immediately, I did what I was supposed to do that morning—I went to the ballet class I had just begun a week before, and I danced.
To some this may seem odd and to others it may make perfect sense. For me, it was a visceral reaction. I needed to honor Madison’s beautiful life, and the best way for me to do this was do what has brought the most meaning to my life—to dance.
There is comfort in the repetitive structure of a ballet barre for someone that’s been doing it a long, long time. I could find safe harbor for an hour in the plies, tendus, and battements that I had done thousands of times before. Maddy would never dance again, but I could and so I did, for her. In a way, I could finally feel in my own body what Ezra Dickinson had told me about his motivation for making Mother for you I made this last spring. He said that while he can’t directly help his mother who lives with schizophrenia, he can create work for her. Dance can be a vehicle for expressing complex emotions that need to be shared.
While movement may be expressive for both the choreographer and the dancer, it’s downright physical and that also keeps me coming back. I’m admittedly a movement junkie—dancing, biking, running, walking, tennis, etc.—I love and do it all. After a hiatus to play high school sports, I returned to dance by happenstance as a sophomore in college. I had spent way too much time on my butt studying freshman year. Enrollment in an entry-level class called “Understanding Dance” led to more advanced classes in modern, ballet and choreography and dancing with my college’s troupe, the Holy Cross Dancers, then under the direction of Rhode Island choreographer Paula Hunter.
After completing a master’s degree in dance history and a critical decision not to pursue a performing career in part due to Type 1 diabetes (the competition was also fierce), my dancing became sporadic, but the love never died. And so, after an article ran in The New York Times about where women of a certain age take dance class, I found myself as the “oldest teen” taking modern at a studio on Long Island and ironically performing with a very fun, welcoming group of high school kids at the end of the year. In dance, I always manage to find community, too.
Fast-forward through another master’s program (more sitting on my butt) and relocation to Seattle. One of the first things I did when I got here was enroll in the technique portion of Velocity’s Strictly Seattle summer intensive. I was mentally, if not physically, ready to dance again and had the great fortune of taking modern class with Amy O’Neal. Not only was she great to study with, but she would also become the first Seattle choreographer I would write about for the now defunct Post-Intelligencer. As a dance writer, my passion has finally became an important piece of my work.
In closing, dancing for me can also be about pure joy. This can mean chasse-ing across the studio while imagining myself as a peasant from the opening act of Giselle, as I get to do in ballet class once a week. It’s also meant performing in a contemporary piece at another Seattle summer intensive in 2009, where the audience was rooting on a group of super-heroic women by the end.
In sickness and in health and as long as I can, I will dance.
Leslie holds a master’s degree in dance history from the University of California-Riverside. She has contributed to Dance and Dance Teacher, as well as City Arts and other Seattle publications.
Feature photo: Amy O’Neal’s class at Velocity’s Strictly Seattle 2010 by Jennifer Richards