I walk along Chambers St. in lower Manhattan beside a massive Victorian edifice of pillars and arches to Gibney Dance, a busy warren of dance studios. It hides somewhere here. I’m meeting Erin Carlisle Norton, host of ‘Movers and Shapers; A Dance Podcast’. Erin is doing an impressive project recording life stories of those who shape the field of dance. I am happy to be interviewed for it. I find the entrance, walk up one flight and down a thin-carpet-over-concrete hallway beneath wall-mounted TV monitors running video loops and slideshows of dance. I mentally prepare, reviewing my life. I remember 1973, walking from the subway at Broadway along 66th St, through Juilliard’s glass entrance, past the security guard, and around the corner to call the elevator. You touched a slightly recessed, lit circle. It was my first touch sensitive technology. I had to take off my glove because it registered heat rather than pressure, which I suppose marked the end of proper ladies wearing gloves in public and began the time of the naked fingers on sensors. In the following decades, I dinged, lurched, and hummed up and down this vertical city in service elevators with heavy accordion gates and tricky levers to stop and start the cage, or tiny booth elevators lined with brushed metal or fake wood paneling and a bank of black push buttons. More often, I trudged up wide, creaking staircases listing toward the stairwell to floors that had once been sweatshops but now housed cheap-rent artists lofts.
I find Erin setting up in a brashly lit conference room. She tells me a few details about how she does the interview. I’ve already familiarized myself with her format. She listens. A lot. Far more than anyone else who has interviewed me. Before we begin, I mention that this moment marks the completion of a large life project, that I anticipate the interview process as a celebration. It’s a passing remark. In truth I don’t expect to learn much about myself. After a life of inner delving, there isn’t much inside of me I haven’t thoroughly raked over. But never underestimate such small cues! They can be sparks to tinder. The time with Erin was a witnessed confession initiating a rite of passage, a sort of urban ritual.
Agency versus Servitude
The first part was easy. I had written Skin of Glass and felt confident about the snapshots of child-me dancing, then teenager, then NYC professional dancer. I rambled on. I found myself in the Sufi years, feeling less confident, having a harder time wrapping words around memory, which was odd because I’d written all this in my memoir as well. Why did they elude me?
I would glance over at Erin as I spoke. Her openness and curiosity, communicated mostly in attentiveness, put me at ease enough to be uncertain. Let down my front a bit. Put my finger on a core pain—you know, that touch-sensitive thing always lurking that you don’t bother saying because you’ve never been able to budge it because it is out of your control. Here it is: the choreographer/creator/agency versus dancer/object/servant.
In my modern dance life, I loved choreographing. Dancing well was necessary for making one’s own dances and was handy because you could dance for other choreographers and experience how they composed their dances. ‘Choreographer’ had agency, controlling the statement, being the creator. It was powerful and freeing. ‘Dancer’ not so much. You starve yourself, overwork your body, are often injured, and are continually looked at and judged to a high standard. An object. ‘Dancer’ was less powerful. Or at least that is the part of it I didn’t like but had to endure, just like the role of ‘woman.’ Every detracting thing about ‘woman’ is more so with ‘dancer’. Then came Sufi. In Sufi, dance was the mode of inward seeking, the instrument of transformation, healing and self-discovery. We all danced and we all danced for this purpose. Hurray! This was for the most part, liberating. I discovered authenticity and cohesiveness as I dove deeper and deeper into my interiority. But because I was a good dancer I became a figurehead in the Sufi group, the teacher’s promotional tool to draw people in. Looking beautiful. And there it is. Object of beauty. An object. It created a confusing dissonance. There was sexual misconduct on the teacher’s behalf as well, but this other, more elusive yet obvious piece—the slide back into servitude inherent in female objectification—had resisted my understanding.
It grew late at Gibney. I was reaching the end of my energy. I suppose that’s why I finally let out that, in my estimation, society is the cause of our misery. Our pain is rarely our fault. It is heaped on us by unjust laws, by created vulnerabilities. The shame and guilt with which we are inculcated is our dog collar. That’s what I said as I wound down. The harshly lit room felt like an interrogation room. Sometimes, I get too tired to think inside my head; then I say things out loud to discover what I am thinking. Such thoughts usually need refinement. This one needed refinement, yet I let it out anyway. It has stuck.
A week later, I have far more clarity about the interview which turned out to be sort of a psychic elevator in the verticality of inner motion. It seems the bedrock of self always being farther down than we expect. The real problem is not dancer or dance. I loved dancing. I didn’t love societal servitude. I love the mystery and beauty of art and of Sufi communion. I don’t love the appropriation of that beauty to enslave. We all do what we have to do to keep the roof over head and food in the belly, and we all struggle with insult. We must not let that poison our deep bones. Remember who we are. Our truth. Hug that truth. Take the sparks of inspiration and ignite the blossom of being inside, the flame flower, the rose of fire.
In A Room of one’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes that historically, until Jane Austen, women were depicted by men, from the imaginations of men, and always in relation to men. Women were a prop for men’s narcissism. Men have been allowed to think they are the star of the play and are encouraged to regard women as the supporting cast, the cardboard bit players without dimension. Our world has never known what women really are—what we think, feel, or could be. I am not alone in wanting agency, not servitude. Even when I moved on from Sufi study to do my own synthesizing of Dancemeditation, I had to conduct a business within the expectations of patriarchal society. I pummeled myself to look good, to be my own frontman, to be sale-able. Such pummelings run deep. I am not by nature a masochist, nor have I ever enjoyed inflicting pain on myself, so now I forgive myself for flaying myself in order to be sale-able, apparently the penance for being born female. It was not my fault. I hope everyone can forgive themselves for doing as much to themselves. I wish us all to be unshackled.
Closure is actually transition and some transitions are more vivid than others. Something in Erin’s presence, or perhaps the opportunity to speak about my dance that did not entail marketing, or that particular confluence of inviting closure while in a dance studio in NYC—the place where so much of my journey has occurred—let the passage open. I am done with my inner Whip Hand, which is, perhaps, the most extraordinary transition I’ve ever known. Like a dog let off the leash, I dash about in joyful circles. What shall I call this rite of passage?
I am delighted that you are with me and appreciate your sharing these writings friends. Thank you!
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