My Love Affair with Dance

Mainstream culture would most likely label my love affair with dance as unhealthy.  I have injuries and pain all along my left side, beginning with an old fracture to the wrist and ending with an even older fracture to the ankle.  Decades later, I have endured various pains, from a serious injury to my left thoracic region, radiating from my neck to my fingertips, not to mention bursitis in my hip and tendonitis in my ankle.  In short, dance has left its physical battle scars in and on my body, so much so that I have not been able to take many of the classes that I love in over a year and a half.  It has also had a serious emotional pull on me, causing inner strife, heartache, joy, fear and uttermost gratitude.  These mood swings are often, concurrent and thus far, lifelong.

In a normal relationship between two people, one would think I am being abused by this love of my life and that I should get out of it as soon as possible.  I have been told to “forget about,” “to reconsider,” and to “stop taking part” in this relationship altogether before I get hurt again.  What people do not understand is that cutting off my relationship with dance is like cutting off a limb.  Without dance, I am missing part of me, the real me; the part of me whose feet sing in footwork, whose arms shout when moving freely about in African class and whose soul flutters every time it creates those gems of movement phrases while nuzzling up inside the creative process.  Without dance, I am not Becky “B-Boogie” Bearse.  I don’t know what I am really as like I have stated before, dance lives in my veins.  Without it, I simply do not know how to exist in full.

Yes, one could state that this relationship is unhealthy.  But, those of us who have experienced this turbulent ride of an artist know that while the ride itself is bumpy, it is also bafflingly beautiful, rich and satisfying in ways indescribable to others.  Getting on the ride is also work that requires dedication, motivation and perseverance.  These three words may seem cliché, but all are so true.  Being a dancer who is skilled in diverse dance forms requires determination and sacrifices, as a dancer is usually in classes in the evenings and the weekends, when others are socializing.  And, most of the time, art classes, of whatever discipline, are in the evening, and thus artists tend to socialize with artists, or at least those with interests in this direction.  It is hard and oftentimes impossible to explain in words to friends and family what your art means to you, why you let it get into your thoughts twenty-four hours a day, and, in all, why it has this unhealthy pull on you.  However, it just does and one day, you have to give in to it or you will feel empty for the rest of your life.

I am not being dramatic.  I am not oversimplifying it.  I am simply stating the truth, after years battling with this foe, which has proven to be a much stronger fighter than I would have ever anticipated.  And, this time, I know the type of contender I am facing.  I know its strengths and its weaknesses.  I know that after thirty-four years of dancing, in ballet, tap, hip-hop, modern, Latin, African and breakdancing, amongst others, that while I have to give dance everything I have, it will in return reward me with everything it has as well.  I may experience pain, both physical and emotional, and this is where determination comes into play because being a dancer is hard work.  Hollywood, So You Think You Can Dance and ABDC, may present a glorious picture of the end result, but the elements that go into getting to that point are skimmed over.

A dancer must constantly refine, maintain and push her body and technique to new boundaries.  At thirty-seven, I still take classes in various dance forms, as I become bored within just one dance form, and feel that all forms really inform one another anyway.  Ballet informs modern, African and Latin complement one another and hip-hop and house, while different in their rhythmical structures, are great complements to one another.  In addition, when auditioning for work as a paid dancer, most choreographers want dancers with diverse technique.  Thus, you are more employable.

As a dancer, one also becomes prey to the insecurities of the dance world-weight, flexibility and age.  As a female dancer at thirty-seven, I should be dead.  Somehow, according to the rules that this world created before my time, my body should just shrivel up and turn into a pumpkin, never to be seen on the stage again.  I am the first to admit that, yes, my body often aches and hurts in places it never did while in my 20’s and early 30’s.  However, my body also never enjoyed and experienced movement the way it does now.  It never embraced the creative process the way it does now.   In all, it never felt the power of movement so strongly as it does now.

I also never understood the commitment to my body that was required to sustain it over the years.  I always ate somewhat healthy and was an avid gym fan.  But, I never focused on stability and core work the way I must now, to catch my body up to the images in my mind that I now create in the studio.  My sister, a Pilates teacher, recommended that I see her mentor, Lizz Roman, and since then, which was only a little over a month ago, my body feels so much stronger and aligned.  In all, the understanding I have now about my instability and the kinetic chain of injuries that this instability has sent up and down my left side, is no mystery and it is far from coincidental.  In fact, it makes perfect sense when you think about movement and how it flows through our bodies.  Whether walking, running or dancing, if we are unstable along one side of our body, someday some part of our bodies is going to revolt.

