Like a baby turtle discovering water after a slow crawl to the sea, I took to dance as the natural expressive state for living my life. I was ushered early into free-form movement at the light filled dance studio of Genevieve Jones, a brilliant teacher of modern dance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My mother enrolled me in the class when I was three years old.
Modern dance encourages an unstructured, natural way of moving and a comfort in living in one’s body, of being embodied. It also promotes the ability to venture into open space and out onto the studio floor, often without preconceived steps. (There was a lot of improvisation encouraged in those early classes.) Modern dance give practice in simultaneous “not-knowing” while being grounded and finding your footing. And by extension, it offers a joyous rehearsal of the ability to venture into the unknown world.
In thinking about this, I am reminded of two stories, one literary, one personal.When I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, I was taken by a scene where the young, cloistered Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) is terrified to walk across the open space of a courtyard. She becomes nauseous and dizzy when trying to go out onto the garden path, away from the shelter of the portico. Open space frightened her.
A year or so after reading The Mists of Avalon, I was asked to lead a creativity workshop for school social workers and counselors. After some group work, mainly talking, I asked them to walk across the room one at a time. Just walk across the studio where we were meeting, from one wall to the other. Not one of them would do it. They would not /could not leave the protection of the wall and walk out into that empty space. What was so natural for me was terrifying for them. I quickly amended the movement prompt and all the activities I had planned for that day. Not everyone has had the good fortune to be sent to modern dance class at the age of three
When I was five, I was asked by my dance teacher to portray a skunk in a production of Johnny Appleseed which the older dance students were performing for their year end concert.
Here is a photo of me in that skunk outfit, enormous tail of fluffy feathers, signaling a humorous and free spirited “skunk.” That was me at five.
Another aspect of that early dance training was a secure relationship to the ground. We spent a lot of time doing “floor work:” dancing while sitting, lying down, or rolling across the floor like water. Many years later I was privileged to take workshops with the brilliant voice teacher Richard Armstrong. We would often begin the class by rolling. Richard would demonstrate, slowly rolling his large body across the wooden floor, as graceful as an incoming wave. Secure on the floor and fluid as water. The goal, of course, was to continue that feeling when vertical: supple and fluid while being rooted in the ground, like a willow in the wind.
“Back and down,” is a phrase that I often use when describing my natural way of dancing. I never took classical ballet, which moves forward and up. I tried tap one time when I was an adult. I was an abysmal failure. Tap may not be as “up” in its direction as ballet, but it is not as “back and down” to the earth as modern dance. Ballet, tap, and forms of dance that tend to reach up and away from the earth were not for me.
But many decades later, while living on the island of Hawaii, I chanced to meet the famous singer and hula teacher Diana Aki. I happened upon her at the end of a class she was teaching at the art center on Kilauea Volcano. She gave me a very short, informal lesson in Hawaiian dance. It was a direct transmission in which she “put” hula into my body. At least, that is how I felt about it. And a few years later, in Volcano Village, I had one formal lesson with Kumu Hula, Uncle George Na’ope. These two master teachers transmitted some knowing to me, though I would never call myself a hula dancer. Hula is rooted in the earth and simultaneously flows like water. I understood it at some deep level.
At my core, I am a dancer. And though my art and my profession became speaking (acting, storytelling), the improvisational flow of language comes through a body that was taught early and well to move with grace and ease, to move freely while grounded, and not to be afraid to venture into unknown territory. Thank you Evelyn Ress, my wise mother, who took me to the dance studio on Wilkins Avenue. Thank you to Genevieve Jones, who led me on to the dance floor. And to all my teachers, deep gratitude. I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers, whose lessons in movement, acting, singing, and writing were also lessons in the awareness of the ecstasy of life lived as water and willow: Well rooted, Freely Flowing.