Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.

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Thank You For Your Bad Behavior

Last Saturday I ran into R. at a party. We hadn’t seen one another in a while. And while she looked stunning at first glance, I intuitively knew something was wrong.

Her vibration was low. And she seemed less sparkly than usual.

She confessed she was in what I like to call a “come-here-go-away” relationship. She had become involved with someone who was not emotionally available.

I could only smile. Not for her pain. But because I know it so well.

For the past two months Mr. 700 Miles (Away from Chicago) and I had been doing the same thing. Until two weeks ago, when – without a word – he went away. No text. No phone call. No Facebook message. Nothing.

A part of me felt sideswiped.

We had just Skyped the night before, before bed, as had become our ritual – enjoying all that technology allowed us to enjoy about one another. We blew a kiss goodnight. He said he would call me the next day.

Intellectually, I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t.

With Jo, the night he walked away.  I told her he wouldn't call.  She told me to let it unfold.
With Jo, the night he walked away. I told her he wouldn’t call. She told me to just let it unfold.

And yet all that day and the next I felt twisty and anxious. Something inside of me knew otherwise.

I was right.

What I didn’t realize was we wouldn’t speak again.

I don’t exactly understand what happened. And yet, I do. Clearly, he couldn’t do it. And for whatever reason, he couldn’t tell me he couldn’t do it.

At first I felt sad. Confused. Then I got angry — chucking magazines across the apartment, their glossy pages smacking and fanning out on the hardwood floors, and shouting into the universe, “You F**king Pussy,” choking on my sobs.

I beat the bed with a red spatula – the one my friend Kristen brought me the day I moved into my apartment – whacking it until I was exhausted.

I wrote a letter in red marker – one I will never send. It wasn’t kind or generous or understanding. It didn’t speak of my gratitude for him in my life, or that my heart would always be open to his friendship – even though this too was true.

I didn’t write it to garner a response, or to guarantee he would remember me a certain way.   I wrote it so I didn’t have to hold the pain myself. So I didn’t have to pretend it didn’t hurt when it did.

It felt good. And hard. And when I was done, I wiped the Alice Cooper mascara rings from under my eyes and went to sit in a church basement with the people who taught me I didn’t ever have to drink again – not even during times like this.

I miss him. Our friendship. Our deep connection – emotional, spiritual, creative, sexual.

But I do not miss what I saw in my friend Saturday night. The twisting. The anxious. The uncertainty.

The holding on to what was, what could be, rather than what is. The hearing only what I want to hear – what fits my story.

The trying to wedge myself into a sexy stiletto of a relationship – the one that gives me blisters.

Dressed up for the party...no date necessary.
Dressed up for the party…no date necessary.

And as R. told her story, I felt gratitude. Gratitude for his “bad behavior.” In walking away without a word, he made the choice for me. A choice I had made a month prior, in a moment of strength and clarity, when I told him I couldn’t do this. That I needed more. A choice I ultimately could not stick to it.

It all reminds me of when my girlfriend A. divorced me a couple of years back. When she told me I was “too much.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” I said, rather than, “You are right. Please show me how to be strong like you” – which was, at the time, more my style.

At that moment our karmic contract was broken. We were done.

It has been more than four years since we had that conversation at her home in Long Beach. Over the years I have reached out just a handful of times. She never responded. And then I stopped trying.

I thought being told I was “too much,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And in the process, I learned that I wasn’t either.

I thought “being left without a word – abandoned,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And I learned that I wasn’t either. That that is an old adoptee fear. Old language. He simply chose a different path. And he chose not to tell me about it. It was never about me.

Perhaps that was our karmic contract. Or at least part of it.

R. left the party early. Perhaps to see her Mr. Come-Here-Go-Away. Perhaps to twist and perseverate.  I’m not certain.

But I stayed. I ate cake and talked with friends about the book proposal I am working on, the contract work I recently secured, and about dancing a master class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.   Anything but him. But us.

And on the way home, I thanked Mr. 700 Miles – for many, many things – among them, his “bad behavior.”

Rising Up Into Warrior

Drawings -- icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com
Drawings — icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com

When I was a child, my mother did yoga.

I have a vivid image of her in black tights and leotard, trotting off to our swim club – where lessons took place in the “party room,” in front of the fireplace.  She took a towel with her.  It was 1976.  There were no yoga mats.  She boasted that the teacher said she was doing well as she often fell asleep at the end, during Savasana – corpse pose.

I do not do yoga.

I have written about it before.  That I wear this like a badge of honor.  That I am the massage therapist who does not do yoga.  Who wears red lipstick, tailored clothing and heels.  Ever the contrarian.

