Category Archives: dance

I Could Wrestle with my Disability, but I Think I’ll Dance Instead

A year and a half ago, I gained a permanent dance partner. That’s what I’ve decided. That’s how I need to think about the damage to my visual field from an unfortunate multiple sclerosis flare-up.

If I were a filmmaker, I’d show my dance partner as one of the monsters from a Hayao Miyazaki animated movie. My monster is big and bulky and squishy and always there, pressed awkwardly up against my left side. Everything I see on the left side of my visual field, in both eyes, is hazy and squashed, and some is obscured altogether. When I try to look at someone through the monster’s mass, that person’s face is melting. One eye is an inch below where it should be, and that side of the person’s mouth smears into his chin. The distortion is different at the bottom. The monster must be giving me a hug, because he presses everything from the bottom of that side upward and toward the center, so my blurry left hand is closer to my face than it ought to be.

The monster means well…

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Sequins, Fur, Nudity, Arabesques, and Seriously Funny Commentary on Modern Girlhood

Friday night I went to Joe’s Pub and saw B.A.N.G.S.: made in america, a wonderful dance performance full of sequins and fur, cutoffs and little black dresses, and virtuosic dance-theater movement.  And some nudity.  Yes, I’m writing about naked dancing yet again.  I swear, at most of the dance concerts I attend, the dancers wear their clothes.  But somehow my favorite questions are raised when dancers ask their audiences to consider what it means to take clothes off.

Joe’s Pub is an intimate, festive cabaret tucked in a corner of The Public Theater in New York City.  The audience sat at café tables sipping drinks and snacking on fancy fries when LMnO3’s dancer-choreographers Deborah Lohse, Cori Marquis, and Donnell Oakley popped through the entrance door that serves as the only wing,  busting a move and lip-synch rapping, “move, bitch, get out the way.”  From the first moment, the trio played with the identities of modern girlhood, with enthusiastic goofiness and good humor.  “Should I be sexy and tough?” they seemed to ask.  “This feels kind of awesome!”  Or maybe not: the showy poses melted into anxious faces that wondered what they were doing up on this little stage.  These women never appeared insecure, exactly.  But they certainly registered the contradictions involved in trying to be sexy, feminine, tough, perky, glamorous and happy all at the same time.

It was a funny show, with lots of out-loud audience laughter, and the dancers treated even their more serious moments with a light touch.  At one point, Marquis became a demanding chorographer: “I want you to face left.”  “I want you to make a lateral shape.”  Oakley obligingly attempted to fill every request, never appearing to question the task.  The requests piled up: “I want you to lighten up!”  “I want you to take me seriously.”  Oakley, an amazing shape-shifter, earnestly tried to fill every new request of the type you might hear from your partner, boss, or parent.  Right up until she collapsed, and the lights went out for a moment, only to throw us right into the next story.

lmno3 imageLmnO3 “Ink Stink” Photo by Justin Skrakowski

Clever costumes framed every dance scenario.  In little black dresses and pretend high heels, the trio pranced and careened around the stage until they paused, opened dainty handbags, and pulled out chicken legs and pizza slices for a mid-show greasy nosh.  They pulled up their picture-perfect LBDs to reveal spanx-type granny underwear, and pranced around in those.  At one point, Marquis rolled on the ground struggling to pull on tight jeans, and then grabbed scissors and turned her jeans into teeny tiny cutoffs on the spot.  Later, all three pulled high-cut bathing suits over their granny panties, then solemnly traded flouncy skirts until they found a color match.  They danced an angstful yet Esther Williams-y trio to Tori Amos’ Precious Things, poignantly invoking the spirit of angry and earnest pre-teenage-hood.  It seemed like the kind of thing I must have done with my sister when I was 10.

