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.
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.
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.
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.