Until last Thursday, at 6:30 a.m., when I am.

My friend Jeanette is to my left and a little bit forward, so I can watch her out of the corner of my eye.  She is tall to my short.  She knows what the poses are as they are called out.

I know many of them too.  It is untrue that I have never done yoga.  I have dabbled, and not liked it.

Sometimes because I wanted a more vigorous workout.  Sometimes because I felt intimidated.

Mostly, because it made me cry.

My last attempt at yoga was in Seattle.  One of my last efforts to bring my then-husband and I together.

He had found a studio on the top of Queen Anne Hill that he liked.  Small – with just enough room for six mats.  The students were fairly consistent each week, and none of them looked like “Western Yogis.”  Most came to heal a physical or emotional wound.  He liked the teacher.  And he thought I would too.

I did.

But every session I found myself on the verge of tears, wondering when class would end.

The poses were not terribly difficult.  But we held them for what seemed like forever.

I felt my chest rip open – my beating heart vulnerable and exposed.  Too much.  I told her that.  She said it was good.  Everyone said it was good.  That I needed more of it.

Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com
Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com

It did not feel good.  And while always one to push myself toward more growth, I did not feel like I needed more of it.

So it is a surprise to find myself here on the first day of spring, in the front row of a hot studio, not quite heated to Bikram temperatures, but more than warm.

I committed to it during a Weight Watchers meeting I was leading.  We were talking about accountability.  Partnering.  And stepping outside of our comfort zones.  Jeanette mentioned her class at Om on the Range.  I blurted out, “I will meet you there.”

It is snowing outside.  Big, fluffy flakes.  It is March 20 and the room smells like men’s body odor, which is different from women’s.

The room is darkish.  At times, even darker.  The music changes.  At moments verging on electronic dance.

We begin the session with a collective OM.  I feel the words resound in my ears and bounce off the walls around us.  I think of my synagogue in Seattle – the meditation congregation, Bet Alef.  Rabbi Olivier began each Friday night service with several collective ShalOMs.

The instructor’s name is Veronica.  I have shared my yoga trepidation with her before class, as I was the first to arrive.

She gets it.

The movements are faster, fluid — Vinyasa.  It feels better to me.  And I can mostly follow along.  Veronica makes adjustments to my body.  Uncurling my toes.  Instructing me to bring my feet closer together.  To lean into the edge of my foot for balance.

Warrior 2.  Yogaflavoredlife.com
Warrior 2. Yogaflavoredlife.com

My mat gets wet from sweat and I run a towel along it to keep from slipping.

And it all becomes too much.  Too hot.  Too fast.  Too challenging.

I am too open.

I drop into child’s pose and sob quietly.  Tears mixed with sweat.  Damn it.  My broken heart has seeped through the steely concentration of my mind and body.  And I allow myself to weep.

I stay in this position for what feels like a long time.  I remember Jeanette telling me about a man who lied on the floor with his legs on the wall for the entire hour.  I feel permission to do whatever it is that I have to do.  That I can stay in child’s pose for the entire session if I feel like it.

Veronica puts per fingers on my tailbone and gently pushes it towards my feet, curving down to the earth.  It feels good to be touched just a little.

But I do not stay in child’s pose for the whole session.  I rise up again, into Warrior.  Warrior II.  Warrior III.

We end class with a collective OM.  Jeanette high-fives me.  Veronica reminds me I have a week of unlimited classes.  I slip a schedule into my bag.  A calendar of possibilities.  A reminder.  I can do anything for an hour.  I will rise up again.

Artist Date 68: Power Cords

I have given my power away.

Valley, by Nilima Sheikh
Valley, by Nilima Sheikh

I feel vulnerable.  Ashamed.  I am “that woman,” wringing her hands about “that man.”

Disgusting.

I gave my power away when I said, “I can’t do this.”  Telling him I needed more.  And that he didn’t seem capable of giving it to me.  And did it anyway, becoming more and more deeply entwined in our long-distance intimacy.

I did it when I told him I could not Skype with him.  That it was too hard to look into his green eyes.  To see him look back at me in a way I can’t ever recall being seen.  And did it anyway.

I did it when I promised myself I wouldn’t reach out to him for 30 days.  Not as a game or a test.  But to find out how he shows up.  And reached out anyway.

I did it every time he mentioned bad timing, money or miles between us, and chose not to listen.  Only paying attention to the part where he changed his mind, usually about 10 minutes later, saying he did want to “find out about us.”

