I sat with closed eyes in a room full of women. A Women’s Seder. My mother sat at my left. My sister next to her. There must have been thirty tables like ours, filling the large square room transformed by billowing white clouds of swag hanging from the walls and ceiling.
Our rabbi spoke of Miriam leading people to water. Then she posed a question: Who was your Miriam, who inspired you? My brain ticked through its catalogue and I waited for it to find something. My mother seemed too obvious. My grandmothers. My mother-in-law. Each had given me plenty to rise to. But nothing specific came to mind.
Then, my spinning brain stopped suddenly on an image. The memory rose against my will, unbidden and unexpected from twenty-five years before.
I am 16, spending my summer at Northwestern University’s National High School Insititute (otherwise known as “Cherubs”), enrolled in the Theatre and Dance concentration.
It is a sweltering midwestern summer, and I am a California kid. I resent Lake Michigan, its tiny waves and faux beach, its unsatisfying impersonation of an ocean. I have been here four weeks, two more to go. It’s the longest I’ve been away from home. I am exhausted. I am ecstatic. I think I am dying.
It is my best summer ever.
Our first night, in the lounge of Allison Hall, teenage energy filling the leather couches and covering the floor, we are welcomed with the words that would become our motto: “Dare to fail gloriously.” The idea dazzles me. Don’t play it safe. Take chances. Be bold.
We dance seven hours every day. I wake in the middle of the night with burning muscle spasms in my calves. We take the EL to see Chicago theatre. We are young. We breathe art. We are FAME.
In the specific memory that my mind conjured a lifetime later, I am in the rehearsal studio with my fellow dancers. We have been dancing in the liquid heat for five hours. The sun melts through the high windows, burning parallelograms of hot light onto the wooden floor. I wipe sweat from my forehead, fix my ponytail and look at my reflection. I am one of twelve girls in black leotards, black leggings and bare feet. Our choreographer, a lanky tall man with brown hair who reminds me of the Talking Heads lead singer, stops the music. He isn’t satisfied with what he saw. His choreography calls for us to lean our bodies far over to one side. What he saw was noncommittal, timid leaning. He searches for inspiration to get more out of us.
We watch him, waiting for him to continue, when I see something in his face shift. His eyes widen, he reaches his arms out, opens his mouth and exclaims, “I want you to go as far as you can. I want you to fall! Yes, fall! Go as far you can go, then go further. FALL!!”
We look around at each other. The princess ballerina from Binghamton who can tell when a single hair loosens from her bun and sticks to the sweat on her back. The friendly jazz dancer from Tarzana who can nail triple turns like I never could. The earthy modern dancer from Michigan, who is the best of us all but would never admit it. We look at each other in the wake of his instruction. No dance teacher had ever spoken to us like this before. Fall? On our asses? Is he kidding?
In front of us, he is jumping for joy. He is serious. He cues the music and we begin. Girls sweeping across the room. Girls traveling through syncopation. Then—here it comes—girls falling all over the floor.
“Yes! Yes!” he screams, jumping around with pride as we pull ourselves up, dust off our legs. “You’ve got it now!”
That was my Miriam moment, waiting all these years to bubble up from the murk of my sixteenth summer. A voice that urged, Give it everything. Don’t hold back. It’s okay to fall.
At the end of that summer, we each received a book signed by each teacher. Mine still sits on my bookshelf, above the photo albums documenting my life since—college, law school, marriage, parenthood. I know by heart what this choreographer wrote in mine: “Your artistry shone brightly here. Don’t ever hide it.”
A compliment of the highest order, it was so much pressure to bear. Even then, I didn’t know if I’d live up to his wish for me. My wish for myself—stage, lights—an uncommon life of art.
Twenty-five years later, the assessment: I don’t measure up. All these years gone, and mostly I feel common. Beset by ordinary, mundane worries. I hide my artistry all the time.
It’s not easy to live up to the idealistic dreams of our 16-year-old selves. Thank goodness with maturity comes forgiveness, and a realization: artistry can be redefined. It need not be the dream of dancing on Broadway. It can morph, to the drive to express these memories in words, shared with you right now.
And what if the artistry is compassion? Kindness? Gratitude? For this perfect day. This warm coffee. This delicious sandwich. This breezy sky. This fevered child in feet-pajamas and hair shooting out in all directions teaching me about the Apatosaurus. What if the artistry is simply to shine our love brightly, to help another person find their unique light.
I may never achieve my 16-year-old self’s dreams. But my teacher’s words, the feeling of that moment, are seared in me, a touchstone to hold. An aspiration to strive for, a philosophy to model: Find your light, take chances. You might fall. But you might soar. No, not might. You will soar. In the daring act of trying, you will shine.
P.S. That choreographer’s name is Lynn Brown, and he is still dancing and choreographing in New York City. His company’s name? FreeFall.