When I dance now, I use my core like I never did before, and like an engine, it powers the rest of my body with new strength.  This work, in addition to going to the gym, to keep up with my strength training and cardio, and dance classes, are the things I need to do to dance until I am eighty.  Of all artists, dancers cannot expect that our bodies will just maintain themselves without work, and not just the work we do in dance classes.  The constant stretching before our bodies are warm is not healthy.  It’s like pulling a rubber band after it is in the freezer.  We need to be gentle with our bodies and reward them for the gifts they give us every day for our bodies are our artwork.  They are the means with which we express ourselves.  This fact alone is why I do the things I now do.  And, I will be dancing when I am eighty.  I can guarantee that.

The Art of Dance Making

Choreographing is like spiritual dry heaving.  However, instead of just dry heaving, you also throw up and then clean it all up, make it look pretty and put it on stage.  In other words, your insides are on display for all to see.  Choreographing, just like dry heaving, or at least from what I can guess of it, is hard, exhausting work.  Anyone who tells you it’s not is lying.  This may sound harsh, but the art of creating true, powerful pieces out of nothing but your body is difficult.  However, it is also the most gratifying of experiences.  To be able to put one’s thoughts, desires, dreams and fears into movement is a gift, it is a treasure and it is a momentous process.  It is full of hyperboles as it is gut wrenching yet satisfying at the same time.  It is painful, yet it is rewarding.  In all, it is…well, it just is.

For those of you that have never choreographed a piece, all of the above may sound ludicrous.  But for those of you that have, and that have had the skill to produce an evening length show, I bow down to you.  I have never produced a professional piece longer than about six and a half minutes.  Once again, if you have never choreographed a piece, this length of time seems minute, even meaningless or worth a hearty laugh.  However, for those of you that understand this process that is the art of choreography, you will resonate with these words as you too know that six and a half minutes of choreography can be months, even years of painstaking work, filled with revisions, emotional breakdowns and phrases like, “Crap.  This sucks.  I suck.  Why am I even here in the first place?”  And then my radio station, which seems to be turned to Power F U 107 all the time, continues to tell me that I am not strong enough, not beautiful enough and just overall not good enough to be dancing anymore.  One might ask why I just don’t turn this horrible radio station off and continue on with my work, but it is harder than one would think.

Even after all these years, the process of dance making remains a complicated, and sometimes unsolvable, mystery to me.  It’s as if I go into this movement cave and draw dancing hieroglyphs in the studio with my body, each time hoping these will be the moves that stick.  Oftentimes, they don’t and there I am again, at the end of another two-hour session, with seemingly nothing accomplished except a few scribbles in my journal, some tears on my cheeks and another bill for studio time.  However, what I also now know is that these hours, these seemingly useless and self-destructive hours, where I berate my body, its aches, its pains and its age, are actually some of the most useful hours spent in the studio.

I am still grappling with the negative voices in my mind.  I think every artist must, as we are constantly pushing ourselves, comparing ourselves to the greats that paved the way for us.  When I think of the breadth and depth of the work as such inspirational heroes as Alvin Ailey, I temporarily become stymied, struggling in a quicksand of leaps, jumps and turns.  Eventually, I am able to find air in all this movement, which haunts me as I look at the mirror, judging my inferior turnout, stuck in the middle of the hip-hop, house and modern worlds.  Eventually though, the demons move offstage, waiting for my next session of self-doubt, and lead to inspiration.

Once I am able to tune these voices out, I am able to envelope myself fully in the dance making process, to trust it and to give myself to it.  This labor of love that is the process of dance making holds me and tells me everything is really going to be all right.  When I able to let go, I feel empowered, strong and complete; almost invincible in the face of movement and the blank canvas of the studio.  It might take a month for me to produce a few eight counts that I really love and can build other movement phrases off of.  However, it is worth it, as this love/hate relationship I have with movement keeps me whole.

By no means do I claim to be an expert at this craft.  I am constantly learning and thus always feel like a novice.  I am a choreographer though that knows that the creative process is what enables me to get to the loins of my piece, those that are buried deep inside and under the many levels of movement phrases I wade through and throw out.  How to access this treasure consistently is the challenge, and one that I continue to face every day.