I am honored to be nominated for the Facebook five-day artist challenge by the beautiful Christina Johnson. I first saw Christina dancing Third Theme from Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. She had one of the most exquisite lines I’d ever seen. It was back in the day when ballet line was still in proportion. What I mean is that with the advent of dancers like Sylvie Guillem, the idea of line has gone beyond the human scale which I sometimes find grotesque. It’s like the CGI of ballet. It’s like ballet porn.
While I was at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Glen Tetley came to choreograph an original ballet loosely based on the I Ching. It was called Dialogues. Christina Johnson and Donald Williams were the first cast of the opening movement, scherzo something or other. I was the second cast with Eddie Shellman. Glen utilized Christina’s line beautifully. I started stretching like a maniac because I felt a daunting task lay ahead of me. It took me a few years to grow into that role. It was one of the most challenging experiences I had as a dancer. My middle name was back spasm.
Later, Christina left DTH to dance in Switzerland. Her dancing transformed at the age of forty, when most other dancers are retired. She finally found the right teacher, the right environment and the balance of strength and surrender within to blossom even further. Thank you, Christina, for all you gave and continue to give.
Dancing is a lot of things. It’s an exercise of the imagination. It’s a conversation. It’s a way both sides of the duality play with each other. It is to make love to the Is-ness that is everywhere.
My mother told me that from a very young age, I danced. It was as natural to me as breathing. I danced so often that friends and relatives repeatedly advised her to put me in a dance school, but she resisted fearing I was too young. Finally, one afternoon, in our building’s basement laundromat, an old Russian woman saw me twirling around the washers and dryers and would not let the matter rest. She insisted that my Grandmother, who was watching me at the time, promise to enroll me in a dance school, and so, the matter was settled.
I remember my first ballet class, at around age six. The teacher placed me behind another girl who’d already been attending classes so that I might follow her. We placed our heels together with the toes facing out in first position. We slowly extended our legs to the front, pointing our feet at the end, and brushed the foot to close back to first. We repeated the movement to the side, maintaining a turned-out stance throughout, and again to the back. The girl, for no reason it seemed, turned her extended leg in to the back and crunched her toes under. I decided that couldn’t be right. Why would we turn out in all of the other directions except the back? I turned my leg out to the back and ignored her for the rest of class.
After the barre, we went into the center of the room. We made a gesture as though picking up a bunch of flowers in our arms and throwing them away. I played along but thought condescendingly, this class was for babies.
Shortly afterwards, I was taken to another dance school run by Joan Millen Mesh, an African American dancer and Julliard graduate. I adored Miss Joan and worshipped her daughter, Sharrell Mesh from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who sometimes taught our class when she wasn’t away on tour.
At Miss Joan’s we learned modern dance and ballet basics, all in one class. There were no mirrors in the studio. My earliest experiences of dance grew from the inside out, as a pure emotional expression as opposed to trying to achieve an external aesthetic. I danced my feelings.
Miss Joan took me to audition for the School of American Ballet when I was 9 years old. At SAB, I came to see that dance could be a career, a way of life. I got to observe very advanced dancers and had some wonderful teachers, but I mostly remember my time at SAB with sorrow. I was one of very few African Americans in attendance. I felt different. I was not accepted socially. I felt as though ballet had become a sort of exclusive club to which I would never be admitted, no matter how well I danced.
After four years at SAB, at the age of fourteen, I left in defeat. My mother had heard about a well-respected teacher who ran her own studio named Madame Gabriella Darvash. We all called her Madame.
Madame was highly intelligent with a sharp wit. She was deeply nurturing in a tough-love sort of way. She’d been trained as a dancer and choreographer in Russia but rethought the entire Russian training, especially with regards to the placement of the body.
Madame insisted that if I stayed in her school, I would have to start from scratch. I would have to undo all of the affectations I’d picked up at SAB and change my placement. More importantly, Madame could see that my self-esteem was wounded. She made me stop hiding in the back of the studio and stand in front. I hated it. I cried all the time, but somehow, I didn’t give up and neither did she. It was a grueling task for both of us.
My mother also didn’t give up. As a first-generation Trinidadian-American, having a daughter that wanted to be a dancer was not part of the plan. She was a single mother who always had three jobs to keep her two children afloat. She drove me or took the New York City buses and subways the three-hour journey from Jamaica, Queens to Manhattan and back again for years so that I could pursue my dream. I don’t know how she endured it. Her sacrifice, in part, kept me going in my lowest moments.
