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i learned to speak in dance

11 May

Dance was pretty much not just the first thing I was really good at, but really the first thing I was good at, at all. But while my peers went to ballet school and dreamed of pointe shoes and being in The Nutcracker, I wound up at The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance as soon as I was old enough for them to let me in.

I don’t recall whose idea this was — mine or my parents’ — but looking back on it, it seems about, among other things, how much I wasn’t made for the world of ballet. I was not P&G, I did not have long hair, I was terribly fragile but not at all delicate.

Martha Graham’s dance probably taught me more about being a woman than anything else I have ever done. It taught me more than Hewitt, where I mostly felt inadequate at performing my gender; and more than my parents, who were shocked and confused when I took it upon myself to shave my legs because that’s what all the other girls were doing.

But the things Graham dance taught me were weird. Weird for an eleven-year-old anyway. Because they were about sex and death and ritual and a life spent on the ground. Sometimes, when I think about how I’m too serious, or don’t get teasing, or do all this scholarship about sex and gender and mourning and death, or felt so proud of the way I endured the relationship disasters of my 20s, I think, this is all Graham’s fault for teaching me that a girl’s fate is grief and vengefulness.

I don’t mind, really, but it’s a funny legacy to carry around in my body. It’s something I’ve lived with longer than almost anything else about me, after all.

Graham is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. She would have been 117 today. She died when I was 18, at college and unable to pursue dance because of health problems and needing to have the financial support of my family to attend school. I remember coming home to go to the celebration of her life and her work at City Center. I remember thinking I should have been up there. I remember thinking I would never be able to iron my hair straight enough to be a “little Martha,” and so maybe nothing was so different from ballet in the end after all.

But I speak the way I speak as much because of her as because of all the speech therapy I had growing up. And it’s such a funny, funny thing to see the way I move, and the way I hurt, dancing, spritely, in my web browser.

Other lives. We are always in some way leaving them.

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7 Responses to “i learned to speak in dance”

  1. K`shandra May 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    I wasn’t meant for ballet, either; it became obvious early on that I wasn’t going to be short, skinny, and flat-chested. But all these years later, when I no longer have any sort of dancer’s body, I still have a dancer’s brain.

    I miss it.

    • Gwydion May 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

      I was the wrong shape too. i was good for the large dance school I went to, but not the best. i made up for it by being a quick physical study, having a high pain threshold, reliable, no drama, strong enough to do lifts, and willing to dance both male and female roles. The result was I got more solos than the better daners, who had way better chances of going further with it than i did. i knew that this was my level, and i was okay with that. I loved every minute of it, even the bar work, even the pain and the blisters and the pulled muscles. my body loved being pushed to the limits like that.

      My body is a ruin now, thanks to genetic time bombs. I miss it the way i miss sex and martial arts and independence. I miss it in my muscles and bones and soul.

  2. Mariah May 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    I have the same feelings about Glenn Gould. The first time I had any information about maybe not being either gender was reading his writings and listening to him play Bach. There is no gender in Gould’s Bach. There’s the freedom of rigor. That’s my artistic gender identity.

  3. Anton May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    I never quite realized how young you were when you started to learn there.

  4. Fractal Angel May 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Maybe one da Ill get to talking about how the Crosby Festival of Dance and Drama affected me similarly (with added Hylton Bromley School of Dance and Mrs Thompson my elocution teacher). There might even be photos of me as an over-made-up 9-year-old backstage (if I ever get a working scanner, and a complete loss of inhibition …)

  5. heron61 May 12, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    “I was not P&G”

    I have never heard this term before – is this a synonym for WASP or something else entirely?

    “But the things Graham dance taught me were weird. Weird for an eleven-year-old anyway. Because they were about sex and death and ritual and a life spent on the ground. Sometimes, when I think about how I’m too serious, or don’t get teasing, or do all this scholarship about sex and gender and mourning and death, or felt so proud of the way I endured the relationship disasters of my 20s, I think, this is all Graham’s fault for teaching me that a girl’s fate is grief and vengefulness.”

    It’s rather odd for me to both find you and what your are doing exceedingly amazing and powerful and to also feel that the world will be a better place when these sorts of definitions of women and their nature and place have largely become archaic historical curiosities.

    Then again, I suppose it’s not very different from my knowing that the world will be a far better place when most elements of queer culture have become historical curiosities because LGBT people have gained full social and cultural acceptance, and yet for me to also feel a powerful connection to various aspects of queer culture.

    • RM May 12, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      P&G is an industry term, and yes, WASP, more or less. It’s short for “Procter & Gamble” which is to say blonde, blue-eyed and “all-American.” My father worked in advertising and you know what I do now.

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