Artist Date 76: The Lines Un-Blurred

In 7th grade I kept an oversized scrapbook on the top shelf of my closet, the same place I kept a bag with all of my “important papers” – report cards from every grade, drawings I had made for my mother, my adoption paperwork.

Baryshnikov -- Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.
Baryshnikov — Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.

The scrapbook was a gift my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah that I co-opted.  The pages a mismatched collection of images and daydreams affixed with Scotch tape.  The musings and considerations of a not-quite woman beginning to define herself.

Pictures of Miss Piggy.  An interest I borrowed from my cousin Wendy Schechter and her obsession with all things pig.  A review of the book, I, Me, Mine by George Harrison – clipped from the Detroit Free Press.  An homage to my best friend Nicole, who had recently introduced me to John, Paul, George and Ringo.  An attempt to blur the lines between us, like we did with our matching Tretorn sneakers and Bermuda Bags.

But some of it was purely mine.  A coin that my mad crush Kenny picked up off of the floor and handed to me, marked “Lucky penny from Kenny.”  A newspaper photograph of Mikhail Baryshnikov.  All muscle and tights.  Breathtaking.

Neither a pig nor a Preppy Handbook has crossed my threshold in more than 30 years.  I do still see Kenny on occasion.  And while he has been married to the same man for more than 25 years, I still have a crush on him – a source of joy and amusement for us both.

And last Sunday I saw Baryshnikov for the first time – Artist Date 76.

I receive a text from my friend Stephanie on Friday, asking if I have $50 and want to see Baryshnikov.  Oddly, I hesitate.  It will mean missing dance class.  Irony.  I mention this to my friend Pam, who responds, “Are you crazy?”  She has a point.  This is an icon.  A legend.  Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend on Sex and the City.

I text back with a definitive “Yes.”

Intellectually I understand this is once again NOT an Artist Date as I am not venturing alone.  (I am, however, getting better at breaking the rules.)

But it does fill the criteria of filling my creative coffers.  And, perhaps more significant, it reminds me of the juicy, sexy, charmed life I lead.  The one I am beginning to reclaim – and by that I mean once again notice – now that there is little distraction in the boy department.

But this evening I am distracted.  I Google Baryshnikov.  He is 66.  And stands 5’6.”

Does he still dance, I wonder, recalling the email I received earlier in the week from Hubbard Street Dance.   The subject line “Guess Who Dropped In?” with a photograph of him smiling, observing rehearsals.

I have no idea.

In fact, I don’t actually know where I am going or exactly what I am seeing – I didn’t ask – just that I am going and that I will see him.

Baryshnikov -- now.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Baryshnikov — now. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

And I do.  And he does…dance, that is.  Just not as I imagined.

His slippers traded for jazz shoes, his tights for pleated trousers.  His dance, a part of the story but not the story.  The story.  Two actually.  Adapted from the writings of Anton Chekhov and performed as Man in a Case at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

He glides across the floor softly, alone – his arms holding the lover in his mind, in his heart.  Jazz on the radio, his guests dozing after dinner.  It feels spontaneous – but of course isn’t – like my mother and I swing dancing on the kitchen linoleum.

My heart leaps.

So convincing in his roles, I have forgotten who he is.

But now I remember, and his every movement is a dance.  The gesture of his hand.  The roll of his hips.  His torso leaning forward and back, flirting but never touching.  Sexy.

When it is over, I join the throngs from my fifth row seat, rising in applause.  My eyes wet.  Looking to him as if I might catch his glance when the lights go up.

I do not.

I do not tell Stephanie about it — my folly, my fantasy — either.  Or about my scrapbook.  Baryshnikov, the pigs or the penny.

I hold them to myself instead – the lines un-blurred.  Mine alone, still.

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 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.