A New Year’s Mash-up: Noticing and The Joy of Dance and Being Among Dancers

I received a beautiful e-mail from my cousin today inspired by the Jewish New Year. My young cousin is brilliant and wise, and if she lets me, I’ll share the whole thing with you later, but for now I was thinking about one thing she wrote about:

Noticing. Noticing new things in the relationships and experiences we have.

I go to dance class most Sundays. Today I noticed something that has been there all along, something that was ignited in the first ballet class my mother signed me up for at three years old, something that at times was lost amidst the despair of not being good enough, but that pumps through my veins and sings in my soul now that I’m old enough not to care about that.

In dance class today, I noticed the keen and pure satisfaction of being in a room of people who feel joy from moving to music in unity, from hitting the correct lines at the right time. I felt the centered-ness of being in a room with pumping music and a room’s-length mirror and that particular kind of wood floor, from feeling I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt the camaraderie of being with people who get that the world can be held in counts of 8. 

There is an unspoken understanding among people who share the remembered pride of earning pointe shoes, in which blisters, calluses and bloody toes were badges of honor. Who, with the same grit and drive ascribed to Friday Night Lights footballers, were teenage ballet warriors wrapping their toes in white tape, stuffed lambs’ wool or (if you were in the know) torn brown paper bags, who wedged their feet into pink satin wrapped wooden boxes. Who wound the ribbons that we had sewn on ourselves around our ankles, and became ballerinas for the next hour and a half.

Dancers share a language, not only of words but of physicality. Of “5, 6, 7, 8″ and “from the top.” Of first position through fifth. Of front, side, back, side, first on the right, then on the left. It is order. It is symmetry.

Some of the joy I feel in dance now comes from a beautiful nostalgia, connecting over time with my younger self. My body’s muscle memory connects today with every dance class and rehearsal I’ve ever had, lying on the floor, stretching right leg toward the wall, left leg extended above me trying to reach my nose. There are things that my body will not forget, even as my mind increasingly vexes me by failing to remember to pick up the laundry, or make a dentist appointment, or ask someone about their ailing mother.

There is joy and comfort in striking the same position as when I was 14, striving for the same goal: a better stretch than last time. I feel the same piercing good hurt at the back of my thigh. I feel the same sweat on my arms, pulling that leg closer to my face, closer, closer, never close enough.

Ballet was my love, but it was obvious I was not destined to be a ballerina. I switched to Jazz because the girls and teachers were nicer. There was less looking at how high the other girls’ legs could lift, how many more turns they could do, how extreme their turnout, how gorgeously defined their arched pointed foot.

When I let go the idea of ever being the best, dance became mine, simply for joy.

In a dance class of adults we are all their for joy: music blasting, a teacher inspiring and teasing; and fellow students who are still striving and stretching; still arching and flattening our backs, still lowering our shoulders and elongating our necks, rolling our hips, spotting and turning, and counting and messing up and practicing and living and trying it again, trying to get it just a little better the next time, and – maybe —  nailing it before times up.

Before we leave, “Genuflect,” our teacher says. “Thank your neighbor for a good class.” We all curtsy, like the prima ballerinas we once dreamed we would be, and for that moment we are. We were not perfect today, not close. We made our mistakes and we kept dancing. We laughed them off and helped each other when we forgot the steps. We pushed ourselves harder than we would have if we were dancing alone. We carried each other.

Wishing you these things this year: being with people who understand and appreciate you without explanation or pretense; joy and health and striving; doing a little of what you love.

“Biggest Massive Most Joyous Fiercest Action the World Has Ever Known”

Vaginas of the World Unite.

I thought that might grab your attention.

The quotation in the title is from Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues. From that play evolved V-Day, a campaign to end violence against women, celebrated every February 14th for the past 15 years.

One Billion Rising

One Billion Rising happens in one week, February 14, 2013, to honor the 15th anniversary of V-Day, and to put an end to violence against women.

The plan? Get together and dance your booty off, and pledge one thing you’ll do in the next year to bring about this change.

Why dance? Eve Ensler explains in a video posted today, that women don’t move freely or wear what we want, in order not to attract attention, to prevent attack. You don’t have to think Burkas, or even long skirts, long sleeves and wigs. Just think “She was asking for it.” So dancing freely can release us from that invisible, ever-present imprisonment and unleash energy and creativity to change the world. Plus, it’s fun!

An epidemic? One in three. One billion women worldwide are victims of violence. To victims, it may feel like it is just happening to you. One slap. One beating. One belt. But back up, take a broader look: genital mutilation, Irish Magdelene laundries, Afghan schoolgirls, the universal fear of walking alone that is instilled in us, whether gathering firewood at a refugee camp, or in any neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. “Don’t walk alone,” my mother cautioned. Imagine: what would it be like to not be afraid?

The question of why women haven’t revolted is a complicated discussion for lengthy books, not a quick blog. For now, we have an opportunity to make our voices heard together.

Here in L.A., on Valentine’s Day, you can dance downtown at Pershing Square at noon, or join a Debbie Allen-choreographed flash mob in West Hollywood at night.