By the time I was sixteen, I was training about 4 ½ hours a day, six days a week. Madame gave me a scholarship and my mother did her best to keep me in pointe shoes. Sometimes New York City Ballet Principal, Judith Fugate, who was a Madame devotee, would bring me company pointe shoe rejects. Also, at that time, we would re-harden worn pointe shoes by dipping them in floor wax and baking them in a warmed oven over night.
Included in that training time were my studies at the Fiorello Laguardia High School, where I also took ballet and really fell in love with modern dance. However, I was worn out. The three hours a day on public transportation, training and academic demands were becoming too much. I hated school. It felt like a prison. We actually had to pass through metal detectors to get in. I started to cut school so I could take more classes with Madame. She knew what I was up to, and while she didn’t condone it outright, a part of her was victorious to have me at the studio more.
After one really ugly battle with Madame, I decided to put down my gloves and gave in. I told myself I would do everything her way, exactly as she prescribed for a year. If something didn’t happen after a year, I would quit.
Something happened. I got better. I broke through some kind of barrier and was really becoming a dancer. Ronald Alexander, a retired dancer with Stuttgart ballet who often attended Madame’s class saw me and set up an audition for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I was accepted into the Workshop Ensemble, which was like a junior apprentice company, and then into the main company the following year.
I remember the first time I met DTH’s Artistic Director and co-founder, Arthur Mitchell. I was still in the Ensemble. We were done for the day but I hung around to watch the main company in rehearsal. Mr. Mitchell was seething. He stormed into the hallway where I was quietly sitting and shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, “Oh, you’re the one from Madame Darvash!” Like that wasn’t a good thing and marched into his office before I could reply.
I quit high school in order to dance full-time. My commute from Queens to Harlem was even longer than before. I got a contract with the main company and moved into an apartment a block away from the studio on 151 St. between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas. I went on tour with the company and made a great friend with another new dancer, Francesca Harper.
Life as an aspiring dancer was hard, but company life was difficult on a whole new level. I was outside of Madame’s tough love and motherly approach. This new environment was meanly competitive. And though most of the other dancers were also people of color, there was an undercurrent of internalized racism running through the organization. As a light-skinned black person, I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place: I was too black to fit into the white dance world and too white to be down.
Even though Mr. Mitchell often told us about the racism he’d experienced, I don’t remember any of us having that conversation with each other while we were there. I think that would have been healing, to hear each others’ stories. We need to tell our stories so the village can help us carry the burden.
My old issues with self-esteem and authority crept back to the surface in this insecure new world. I heard through the grapevine that Mr. Mitchell was withholding roles from me because I insisted on doing things my own way. This confused me. Didn’t he want me to have my own artistic voice?
I set about a strategy of becoming so good that he couldn’t deny me. In my mind, this included becoming thin, or I should say thinner, because at 5’6” and 108 pounds, I was already pretty thin. I developed an eating disorder.
One night, my mother heard me vomiting in the bathroom and insisted I go to therapy. Therapy became a way that I lied to myself. I told myself I was working on my problems because I was going to therapy, but I was doing nothing of the sort.
After several years of this life, I achieved the coveted position of Principal Dancer. It’s what I always wanted, but I was broken mentally, physically and spiritually. I quit for a year, took my GED and attended City College. At the end of the year, I was offered a full scholarship with a stipend, but I turned it down and asked Mr. Mitchell for my job back.
I knew I needed to change. My inner voice was telling me to take a different path, but I was scared. I didn’t know who I was without dancing. The fact that I’d done well at school was not an anchor. I was too afraid of facing myself, my ordinary self. I was afraid of not being the star in the eyes of others.
I continued with therapy, but my heart wasn’t in it. One day, I heard inwardly that my problems were spiritual and that I needed to find my answers there. I didn’t know what that meant. My therapist introduced me to Carlos Castaneda and at first I just started reading that and other spiritual texts.
I don’t remember much about that early reading, just that it spoke to me. Some of the dancers were exploring yoga and I tried that. During the first class, I just cried and cried. I shaved my head and became a spiritual seeker. Mr. Mitchell made fun of my new look, but things had become better between us. Part of the outgrowth of my spiritual search was that I came to realize he was a person and that I could take the initiative to work on our relationship instead of expecting him to come to me. We’d come a long way and I hold him in my heart.
