Category Archives: Favorites

Letter from Peter Martins (and my response)

April 6, 2015

Dear Tai,

Greetings from the School of American Ballet. I am writing to invite you to become part of a very important program at SAB.

As a new component of our ongoing diversity initiative, we are currently in the process of forming a committee consisting of a select group of alumni who are active in the dance world. Members of the SAB Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity & Inclusion will be asked to provide input to help shape and enhance SAB’s ongoing work to broaden recruiting, outreach, and student life programs, with the ultimate goal of increasing diversity on ballet stages around the globe.

I believe that your experience and insight into SAB and the broader dance world will be an invaluable addition to our efforts and sincerely hope that you will accept this invitation to become a member of the Committee for its 2015-2016 inaugural session.

SAB’s Diversity Program Manager, Leah Qunitiliano, will reach out to you next week to discuss in more detail the goals and expectations….etc.

With warm wishes,
Peter Martins
Artistic Director and Chairman of Faculty

*

Hi Leah. I have been giving the matter of whether or not to join the Diversity Committee some thought. With all do respect, if the School of American Ballet is serious about diversifying, they can start by hiring me as a ballet teacher. I am great.

This is not about me, and it is about me. Please tell Peter Martins that true diversity means the whole structure has to change. Is he ready for that?

Sincerely,
Tai Jimenez
Former Principal Dancer of The Dance Theatre of Harlem
Former Principal Dancer with the Boston Ballet


Initiation

As a dancer, there were certain things I had naturally and other things I had to work at. I expected there to be a certain amount of pain. While working to develop my flexibility for example, pain became a sort of daily ritual meditation.

At times, I was overwhelmed by the level of sacrifice the art demanded, but I knew I wanted to go all the way, where ever that was, where ever that led. That journey was stressful, terrifying, confusing, ecstatic, spiritual and devastating, not necessarily in that order, and sometimes all those things before lunch.

I think my failures outnumbered my successes, which made the successes more meaningful.

Now I can look back on that journey and see it as a kind of initiation process towards becoming an artist. Certain things in life can’t be gotten at without going through the door of transformation, no matter how gifted you are, and it usually doesn’t feel good when it’s happening. The struggle of the butterfly to emerge from its cocoon is what strengthens its wings and enables it to fly. The struggle is inseparable, and, as Malidoma Some suggests, equal to the gift that awaits you.

In our culture, we are taught to lead with ego, to always look cool and to avoid vulnerability because it equates with weakness, but Some also teaches that Spirit can only work with us when we are in a vulnerable state. He says, “Sometimes your not-knowing cooperates better with a process than your knowing.” These are hard words for modern people to embrace, we who want to know the outcome of every step before we take it, we who have invented insurance for our insurance, we of the homogenized beauty, of the entitled, we in the “Yes, we can,” demanding change under the guise of security.

Security is an inside joke; you can’t find it on the outside, get it? Hahaha.

Ah, what can I say? My brother is the comedienne of the family. Anyway, now that I’ve hung up my pointe shoes, another initiation is on the horizon: parenthood.

So far, so good: the little tea-pot is kicking and appears healthy. I am quite comfy in my maternity jeans and enjoy food in an almost orgasmic way. I’m talkin’ peanut butter and butter and jelly. I have boobs for the first time in my life; I have to lift to get up under there and wash. Ladies, y’all know what I’m talkin’ ’bout. And I feel a kind of immunity from the cares of the world, like I’ve just won a challenge on Project Runway and cannot be eliminated for the next round. There’s a sort of energy of respite that confused me at first, but that I now wallow in quite contentedly.

Mostly, when people find out that I am pregnant, and at six months it’s hard to miss, they are sincerely congratulatory, but then there are those others, the rainers-on-the paraders, who take the opportunity to unleash their cynicism about parenthood under the pretext of giving me a head’s up. Thanks. They complain about how unhappy they are, stopping just short of out-right blame towards their kids followed by an insincere chuckle and an awkward silence.

Maybe I caught them at a bad moment but it seems…maybe they’re missing the point? They cannot see the bigger picture and place their experience within the context of initiation. They cannot see the hope of unconditional love.

I’m not saying that there’s not an appropriate place and time to express one’s heart-ache over parenting. Of course there is. But I suspect our above mentioned cynics also lack a context for expressing grief. Maybe we don’t have to choose between the image of the new-agey, bullshit, eternally cheery positive thinker and the cynic.  Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook by honestly accepting how we feel, without resistance, without labels. By resisting our humanness, we become trapped in a prison of expectation, a maze with no center, no exit and no reward. And I only know about the maze because I’ve been there. I guess getting lost is sometimes part of it. We forget that it’s not who we are.

I often look upon the Spiritual journey, of which parenting may play a big part for those who choose it, not as a process of gaining special psychic powers or existing in some perpetually blissful state, but as a process of becoming fully human. And don’t worry. If you don’t choose parenting, initiation will find you some other way.

And then there are those, many of whom are quite accomplished in other areas of their lives, who say, without doubt or hesitation, that parenting is the best, the greatest thing they’ve ever done.

Ashe.

Here we come to welcome you, Little Big One.


10 Spiritual Insights for Dancers

I have wondered a lot lately whether ballet is part of my contract for being here on this earthly plane, something to which I agreed upon prior to birth. Is my contract with dance or ballet in particular? Have I fulfilled my obligations to ballet and is it time to focus on some other way to dance?

