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30×30: Lesson 13: Expression over performance



I’ve already written before in this series that I was a pretty horrible dancer until I learned to let go. In the context of that previous post, “letting go” meant being willing to take risks, both physically and emotionally; but for the sake of this post, I’d like to add a different lesson — that “letting go” within dance also meant a certain pouring out of the arabesque, the leap, and the turn from somewhere deep in the heart.

I’ve sensed this pouring out in other dancers by the look in their eyes. When a dancer’s body lifts into an attitude, when her arms extend, when her head tilts — her eyes shine with longing, her soul infinitely extends. The best dancers I’ve known are ones that dance not just to perform but to communicate this hope, peace, and beauty through the arms, the poise, the grace.

Laurel Anspach, my dance teacher, once said that all of life was to be an expression instead of a performance. As a grad school student, I wear so many performances daily: that of the good grad student who did do all the reading. That of a teacher who is not frustrated by her own shortcomings. And — when I’m abroad — that of a European urbanite who is trying desperately to ensure that she can properly use the bus and order coffee instead of betraying that she really is the daughter of an American farmer, a million miles from home.

While there is value in understanding your roles, what would happen if I lifted the curtain between who I’m trying to be and who I actually am?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.


30×30: Lesson 26: The goodness of strangers

I was robbed on a crisp December morning in Strasbourg, France, after I had bought hot roasted chestnuts on the Place de la Cathédrale and decided that I needed to change my world.

Growing up, I had unconsciously divided all people into those who were “safe” (extended family, church friends, my ballet teacher) and those who were not (people who drank beer, stayed out late, and swore). This division did not affect my actions, for I knew better than to condemn people openly; instead, this manner of thinking crowded the corners of my mind and divided concepts into hard-lined truths and lies. Such lines made life more clean-cut, less troubling. It allowed me to refuse to deeply listen to those who were not like me.

That day in Strasbourg, I had resolved to cross that mental line and buy lunch for a homeless woman named Romina, for she, too, was alone and frightened in France. We left the square together. Then my purse disappeared. Then Romina vanished. Snow fell. For a long time after that, I looked the other way when the homeless extended their hands. But strangely, my faith in humanity was only beginning.


I’m well aware that I am writing this post from a certain amount of privilege related to time, place, financial status, and race. I do not have a history of personal trauma due to others’ verbal or physical abuse. When I approach strangers for directions when traveling, I do not (usually) have a face that provokes suspicion, fear, or hatred. When I am stranded in airports or cities in Europe, I always have a savings account that I can draw from, a safe hotel room that I can buy, a warm meal that can bring me comfort.

But I’m writing still because, despite this, seeing the humanity in the difference of others had to be learned before it was felt.

I was humbled by it when I stood teary-eyed in the Greyhound parking lot in Harrisburg, PA, two minutes too late for my bus, and another driver, already at the wheel of a second bus, jerked his thumb toward his empty seats. “Climb on in,” he said. “I’m headed that way, too.”

I was inspired by it with Xavier, the director of the local opera in Nantes, France, who stood on an enormous stage in front of the Opéra Graslin to direct a singalong of 2,000 people for France’s National Music Day. When I ran up to him in the crowds afterwards to thank him for his work, he said, “You can’t leave the city without seeing the opéra perform” and gave me his personal comp ticket for the next show.

And then there’s the family of the Chesnie farm who picked me up at the bus station near Vay, France, and allowed me to work with them and their cows for a day, without us ever having met before.

And then there was that baker in Basel, Switzerland, in 2005, who gave me and four friends an armful of day-old bread when we had no money left to spend and pushed us out the door before we could attempt to pay.

I strongly believe that, in this world, there is horror, but there is also peace. I have been loved by strangers without reason and aided by them without compensation. And beyond the differences I once saw in people there are also similarities — homes, fears, joys, expressions, dreams — that frame our daily lives.

Is it too optimistic to think that I can be the change that I want to see in the world?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 1: Learning to fall

Find an introduction on this series here.

I took ballet lessons from the age of 7 to the age 18 — my first exposure to sports, grace, and imagination beyond books. I adored the tulle, the leaps, the roles, but I was haunted by my inability to execute steps without hesitating. I wondered before beginning a pirouette if I’d be able to finish it — feet in fifth position, facing the mirror, looking as graceful as someene who had barely tried (I couldn’t, although what dancer can anyway?). When my arms looked limp and weak, I stiffened them like molded tree branches, controlling every finger muscle, and added a smile to try to indicate that I was just fine. But in reality, each time I attempted ballet’s soft-bladed perfection, the girl in the mirror looked worse: halting, nervous, and wrong.

In 2001, I was cast as Aurora, the title role from Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that involved princesses and solos and had been my dream. I nervously learned the Rose Adagio, partnered with a cute boy, and was fitted into my studio’s most beautiful tutu. But the dance I could not complete was the one in which Aurora was to prick her finger, move into a series of dizzying turns, rise up into an arabesque, and crumple, poisoned, on the floor.

Each rehearsal was the same: I mimed the deadly prick, moved more rapidly with the heightening music, spun with my illness, and stopped at the arabesque. “Here I fall,” I would say to Laural Anspach, my instructor, and she’d nod.

“Okay, let’s run this again.”

The second and third times, I invented questions for Laurel before the arabesque: Was I spotting okay? Did I bourée too far to the left?

Finally, as she began playing the music for the fourth time, I shook my head and lifted my hands. “Laurel,” I said. “How do you fall?”

She looked me in the eyes. “You just fall.”

What I did not realize at this moment as the music lifted was that falling meant losing control. That careful poise that I had been trying so hard to craft, that grace, all that which I thought was beauty — none of that was what made the dancer — or the woman. One cannot control a fall into gravity; you simply have to let go, face the wind, and trust the ground beneath you.

I was terrified. The music heightened, dizzied, and I spun. But this time when I reached the arabesque, I raised up on one toe, held for a brief second, and tumbled into oblivion — for the first time, perhaps, being free.

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