“When you have gratitude for something, you make room for more of it. Its like an invitation to the Universe to keep giving,” my wife explained. It made a kind of immediate sense to me, as if gratitude is the final stage in digesting a meal: thank you, I’d like some more!
Last night I felt gratitude for the dance training of my childhood. Reflecting on my sons forays into pre-school, I lost sight of the pain I usally feel when I think about dance. I was truly grateful for the extraordinary gift I was given by so many people.
I remembered for the first time in over twenty years the sound of my squeaking chain as I rode my bike to ballet classes in the fall. My tights on under my pants, ballet shoes jammed into my pockets, I was actually excited to study something! Ballet was a place where time stopped, and I learned to embodying a vision of being beyond myself.
How strange Willam Christensen chose Utah to build a premier dance company, Ballet West. How lucky I was my father taught at the University where many of his dancers began their careers. I learned from those dancers, and even performed with them from time to time. His retired ballerina’s were my childhood teachers, and frequently the subject of my crushes.
One of the male dancers from Ballet West took me under his wing after I got a child part in Don Quixote. He had no family so he gave me and my Mom tickets to one of his shows. I saw in him a strong man who succeeded at his chosen art. Other dancers saw the struggles we young boys went through, having to hide our after school activities for fear of torment. Some of them took the time to help us see how lucky we were to be boys and studying dance so young.
They were part of a devoted community of parents, dancers and friends that made it safe to be boys and dance. When I fell behind because of a cold or traveling to perform, a teacher opened her home to me, teaching catchup classes in her basement – boys only! How liberating not to feel like a strange creature in a zoo, dancing surrounded by girls and their ogling parents. I practiced my extension and the timing of my jete’s in her low ceilinged room as she tapped out rhythm to the records she’d play for us, “ONE two three, ONE two three…” I stopped caring that I was missing baseball practice.
I won children’s parts in the Nutcracker and Don Quixote for years before I had to cross the rough road from childhood dance into adulthood. I knew everything had changed at my first audition for a young adult part. Friends and teachers helped me prepare. I was as afraid as elated that I’d been asked to audition – me!
It happened in the grown-up studio, standing alone before the choreographers and a few dancers from the core, my first time not huddled in a pack of boys. Mom was not waiting outside the door, or even down at the car. I think I was fifteen or sixteen.
I nailed every step and turn, my timing was flawless. I was not even out of breath – it was a perfect expression of years of training, hundreds of public performances before thousands of people, something to be truly proud of. The studio seemed to stretch out miles around me while I waited for my next instructions. A whispered argument ensued at the table.
“He’s just too small for that part.”
“But he was so good. He learned and executed perfectly.” The male dancer from the core was in my corner. He was greatly outnumbered.
“Please come forward.”
I was embarrassed by the sympathetic look on my one supporters face.
“You did very well, we just need someone who can meet our height requirements. But we want you to come back next year.”
I mumbled something the way only teenagers can mumble. Overwhelmed I skulked to the locker room alone. That was it for me and ballet. The air had gotten thin for me up there. There were fewer boys my age to dance with and less involvement by family as older kids headed to college. The protective community I took for granted seemed to dissolve. No longer a boy, not yet a man. I couldn’t find my feet on the path the way I used to.
By then I found Connie Jo Hepworth (CJ) at East High. I never questioned it as a teenager but now it seems so strange that Salt Lake would be such a fertile ground for dance. CJ built an extraordinary high school modern dance department. Envied throughout the state it drew thousands to its yearly concerts, which generated so much income they provided the budget for the football team every year.
Part dance fanatic, part professor, and even some part Mom, CJ provided an actual education in dance. Classes included dance theory, history and even relevant medical knowledge. We learned not only to follow the instructions of our teachers, but to think about dance, to innovate, to choreograph. I got extra periods as her student aide, hiding from the often hostile world. I slipped into a new protective cocoon and stayed there for years.
It was in East High’s cavernous dance studio that Osgood-Slaughters disease found and ultimately crippled my knees, stealing dance and my happiness away from me for a time. It seemed like everything fell apart in a few months. I pushed my knees too far, dancing until I could barely walk. CJ’s husband died, and her son almost lost his life in a car accident weeks later. Facing unimaginable loss she disappeared from our school and my life forever.
That was it for dance. I wanted it to be my life’s work, but it was too late to save my knees. My parents fought my passion, wanting me to find a more practical career path. In hindsight I think this made me an even less practical adult.
As I watch my son enter a school system radically deficient in the arts, I marvel at how much I was given. My fathers teaching position gave us discounted classes. A professional dance company enabled me to see the lives of adults who had devoted everything to their art. Our public high school gave me an unparalleled exposure to pre-collegiate dance education. All of this growing out of a salt desert in a community dominated by conservative politics and religion. How ridiculous for me not to see this extraordinary gift despite my losses.
I’m going to focus on gratitude for a while. Gratitude for my teachers, my fellow dancers, my parents and the community that made it happen. I will find a way to take some of the brightness of that world and share it with my son. I will find a way to keep the rhythm going, “ONE two three, ONE two three…”
Image: Ballet 5 by By Rolands Lackis from Flickr, used under
a Creative Commons license