I made the rules and I couldn’t keep them.  Just like when I used to drink.  And it left me feeling the exact same way – anxious, obsess-y, over-thinking.  Knowing in my heart that something isn’t right, and trying to make it work anyway.  Somehow believing “this time will be different.”  Powerless.

***************

I am standing in my bedroom in front of a batik wall hanging of Ganesh — Hindu boy with an elephant head, Remover of Obstacles – like I do every morning.

I kick my meditation cushion to the side, put my hands in prayer, in front of my third eye, and inhale deeply.

“Lord Ganesh, give me back my power.”

I feel a surge through my body, a response, and am flooded with words of direction.

Ganesh batik in my bedroom.
Ganesh batik in my bedroom.

Carry Ganesh with you.  Visit India.  See Nilima Sheikh’s “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” at the Art Institute.  Artist Date 68.

***************

It is the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.  The train headed downtown is filled with drunk twenty-somethings in oversized green, foam hats, green socks and beads.  I put on my sunglasses and turn up Nina Simone and try to forget that he did not show up last night.

That he has not responded to my text.

That I am the one with the problem.

I get off several stops earlier than necessary and walk.  It is cool and sunny and I feel happy in my grey wool coat, knit hat and red ankle boots.  I make note of the galleries on Superior Street.  Future Artist Dates.  I feel my power growing.

***************

I step inside the Special Exhibit Gallery.  It is quiet.  Still behind glass doors.  I stand in front of a painted scroll titled “Valley.”  The canvas is green.  Lush and gentle.  A verdant map.  I begin to cry.

“That really affected you, huh?”

It is the museum guard –a woman named Denise.  She wears long braids gathered together.  I nod.  She says a few more things but I cannot take them in.  I am lost.  I politely tell her I need to be alone in my quiet.  She nods.  I feel my power growing.

I approach the canvas, “Farewell.”  Red, with two entwined figures – one holding open his robe, displaying a map of Kashmir where his heart should be.

Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh
Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh

“If only somehow you could have been mine.  What would not have been possible in the world?”  The words stenciled in gold at the top of the canvas.  “We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,” on the back.

I feel like I have been punched in the gut.

The tears return.  I am breathless.

I return to “Valley.”  “…And though the guards searched for him with the sun in one hand and the moon in the other the demon baffled them.”  Stenciled on the back.

He sought me.  I am baffled, wondering where he is now.  But knowing I must continue to seek myself.  I feel my power growing.

***************

I share a bench and a cup of tea with a couple in the member’s lounge.  We talk about shoes.  About art.  About recovery and vibrators and relationships.  They tell me I need a man who is here.  I know they are right.  I feel my power growing.

***************

In some ways I feel like I have been waiting all of my life for this man.  And I am “Dying Dreaming.” (The words, like all those in quotes, names of Sheikh’s canvases.)

But I also know that his life is still a “Construction Site,” while I am “Gathering Threads” — stringing together the people, places and pleasures that bring me joy, that make me whole.  Power cords.

(Not An) Artist Date 67: Mundanely Juicier

I woke up Monday morning to an email from my friend Clover, sent to her intimate circle.  A report on her day, her condition, her life in Chicago as she is about to bring new life into Chicago.

Juicy Mama-To-Be, Clover.
Juicy Mama-To-Be, Clover.

“It’s a beautiful Monday morning– 40 degrees and sunny…I am feeling good and I’m on my way to work…I am taking it very slow and easy…I feel ready to burst. She is rolling around in there this morning – hanging out on my bladder. No signs of labor yet.”

My heart swells and my head feels clear.  I am reminded of what is important in the world.

Tuesday.

“The snow is almost fully melted and it’s really starting to feel like Spring…I began to have some abdominal cramps. Not sure if these are the Braxton-Hicks contractions everyone speaks of, but I am feeling closer to labor everyday…

I am so tired, taking it slow and breathing lots. My body is doing such hard work!

…A new life on its way, the prospect of motherhood, the challenge of labor…”

The challenge of labor.  I am Clover’s doula.  (Greek for “servant.”) Her and Andy’s support and advocate during birth.

I have done this just once before, for my girlfriend Julie.  It was a gift.  A labor of love.  Something I never considered doing again.  Until a few months ago when the words tumbled out of my mouth and Clover and I embraced over a marble table at Julius Meinl, “sealing the deal.”

I pull out my pre-natal materials and make a stack of them on the floor, next to my bed.  Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn.  Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy.  A binder of handouts and lesson plans.  I too am getting ready.

“It is Wednesday and nearly everything here is covered in a fine dusting of snow…the trees look majestic. I love this little morning surprise beauty of winter…

Andy and I started the new remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which made me feel such awe and wonder at our world and our infinitesimal place in it. I feel asleep after 30 minutes, as I do these days…

I decided to stay home from work today and relax..I am hoping that the strong sense of waiting with subside, though I somehow doubt it will. At least I am waiting along with all of you.”

