As a way of launching my new, spiffy website, I am spending the turn of the year reflecting on various artists and arts organizations who seem to me to have done particularly powerful and important work in the past year. First up, Word Dance Theater.
Though poetry was my first love, it wasn’t the only art form I was passionate about as a child. From the ages of nine to fourteen, I was also a serious student of ballet. My neighborhood dance teacher cast me early in big roles — I loved being onstage, loved projecting to an audience, and though my feet were not the strongest, nor were my legs the longest, it seemed I made up for that in performance. In fact, if you had asked me at ten or so what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said, a dancer who also writes poetry.
Alas, my fourteenth year began with a leap and ended with a fall. In eighth grade, I auditioned for and was accepted into the prestigious Washington School of Ballet, run by the late, legendary Mary Day. I will never forget the intensity of her eyes on me as I auditioned — it seemed she could see right through my skin to the muscles and tendons working beneath — nor the great big balloon bobbing beneath my heart when she said I was in. I thought my destiny was assured.
Less than 2 months after I started at WSB, I injured my left knee. Soon after, I injured the right. Recovery slowed my progress, but I tried to stay hopeful. Then genetics intervened. To put it bluntly, my hips and bosom blossomed in true Italian style, leaving me with what my fellow ballet students referred to pitying as “a bathing suit body.” My end of year evaluation informed me bluntly that while my body might now be suited for some other sort of dance, ballet was out. And ballet was all I wanted.
I wish now that I had heard of Isadora Duncan technique back then. It might have made all the difference. As it was, I had to wait 20 years to discover the beauty of Duncan’s approach to dance, and to find that the Founding Mother of Modern Dance was not creating a lesser form of movement— to my ballet pals, anything not classical ballet was “lesser than” — but a holistic approach to dance art. Duncan’s vision of the ideal dancer was “the highest intellect in the freest body.” And this vision was imparted to me by the great dancer and choreographer Cynthia Word, founder of Word Dance Theater.
Taking Cynthia’s dance classes changed my life. After years of what I can only describe as a punitive approach to exercise, pushing my body harder and harder while internally scolding it for not being long and lean enough, I found a new way to inhabit my body in Cynthia’s classes, one that was joyous and accepting, while still challenging and invigorating. I discovered that I could work up a sweat while employing my mind and heart, as well. Gravity was no longer and enemy to be overcome but a force to be used, worked with, explored. Jumping was no longer about simply how high or how far, but about meaning – what does it mean to leap or hop or skip? The line of the body in space was still important, but in a deeper way. All of one’s life could be brought into the studio, worked with, explored. From Cynthia, I was able to find in dance what I had found in poetry — a place where form and content were inextricably intertwined, leading the poet or the dancer ever further into the mysteries of what it means to be alive.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of performing with Word Dance Theater in an evening of poetry and dance exploring “The Many Faces of Love.” I wrote five new poems, one for each section of dances, and used some of Isadora’s own words from her autobiography and letters to fuel each one. We performed at the Merritt Pop-Up Gallery in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to a packed room full of dance and poetry lovers. What a night!
And just last month, Word Dance Theater concluded their season with the site- specific, multi-media production “Chambers of the Heart,” combining musicians, singers, actors, and dancers in a unique immersive experience. The show got well-deserved rave reviews, and its premiere run was sold out. I know that in the coming year, WDT will continue to break new theatrical ground, while remaining true to the principles of the great Isadora. Their end of year fundraising drive is going on now, and is well worth supporting.