Following is an version of a story I started writing last autumn, as part of my 'book to be' Into the Light. It is still in draft form, but I keep thinking that I would like to share it with you. After months of challenging health I am re-focusing on carving out small fragments of creative time in my day, so maybe now is the time to share this little thought with you.
with every best wish
There’s always been a dancer in Corina
Look up that ramp,
behind the birds,
through the bedroom window,
past the wheelchair,
over the illness,
into the art,
at the woman.
Look at the dancer.
A poem by a friend of mine. It came to her during a meditation-led creative workshop in 2006. It hangs, framed, in my studio above a print of Degas’s Dancers.
‘There's always been a dancer in Corina.’
True. Dancing has been one of my desires. It was when every single day I passed by a ballet studio on my way to primary school. I so much wanted to be a dancer.
During those childhood years there was a Saturday night variety show on TV. My favourite part was the group of eight dancers. I wanted to grow up as being one of them. I didn't. And even when I could decide for myself to attend dance classes, I never did. The closest I came to dancing was attending jazz-gymnastics, and of course at the Saturday night disco!
Looking closely at my desire to dance at the present moment makes me realize I possibly have been restricting movement in my body for years. Much longer than from the onset of illness. I possibly became unsure of grace – of freedom – of trusting my body - of being who I meant to be and grew into someone others wanted me to be.
Now I am very slowly re-learning, re-imagining, and trusting, who I am. A dancer. ‘Look up that ramp - behind the birds, through the bedroom window - past the wheelchair - over the illness - into the art - at the woman.’
I am ready to dance, and ready for change. Kalichi wrote in his book Dance, Words & Soul, that “he is still unashamedly radical in his believe that dance, re–imagined, can act as a force for change.” But first I have to go back to basics.
During the first few years of illness I became severely restricted in my movements. Every single action: walking, eating, brushing my teeth, having a shower, turning around in bed was at times so painful that I moved as little as possible. I did get out of bed every day and worked some routine in my day – but looking back I restricted movement to a bare minimum. The words "movement is life", uttered by a dietician/homeopath who supported me during those early years, still rings in my ears. Movement is life.
Recently I have started to break down the very act of dancing, of movements into the smallest components. Breathing creates movement. Movement can be seen as dance. Writer of Living Well with Pain and Illness, Vidyamala Burch suggests that: “Motion is natural to the body and its systems. Even the bone cells are in a constant state of movement as they replenish themselves.” So, inside I am dancing.
The realization of the importance of the breath has been with me for a long time, but as for dance, I looked outside of myself.
Observing nature, I witness the dance of leaves and petals on the flowers in my garden. The tree in front of my study is dancing with the wind as I write. Much lower to the ground, a poppy sways gently on its delicate stem. Resting by Annamakerrig Lake, I watched water-striders dancing on the surface. The intertwining circles they created on the water were of a beautiful choreography. What about the autumnal leaves swirling on the road, or a group of starlings in the sky, shifting direction at the same time? Or the gentle bee hovering, dancing above a flower in search of nectar.
Dance is everywhere.
This thought is of course nothing new to humanity. I came across a delightful passage in The garden of Contentment by Aleanor Mordaunt, written in 1913.
Oh beautiful, beautiful life! beautiful wind and clouds and trees! they make a Pantheon of me, and I prayed them to take me to themselves and make me one of their wild, sweet fraternity, to teach me their secrets and joys, and their almost sweet sorrows; if only I might move as the wind moves, sing along as the trees sing, bend and quiver as the flowers do, and feel the sap of life stirring swiftly and strongly through me!’
One of the beauties of living with illness is that I have time to observe the minutest detail in nature. Kathleen Madge had an eye for the dance in nature too. In The World of Living Green published in 1947, she writes: “almost every plant has its own dance, continually moving, both in leaf, shoot, and flower – a dance so slow that we hurrying human being do not perceive it. There is a rhythmic dance of the flowers as they open in the morning and close at dusk…"
The time has come to look at my own dance, not just of that in nature.
During my residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig I was invited to visit the dance studio. When I made my way up there, the person who had invited me was not there. Walking through the door I was faced by a full wall of mirrors.