This morning, out Clover's window.
This morning, out Clover’s window.

I phone Clover and ask if she would like to wait together.  I had planned on writing.  Or an Artist Date.  Number 67.  But being alone with my friend for perhaps the last time for a while seems mundanely juicier.

I remember my last day with Julie before she birthed her son, Jaron.

We went to the gym where Julie mentioned she sometimes sees my junior high-school crush.  I felt excited and hopeful.  She told me I shouldn’t be.  That he never wiped his sweat off of the equipment.

After, we ate breakfast at Giorgio’s.  Julie was excited to have French Toast, but had no room for it.  Just 5’2” and carrying high, there was hardly any space between her ribcage and her baby.  We laughed at the injustice of it.

Back at her house I rubbed acupuncture points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine – to stimulate labor.

She delivered her baby the next afternoon.

We reminisce about this seemingly mundane day regularly.  I recall the joy I felt being able to touch my friend.  To see her so radiant.  To be useful.

I feel the same way about Clover.  I see her at the top of the stairs and I tear up, even though I saw her just five days ago.

She makes me a cup of tea and I pull one of her feet into my lap.  I sink my fingers into her swollen flesh, searching for bone.  The baby is moving about.

She tells me about a dream her husband had several years ago about their daughter, and calling her by name.  They had been on the fence about having children.  Andy’s disclosure became an opening in their willingness.

Clover is having a girl.  She has not told me her name.  I hear Annabelle in my head.  I do not tell her.  Like me, Clover has no poker face.

Waiting together...
Waiting together…

She asks me if I ever wanted to have children.

I tell her I never really knew.  That, for a long time, I never considered it.  Probably because I somehow knew I couldn’t stay sober for nine months.  Although I never acknowledged that to myself until many years had passed without my having a drink.

I tell her about J, who regularly told me he would marry me.  That we would have daughters.  That he held an image of me and our girls lighting Shabbat candles – which amused me as neither of us were particularly religious.

Kind of like Andy’s dream.  Except it didn’t happen.

She says at times, I have felt like a mother to her.  That I showed her how to mother herself.  I am humbled.

We talk about sex and love and fear.  We eat carrots and hummus standing over the sink because her ass has gone numb from sitting.  She hands me her hands and I rub them, pressing into the downward elevators.  We cry.

The next time I see her she will likely be in labor.  I will perhaps be holding her leg, telling her, “You can and you are,” my mantra during Julie’s labor.

And then we will welcome her daughter.

Artist Date 66: Risk It. Sell It. Consider It.

I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.

I had two.  One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss.  The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.

Before Class.  "I am here!"
Before Class. “I am here!”

I didn’t win.  But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.

I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.

I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows.  The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.

Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment.  I am in.

I am over the moon.

And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am.  But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck.  Please sit down.’ ”

I can live with that.

Inside I meet Kristen.  She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”

“To Dance.  No matter how badly.”  I scrawl.

Today I will get my opportunity.

There are about a dozen of us here.  I am the oldest by at least 15 years.   Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.

We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd.  He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties.  I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.

He moves quickly through the warm up.  Much more quickly than I am used to.  I breathe and do what I can.  So far so good.

He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture.  “Widen your legs.  Go lower now.  Keep your balance.  See.”  “Jut your hip first.  Muuuch more movement.  Excellent.”

He comes to me.  I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong.  I smile at him.

“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings.  I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes.  Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching.   My legs are shaking.  I struggle to balance.  “Good,” he says.

Before class begins.
Before class. One of the “significantly more trained” dancers.

The other dancers have had significantly more training than I.  It is clear.  Ballet.  Jazz.  Modern.  They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out.  And more importantly, they can execute them.  I am in over my head.  Kind of.  But I just keep moving.  Smiling.  Trying to mimic the other dancers.

I notice that I am not frustrated.  I am not angry.  I do not stop.

I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level.  I do not burst into tears.

I have done all of these things previously.

I am not jealous or envious.  I notice the beauty of the dancers.  Their bodies.  What they can do.

I am amazed by my response.

I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”

Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step.  Hips wagging.  I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!”  “Sell it!”

I am “selling it.”  And I know it.  Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes!  That’s it.”

But the final movement has me stymied.  Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump.  Or something like that.

I am not even close.

No one cares.  No one is watching me.   They are watching themselves.  I am free.

And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion.  Give me my momentum.  Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.