Break the Chain Dance

You can donate to small but mighty non-profits that work with local victims of violence, like A Window Between Worlds, founded by Cathy Salser. Or you can help refugee women and children by taking action with Jewish World Watch, or donate to the Women’s Refugee Commission, in memory of co-founder Catherine O’Neill.

You can join or create a rising wherever you are. Meet people. Have fun. Or you can simply turn on the car radio while waiting in the school carpool line and dance in your seat.

Now for that pledge. The hard part. The work part. The part that makes you think, I’m just one person, what can I do? Remember, Everyone in the history of the world has only been one person. So start.

I pledge:

  • To teach my children respect for themselves and for others. For their own bodies and others.
  • To ask them why car and beer commercials use women’s bodies to sell their products, and ask if that’s respectful to women.
  • Not to allow violence (particularly the brother against brother variety) in our home.
  • To love them.
  • To dance freely, but never in a public setting that would really embarrass them on purpose (again).

What else?

It still doesn’t feel like enough. Fortunately, I know I am not alone. I am one of One Billion. And so are you.

Tell me your ideas. I’m listening. I pledge to share them.

rosie-the-riveter

Break(dancing) with Tradition.

It’s the good time of year. I always forget about the finer attributes of this season when I’m in the throes of summer, barefoot and carefree, no homework to supervise or lunchboxes to pack. Maybe it’s just the human survival instinct to be partial to the present, whenever it is. But this is the time of family holidays, connecting the dots of Autumn to Winter, and there is much to revel in.

As soon as the Halloween candy was counted, sorted, traded and consumed, my five-year-old announced, “I hate Thanksgiving.” I looked at him, considering the source of his proclamation. I concluded it has mostly to do with the food: no one offers him “turkey pizza” or “maca-turkey-roni and cheese.” And, he wanted to know, who ruins a pie by filling it with pumpkin?

“What about being together with family?” I asked him. He barely registered a grunt to accompany a gargantuan eyeroll.

Hate it as much as he wants, Thanksgiving still came. And that’s fine by me. I have always loved Thanksgiving. (It helps that I never host it.) That honor still falls to my parents, who make room every year for up to fifty relatives. From Minnesota, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Tarzana (and the occasional cameo from New Jersey and New York), we meet in Los Angeles to sing folk songs and argue politics.

Yes, folks songs and politics. Besides Aunt Barbara’s cranberry apple crumb casserole (to die for), it is what makes my family’s Thanksgiving . . . well, my family’s Thanksgiving.

Things didn’t go as expected this year. Traditions fell by the wayside. Normally, at dinner my mother makes a political speech, drawing cheers from the Democrats and silence from the Republicans. My mother does not realize her speech is an annual rite of our Thanksgiving meal. It’s just what comes out of her mouth, a reflex. I guess that’s the genesis of traditions: they express who we are so deeply, that we can’t help but repeat them.

But things were different this year. Our guitar-strumming song leaders were home in San Francisco, laid out by the flu. No singing! Not one to adapt well to change, I was bereft. It must have been a welcome break to others, because my cousin Mitch from Orange County stepped right into the void, busting out poker chips and cards and instructing the children when to hold, when to fold.

Almost as disconcerting to my sense of order, there was no political speech by my mom! Just a generic “Welcome everyone, and enjoy the food!” How could this be? I was cast adrift. No folk songs, no arguing politics? What was left but to eat dessert?

The family room was crowded with cousins saturated with pies and cakes—boysenberry, pumpkin, apple, chocolate babka and amaretto. A smallish dent had been made in the fruit salad, by those of us wishing to balance the scales of guilty pleasures. The twenty-ninth football game of the day played on the big screen television—“Is this the same game that was on nine hours ago?” my mother asked my father.

Then it happened. One of the kids said, “Let’s play ‘So You Think You Can Dance!’” It’s our newest game at home, where my husband and I have been inculcating our “dance-is-for-girls” sons into the cult of a dance competition television show. The game is simple: turn on some music, dance a silly solo, and the panel of “judges” declares, “You’ve made the Top Twenty!” and the dancer goes wild.

There in the family room, with the big-screen football game as backdrop, the dancing began. We picked the most likely to break the ice and began to chant his name, “Christopher! Christopher!” After a few moments, he stood up, took his place on the floor, and Thanksgiving will never be the same.

Within seconds everyone was laughing as he leaped, stretched, and grabbed his body a la Michael Jackson. Immediately after him came my father, who has for years maintained that he is a natural born tap dancer and ballerina. His performance demonstrated that passion for sports and love of dance are not exclusive qualities. Over the course of the next hour, our five-year-old son danced several solos, our eight-year-old son (still with a broken foot) spun on the floor in his version of break-dancing. Their grandfather came back out for a duet with his granddaughter, lifts, spins and all. Their grandmother got up for her turn, and even cousin Joe from Minnesota felt the spirit of dance take him over. All the kids spun and jumped and wiggled together in a grand finale. But my favorite part? My children watching their mother, grandfather and great-grandmother doing a kickline to Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” If that’s not a new tradition to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.