In my late twenties, I took another break from the company during which I pursued commercial aspects of dance including a role on Broadway. I played Ivy Smith in the Broadway revival of On the Town directed by George C. Wolfe. In many ways, in that role and in the commercial world, I was in over my head. I was no great revelation to that stage or in the small screen roles I had, but it was a time of artistic expansion. I started singing and acting. I danced in the subway. On the street. Wherever the goddess deigned to possess me.
My circle of friends included artists from various disciplines. In fact, I owe a great debt to my artistic community at that time: I loved their company so much that I finally parted ways with my disordered eating. Unknowingly, they literally pulled me out of the drowning waters I was in.
I thought, with this newfound acceptance, I would try company dancing again. Maybe I could be healthy this time. And it was better this time around, at least, while it lasted. Dance Theatre of Harlem went on a prolonged hiatus in 2004. I was without a job.
I free-lanced around for a while and finally accepted a position of Principal Dancer with Boston Ballet in 2006. I was 35, late in the game to start over. My inner voice told me in many ways that I still needed to find a new path, but I thought it foolish to turn down such an opportunity.
I am ashamed now to admit there was a somewhat hidden temptation to see myself dance with a white ballet company, as though that was the final evidence I needed to affirm my rightful place in that exclusive ballet society to which I had been previously denied, but I found to my dismay that although I’d built a solid armor around that wound, I had not healed it. I still didn’t know or love myself.
I was so overwhelmed with nerves that my time at Boston Ballet dissolved in failure. Once there, I got romantically involved with the company’s Artistic Director, Mikko Nissinen. He told me that I didn’t believe in myself, that my latest string of injuries were psychological. I knew he was right. Even though I’d healed some things, I was far from healthy. Healing was not a one-time event.
In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides writes, “Despair always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the only way we let go.” I have that shit memorized.
Anyway, I retired from dancing full-time. For a year I floundered around, alone in my cold Boston apartment. I returned to my spiritual interests, taking up yoga in earnest and going on lots of retreats.
During one retreat in the Costa Rican jungle where we danced around the sacred fire all night, I met some people who were interested in Shamanism. They invited me to an Ayahuasca ceremony, which I found to be a revelation. I was “told” many things on my journey, but one thing in particular was that “I was a child of Africa. Come home.”
I didn’t know what to make of that information. Was I to go to Africa? How? With whom? I put those questions on the shelf until I came across a book written by Malidoma Some, Of Water and the Spirit. Malidoma was a Shaman from Burkina Faso who was sent to the west by his elders to teach the Dagara tradition. I read the entire book through a gush of tears. No spiritual text had ever touched me so deeply. I googled him and found that he would be speaking in a town near Boston in just a few days. I attended the talk and started to go on retreats with him, including a two-year training. We learned about the basic Dagara cosmology, performed rituals, made sacred medicine and did other wonderful things.
Also, during this time, I started teaching ballet. I’d never thought seriously about teaching, but found that I’d unconsciously been preparing for it all along. I used to dissect other teachers’ classes, analyzing what worked, what didn’t. I would give class to myself a lot. Madame’s teaching was a big influence, but there were others as well: David Howard, Ken Ludden, Michael Vernon, Nancy Shaffenberg and of course, Mr. Mitchell.
I realized that I felt more in my power as a teacher than I ever had as a dancer. I strove to make everyone feel seen and valued, not just as a dancer, but as a person.
My classes started to take on a spiritual element. Yogic breathing found its way into the ballet class as well as my growing ancient indigenous understanding as taught by Malidoma and others.
At times, I would veer completely off the charted course of a typical ballet class, incorporating hip-hop music, vocalization, acting exercises, improvisation, conversation, meditation, visualization and relaxation. During these off-road explorations, I felt more fully in my purpose than I had in the ballet realm and I was having a lot of fun.
Shortly after I began teaching, I met my future husband, artist Cyrille Conan, at the Sadhana yoga studio here in Boston. Now, I could usually read people’s energy, but there was something different about him that I just couldn’t put my finger on. By the way, he can cook his ass off. It’s some kind of divine irony that after so many years of struggling with food and body image I am now eating like a champ. I gave birth to our baby girl, Colibri Aurelie Jimenez-Conan in 2013.