Near the end of the evening, the trio reversed the fabulous fur vests they had been wearing with their cutoffs, and launched into an over-the-top striptease, building up the audience for a rousing finale.  As the applause died down, it was as if we were seeing the moment that was supposed to happen after the blackout, or in the wings.  All pretentions to sexiness disappeared.  After all that teasing effort to keep just exactly the right parts covered, they abruptly dropped their vests and casually threw them to the wings, just another discarded prop.  It was as if, along with the vests, they tossed aside the goofy eroticism of the striptease, their matter-of-fact candor intentionally ruining what they had built.  They grabbed microphones, and, topless, casually strode to the front of the stage.  “Any questions?  It’s time for audience Q&A.  Anything you’d like to know?”  Not surprisingly, the audience was quiet.  The performers taunted for a minute, “so quiet!  Are you sure?  You don’t want to know about our childhood pets, or something?”  Finally they threw on sweatshirts and performed a final mash-up of the evening’s dances, in the spirit of cheerful, I-dare-you-to-laugh-with-me humor that characterized the evening.

After the show, I spoke with Oakley about that final scene.  She told me that she hates audience Q&As.  When she and her collaborators were making the piece, she joked with them, “what could make me feel more vulnerable than doing a Q&A?  Doing a Q&A naked!”  In constructing a piece that was all about asking uncomfortable questions, clearly that meant they’d have to try a naked Q&A.  And yet, the effect of doing the Q&A without a shirt was that it silenced the audience.  Does standing up topless with a microphone but not answering any questions count as successfully avoiding a Q&A?  Was Oakley vulnerable, or powerful?  Or both?

That final scene, with the striptease and naked Q&A, crystalized some of the most compelling themes of the evening.  Sexiness, or toughness, or daintiness, or any other kind of femininity, resides to a remarkable degree in what we wear and how we wear it (or take it off).  Feminine identity can be remarkably fluid and capacious, if often problematically contradictory.  And yet, whichever performance of femininity we choose, or symbolically refuse by going without its trappings, we have no choice but to live it and embody it.  That embodiment makes us vulnerable.  It is also the only way we can go out into the world, and claim our power.  In an evening of raucous fun, the trio of LMnO3 showed us how to be boldly, optimistically vulnerable.  I can’t wait to see more.

Can a Gluten-Free Diet, Qi Gong, or Ballet Barre Cure my MS? Only a Randomized Controlled Trial Can Say…

“You have multiple sclerosis? My cousin cured her MS with a gluten-free diet and qi gong — you should really try it!”

Since I was diagnosed with MS 17 years ago, I have heard many, many versions of this story, though with a rotating cast of miracle cures in the starring role. Some involve mainstream pharmaceuticals; many more are from the world of alternative medicine. I usually politely say, “Thanks for letting me know,” and let it drop. Everyone who tells me a story like this wishes for my good health, and I do appreciate that.

Once in a while, though, someone gets more of a response than she bargained for.

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The Beauty of the Post-Pregnant Body: Reka Szabo’s Baby Pouch Dance

* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale for $30 hardcover!

It’s time to write about naked dancing again.  I didn’t plan this theme, honest.  But the modern dance world keeps pushing me there, with intriguing insights into how we experience our bodies: as women and men, as people of a certain age, and this time, as mothers.  Specifically, women who have been pregnant.

Friday night, my husband and I kissed our kids goodnight, gave the sitter some instructions, and hopped in the car to drive a half hour to a different New Jersey suburb.  Montclair State University, in the leafy, affluent town of Montclair, has an innovative dance program and a wonderful theater.  I anticipated a sophisticated and beautiful performance.

Alexander Kasser Theater Alexander Kasser Theater

Still, when I go to a concert in the ‘burbs, I expect something tame and mainstream.  An artist might claim to “challenge the boundaries,” but they are generally boundaries that were knocked down a few decades ago in nearby New York City, and the artist is tapping at the ancient ruins of walls left partly standing in more conservative quarters.

Not Friday night.  Reka Szabo had arrived from Budapest, to show me something I had never seen before.  In a piece called Apropos, she chatted with the audience, she “broke the fourth wall,” she dribbled confetti from her pockets as she ran to a fake door at the back of the stage, and repeatedly declined to answer mysterious knocks.  She brushed her fake hair while she recited quirky personal ads, until the hair was pulled out and strewn all over the stage, and she appeared bald.  (That’s not the new part, yet. I was part of the San Francisco dance scene for quite a while, and I’ve seen a lot of experimental dance theater.)

But then, she walked to the edge of the stage, lifted her shirt and tugged her yoga pants so that we could see her abdomen.  A spotlight shone on her belly.  And it was the belly of a woman who has been pregnant, the skin that has been stretched taut around a watermelon and then abruptly released.