Unsettled by my reflection, I turned around, sat down, and observed the beautiful views from the large windows: the greenhouse, Annaghmakerrig House, fields, and trees. Lots of trees. A robin landed on the wall in front of me. A playful dog ran back and forth (danced?) along the patio, his owner not to be seen. Listening to a reversing tractor making a sound like a musical instrument, I decided it was time to look around and face the dance studio mirrors.
I walked, slowly. Stood still, two canes holding me upright. When I moved the canes behind my back I looked pretty normal. I could be that dancer. But looking with intend into my face, brought sadness.
Here was the reality: I am disabled. Rely on canes to walk. Can only stand steadily for a few minutes. Away from mirrors I generally do not see my life to be so much different from the ‘healthy’.
I needed to trust my body, trust I can dance. In my own way.
As a result of this encounter, the puppets I was working on which were to represent dancers, changed from two healthy dancers to one disabled dancer seeing her healthy reflection in the mirror.
In art I can be who I want to be. In art I have danced. The artist Matisse, when no longer able to move freely, created art that moved for him: Through artistic projection, he was up leaping and swirling with the dancing paper forms he had displayed throughout his house. As his mind was free, he was no longer confined to a chair or his bed. He danced.
Through reading, learning, observing and exploring, I now come to the conviction that the breath can be seen the subtlest form of dance. This way, we can all dance, no matter what our physical state may be. Even when I was more or less bedbound, or in constant pain, the core of my body was dancing. “Let the body be free and open as it’s rocked and cradled by the breath- still, yet continually moving,” as Vidyamala Burch suggests. If we listen and feel with all our mind and heart, we dance.
I look at my lazy (or is it relaxed?) cat, lying on his back on my bed, completely stretched out. His belly rises and falls so gently. His breath seems to fill his whole body. Kalichi also observing the cat brought my observation closer to the point of my quest: to dance, to truly feel the movement in my body. “Stretching like a cat. Imagining a cat resting, relaxed, yet attentive. This teaches you the first act of stretching – presence. In one smooth continuum, the cat lengthens its spine, stretches out through its paws and yawns deeply.” Back to us humans: “Stretching and breathing. One movement at the time”. And in the process, unblocking my stored, hidden and blocked energy, to grow, to stretch and dance.
Bonnie Klein, a Canadian documentary maker who suffered a stroke was told by L.A. dancer Emilie Conrad that “movement isn't something we do, it something we are.” Again, movement and dance are brought back to the breath, and with that the mystery, the seemingly unattainable goal to dance, has been lifted. Klein describes her dance session in her book Slow Dance:
“We concentrated on my breath. [Emilie Conrad Da’oud] asked me to pay attention to any natural movement that occurred, even a twinge in a finger or a jerk in my thigh, and to exaggerated and follow it through. In a short amount of time I was moving my limbs in unaccustomed ways, swaying and writhing in all directions in movements which Emilie called ‘primal’, because they imitate the evolution of the species and each individual. There were no formal directions, just the natural movement of my body, directed from the inside out. There was no right or wrong, not even a better or worse.”
Bonnie Klein said after the experience: “I was a dancer too! I could play as well as work with my body; I could have fun, pleasure, beautiful music. I could take control of my healing: no therapist knew my body as well as to as I did.
It all seems so simple. Maybe it is that simple.
To start my dance, I started to learn the practice of Tai Chi last autumn. Once a week I went to a class, and although I've mostly observed the teacher and other participants, I was drinking in the movements. I so appreciate the grace of movements. The pace of movements is something I can cope with. I stand up to do the warm up exercises and movements when I can. Most I do sitting down. Focusing more and more on my breath, how my body feels and concentrating on every subtle movement my body is making, I am aware of subtle changes in my body. Kalichi, who at the time of writing Dance, Words & Soul, had been teaching Tai Chi for 25 years, says “Tai Chi is a slow and continuous movement – one movement leading gracefully into another.” I can feel the grace.
While fast-forwarding a Tai Chi video to the part with the exercises I could do sitting down, I watched the 108 moves made by the practitioner. Her movements resembled a beautiful dance.
With my mobility becoming more restrictive again due to (yet unexplained) deterioration in my health, I started following the online Mindfulness for Health course, given by Vidyamala Burch and her company Breathworks. Focusing on the importance of the breath and the subtle movements I can feel in my body are of great benefit for my overall wellbeing...
I too am dancing.
‘Look at the dancer…’