After class.  All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
After class. All smiles, with Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

“Yes, better.”

It is.  But I still don’t have it.

A couple more times across the floor and I might.  But it doesn’t matter.  I risked being “the worst.”  And by all accounts, I was.  But I don’t feel like it.  Not even close.  Just less trained.

Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different.  My pelvis is open.  Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open.  I like it.

It is the ballet, I am certain of it.  The one type of dance I never consider.

I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself.  I don’t even know what that is.  It is an excuse.

And I am out of excuses.

I consider it.

Artist Date 65: A Revelation

I just “shhh…d” the women next to me.

I feel like somebody’s cranky grandmother, but I can’t help myself.

From Revelations.  Photo: Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. From Revelations. Photo: Paul Kolnik

This is my religion.  The dancers and choreographers, my gods.  And it requires my complete attention.

It feels like blasphemy as I type the words, but it is true.  The stirring between my legs.  It rises up my spine like Kundalini energy uncoiling, to my heart – which leaps, and spreads as a flush across my chest and face.  What is usually reserved for sexual liaison – either alone or with a partner – comes to me in dance.  Really good dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is really good dance.

This is my seventh time seeing the company, which may sound like a lot –until compared to Sheila, who I met during the pre-performance cocktail reception.  She and her husband have seen Ailey every year since the company’s inception in 1958.  It is, perhaps, their religion too.

The first time I saw Ailey I was 24.  I watched, rapt.  My former lover — the sexiest man I had ever known – at my side.  We spent a month together.  Twenty-nine days more than I expected.  This was our only “real date.”

The second time I saw Ailey I was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse, although I didn’t know it at the time.  Following yet another month-long stint without drinking, an effort to prove myself “not alcoholic,” I conveniently forgot all the reasons I had put down the drink and picked it up again that night.

I saw the company three more times.  Each of them sober.  In Chicago.  Once, with my then-husband, the other two with girlfriends.

This is my first time seeing Ailey alone – Artist Date 65.

It feels significant.

Significant because I have treated myself to good seats.  Dress Circle.  Row AA.

I have learned I cannot watch dance from the cheap seats – looking down on it from up above.  I have to see it straight on.  As I do most things.

I’ve admittedly been spoiled.  Much like the first time I flew overseas, when the German Consulate paid for my Business Class ticket on Lufthansa.  It is hard to go back.

It is the same with men.

With my dance instructor, Idy.
With my dance instructor, Idy.

Significant because there is a cocktail reception before the show and I don’t drink, have a wing man, or a purpose for mingling other than “just because.”

Ever fiber in my body says arrive late, skip the schmooze and head straight for my seat.  But I resist.  I have been taught courage is not a lack of fear.  It is feeling it and moving forward anyway.  I am strangely curious to see what will happen.

I meet a gaggle of girls in their 30s.  They have never seen Ailey.

We talk about their work.  City politics.  Chicago neighborhoods.

We talk about my Artist Date.  My blog.   Boys.

I meet the “since-1958 Ailey fans,” and their daughter – a dancer.

I navigate the plush stairs and the too-small type on my ticket on my way to my seat.  My dance instructor calls out my name.  We embrace and all at once, Chicago feels like a town.  My sense of connectedness expands.

The theatre darkens.  The dancers emerge.

“Night Creature.”  From 1974.  I have seen it before.  Like “Revelations,” Ailey’s signature piece that closes every show.   I remember the polka-dot light patterns on the floor.

It is both familiar and fresh.  I feel the leap in my heart.  And a knot in my stomach.

The women to my left are whispering – non-stop.

I pray for patience.  For tolerance.  I pray they will stop.  Useless.  I turn and put my finger to my lips.  “Shhh.”  It is quiet.

At intermission, I feel a hand on my shoulder.  It is one of the women I “shhh-d.”  She offers apologies, which I quickly and easily accept.

Two Dancers -- Khara and I.
Two Dancers — Khara and I.

“Do you dance?” she asks.

I tell her I do.  She says that she used to, and everything melts between us.  We are connected.  We are the same.

Until she tells me about her dance history.

Although not a dance major, she danced seven days a week as an undergraduate student at Washington University, filling her free hours with courses in ballet, modern, and jazz.  I reflect on my four years at Michigan State University – smoking pot and drinking with the big boys.

I do not feel like a dancer.

My five-plus years in West African dance classes – beginning at the age of 39 – feel small in comparison.  Amateurish.  Perhaps they are.

I ask her to take a picture with me for my blog.  “Two dancers,” she announces, as if reading my mind.

I choose to believe her.  To allow my status to be independent of her experience.  Of Sheila’s.

It is a “Revelation.”