My friends and I call it the “baby pouch.”  After the baby is out, after the pregnancy weight is gone, and the abdominal wall separation has healed, the loose skin remains.  A dancer can do as much Pilates as she likes, she can be stronger than ever, with an enviable 6-pack.  But the baby pouch is a permanent marker of the incredibly physical labor her body has done, growing a new person.

Szabo placed her hands on her belly in the shape of a heart, pushing the loose skin together and out.  And then she performed several minutes of a dance, with just her hands and that loose skin.  She made the hand-heart beat, pushing it in and out with incredibly strong and supple abdominal muscles.  She made lips that kissed, and lines and whirls that flowed between shapes.

Reka Szabo Apropos Baby Pouch image

I have to admit, part of me cringed.  “Isn’t that going to just make is worse?” I thought.  I had accepted my own baby pouch with sad resignation.  Two babies had stretched it plenty; I would never deliberately stretch it more.

But at the same time, I felt so proud of her, and myself by extension.  She took something most of us try to hide, to pretend never happened, and made a beautiful dance out of it.  A dance about love for her daughter, with hearts and kisses.  She saw the possibility, and the uniqueness, in her baby pouch.  She couldn’t have done that dance until she had carried a baby.  It was a defiant choice.  Not, “I can dance as well as a young person who hasn’t had babies.  I can hide the evidence.”  Instead she said, “I can do something you young ones, with your perfect, innocent bodies, cannot do.  My love is marked on my body, and I can dance with it.  Motherhood has given my body more possibilities.”

I felt it with her.  I suddenly saw my body differently.  I’ll probably still joke about my “baby pouch,” but I don’t rue it the same way, after that performance.  I doubt I’ll emulate her choreography, but now I have a way to see the evidence of my pregnancies as an addition to my body, not a diminishing of it.  Not a mark of sacrifice, but a hard-won transformation.

So am I saying exactly the opposite of what I said about Dandelion Dancetheater’s naked piece?  After all, I claimed that in that choreography, seeing a variety of nude bodies had showed me that women’s and men’s bodies are not so different after all.  But I saw Szabo’s body as marked specifically and irrevocably by motherhood.

This is where the rest of the piece matters.  I have highlighted the baby pouch dance, but Szabo contextualized it with many stories and dances about mothering, about creating artistic work, and about being 44 years old.  A bit further into the performance, she had taken off all her clothes, and did several minutes of dramatically lit, very intense yoga in the nude.  In my eyes, she morphed back and forth between being an incredibly fit 44-year-old dancer-mother and an otherworldly being, writhing somewhere between life and death, awaiting the resurrection that concluded the piece.  The loose belly skin meant something one moment, and didn’t the next.

Motherhood is marked on my body.  It can matter at one moment, and barely register the next.  It is a resource: of experience, of movement quality, of literal physicality.  It is mine, to use how I want.  We are all movement artists, even if only some of us are professional dancers.  My body’s expressive possibilities grow with the years.  The pliability and buoyancy of youth are not everything, even for dancers, as Szabo so eloquently demonstrated.  For those of us who have borne children, our maternity does not need to be what our bodies are solely or primarily about, but it will always be there for us.

* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale this month for $30 hardcover, or $19.95 e-book with code HTMP

Should We #FreeTheNipple? Maybe Male and Female Aren’t That Different After All

When I was little, I copied my dad and took off my shirt on hot summer days. He would be doing yard work, and I would be running around doing something or other that was sweaty and active. It felt great. A cool breeze works much better when it hits your skin directly. He encouraged me to ditch the shirt, and my sister and brother followed suit.

One time, my mother pulled him aside and asked, “are you sure the girls should do that?” Perhaps we were at a public park, or perhaps the neighbors were out in the adjacent yard. I can’t remember. But I distinctly recall my dad’s impatient, dismissive response: “Oh, what’s the difference?” And no more was said. I looked at myself, my sister and my brother. Darn right, there was no difference. This was clearly one of those irrational, easily falsifiable things that people sometimes said about girls – that we were bad at math, or we didn’t like blocks. And it was equally annoying: another way to try to keep me from doing something fun just because I was a girl. I gleefully ignored it.

Just a few years later, I would have been mortified to be topless in public…

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