Letter from Away — June 23, 2022
When I was six years old, my mother enrolled me in ballet classes. The teacher was a man named Paul, who taught us the positions of the arms and legs, how to make a plié, how to count the beats in the music, and how to move to the rhythm. I learned a couple of basic turns and eventually was able to execute a decent jeté .
Those lessons only lasted a short time. School took over my attention, but fortunately included music with Mr. Ingersoll. I kept counting the beats and along the way the music found a place inside me. Sometimes, in the supermarket, I would step and turn to the tunes that played over the public address system. At home, I sang and danced to records and the radio.
When I was in seventh grade, my school held a computer dance. Each of us in grades seven through 10 filled out a questionnaire about out hobbies and musical preferences. On the night of the dance, we were given punch cards that registered our responses. The cards were run through a sorting machine and lists were compiled.
My list had three names on it, boys with whom I was supposed to be compatible. Two of them had skipped the dance; the third took one look at me, turned around, and headed to the other end of the gym. I found shelter against a wall.
About five songs into the night, a boy approached me. He was not just any boy, but a 10th grader, and not just any upperclassman, but one known to be handsome and popular and kind, a rare combination in my experience, even now.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” he asked me. Embarrassed to tell him that I had been rejected by my computer match, I said something that felt true at the moment.
“I don’t know how,” I said.
“It’s easy,” he replied. “You just let the music inside you and do what it does.” That night my body remembered the early lessons my head had forgotten and I danced, alone and with other girls and maybe with a boy or two.
In eighth grade, I again studied ballet. The teacher, Mrs. Brackeen, was strict and exacting. I learned to breathe into my movements, to count the beats constantly, and to maintain physical balance.
Mrs. Brackeen taught me that a good dancer practices every move in both directions, never relying on the strength of just one side of the body. She taught me to rise into the music, to turn in the air, to lift a partner, and to carry another dancer as if that person was an extension of my own being.
Along the way, I learned that my body was not of the type then considered appropriate to professional ballet, a career that is among the most physically demanding. When I started high school, I left ballet behind.
Finding dance partners was easier for me in high school. There was also musical theater, where my ability to count the measures got me onto the stage. I went to music clubs, many of which catered to young audiences and did not sell alcohol. Mostly we stood in place and bobbed up and down to the music. When I reached drinking age, I moved my bobbing and rocking into bars and discoteques, but my focus was on finding a partner off the dance floor, and once again I left the music and the movement behnd.
It wasn’t until after my fiirst marriage that I came back to dancing. Lonely and insecure and in therapy, I followed a psychologist’s advice and found my self at Dance Free, a weekly event held in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I entered the room slowly, wearing a black leotard I’d had since middle school and a pair of thirteen-button navy “broadfall” trousers. Ashamed of my body, but moved by the music, I eventually shed the warm woolen pants and found myself at home among dancers who moved through the space singly, in pairs, and sometimes in clumps of a half-dozen or so.
That was 1978. Throughout the following decade, Dance Free and its successor, Dance Freedom, became a weekly practice. In that room, I could leave words behind and move beyond thought and into space. The dance carried me through daily life and into dreams, where I often found my steps growing longer and lighter, the music lifting me until I was flying.
Although I met my second husband on that dance floor in Cambridge, our marriage and parenthood grounded me; my body became that of a homemaker and mother, a business woman and community member. Dancing turned into a public demonstration of partnerhood. All of this gave me joy, but it was not the sort of dancing that produced flying dreams.
Last week, I went to High Mountain Hall, in Camden, where a weekly dance of another sort has been taking place for about a decade. Led by Kari Leuhman, and embodying Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms conscious dance practice, people mostly move around the dancefloor on their own, occasionally partnering up.
In spite of the solitary nature of our dance, we are not alone. Rather, the dance encourages us to feel ourselves sharing the space, and by extension the world, with everyone in it. Spirits, as Sting would have it, in the material world.
“Free your feet,” Kari told us, as the music propelled our movements. I was home, once again.
High Mountain Hall, which has been home to this 5Rhythms practice, has recently changed hands and the new owners plan major renovation. Last week’s dance may have been the last such local event for some time. If you know of a space that would welcome the liberation and joy that sometimes leads to flying dreams, contact Kari at https://www.facebook.com/5Rhythms-Maine-A-Vibrant-Dance-Community-176166935764197/.
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.