I went into meditation this morning and what I’ve written here was my answer. The funny thing is, while investigating how to get greater readership for my blog, I often came across advice to make lists of ten which I immediately shunned as tacky and simplistic. Then this! Well, I’m learning.

I invite you to take what serves you and disregard what doesn’t resonate. I don’t think this is comprehensive. I don’t really trust things that claim to be comprehensive. I wrote this with love for my students, for myself and for the dance goddess, whose love has shattered me. I’m sorry, my darling, that it has taken me so long to embody the one who could write this. Ashe. I love you, still.

1. Technique/Practice. I’m finding lately that in our modern age, the idea of technique (to those who don’t yet have it) is starting to be interpreted as a sort of magical door that once clicked will give you access to the golden room of dance. Students are looking for a shortcut. There is no such thing. Even when given the most detailed explanation, you still have to do the work. I prefer to use the word practice instead of technique. One who has a good technique is in other words one who has practiced consistently with discernment over time.  It is a living, growing changing process of increasing subtlety. You may become well seasoned. You may become masterful, but beware of impeccability. There are no absolutes. We in the West interpret one of the Wabi Sabi aphorisms as “everything is incomplete.” This translation misses the mark. It is closer to describe this precept as “the master is one who embraces an infinite path,” or “a master is one who has practiced the newness over time.”

2. Parallel and Harmonious lines of energy. Generally, when we speak of line in dance, we are referring to the external plastique. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a line of energy that comes through your eyes, through your heart, through your fingertips and through your feet. These lines must move in harmony and awareness of each other or in a conscious disharmony which is sometimes used to make an artistic statement . You may think of these lines of energy as musical notes that ebb and flow, but must be sustained throughout the phrase of movement. You are dancing, channeling, these lines of energy. They come through you from the other world and the lines of energy, especially through your eyes, are rooted to your ancestors.

3. Perfection vs. Imperfection. Perfection is a paradox. We must strive for it, while keeping in mind that it is not the goal. Union with the divine is the goal and that does not require perfect turnout, perfect proportions or a perfect smile. Perfection can lead us forward, but we must not let it lead us astray. Our perceived imperfections are the doorway to our humanity. As a dear friend of mine once said, “Nobody gives a damn about seeing you dance. They want to see themselves through you.” Our humanity, our striving for what is unattainable, our vulnerability, allows others in. Perfection is superficially attractive, but ultimately alienating, sterile and boring.

4. Magic. There are two types of magic: that of the magician and that of the shaman. Both must dance together. The magician’s magic is that of creating an illusion. Drawing the observer’s eye toward what you want them to see. A principal dancer is not one without flaw. She is one who has mastered this art of illusion. Your dancing is not only about you. It is about what you can point to. This requires an active imagination. If you are preoccupied with thoughts of yourself, you will not be able to take the audience very far. You must create a whole world, a whole universe, and then take them there. Often, I will give a step in class and people will start doing it in a headless sort of way without giving a thought to the illusion. They want to do it right, but if you are not creating an illusion, no matter how “right” you do the step, it will not be dancing.

The next kind of magic, shamanic magic, is the magic of change. It has to do with moving energy around, drawing it into you, transmuting it and sending it back out again. Not only do you create the universe with your imagination, you are the universe. The shamanic magic cannot be so easily described. It requires faith. It requires one not to just imagine there, but to actually go there, to burn yourself completely and leave no trace, or, stated differently, to become a vessel to that which burns.

5. Fear. There are two kinds of fear: paranoia and authentic fear. The first kind is to be avoided. It is the fear that says you are not good enough, worthy enough, pretty enough,thin enough etc. It is the kind of fear that the media instills in us through doctored, medicated images of perfection which become exacerbated by a dancer’s natural vanity and obsession with the mirror.

The second fear, authentic fear, is good. Make friends with it. It is the kind of fear that leads us forward. It calls us to become our highest Self and may indicate that we are in the presence of spirit. It is the little voice inside of us that says yes when other external voices say otherwise. Say yes and see what happens. Do not make a problem out of authentic fear. It is not necessary to rid yourself of it prior to a performance. It is only required that you move through it. “If you go forward you die. If you go backwards you die. So go forward and die.”–African proverb.

6. Faith. As my teacher, Ken Ludden said, faith requires action. Faith is doing the thing you know to be true, even when you do not know the outcome, and even when you do. Faith is the essential ingredient that moves us forward in life and in dance. It is what must be present in order to transcend fear.

7. Stillness/Silence. We often think of dancers as people who move beautifully, but what is equally important is the degree to which we can cultivate stillness in movement and in our lives. We have to take a note from musicians who must be as equally aware of the sounds as they are of the silence.  The movement, the sound, is what frames the stillness, the silence. And it is the space in-between that allows our presence to shine.

8. Compassion and Forgiveness. Have compassion for yourself, your teachers, your fellow dancers and everyone. A moment of compassion heals the whole world. Try to free yourself from expectation and learn instead to flow with what is. Compassion will soften the inevitable struggle that is dance. Forgive what might have been when it comes to the big moments in life and the little ones that occur in performance. Forgive your father, forgive the goddess of dance for her fickle, cruel nature, forgive being off your leg in that pique arabesque. Forgiveness is a big part of The Dance. If you can’t recover from a mistake, you can’t dance.

9. Competition. I have heard many people say that there is a good aspect of competition. If there is, feel free to write it here. I haven’t experienced it. Competition disconnects us from our internal voice and makes us reach outward. It makes us un-centered and breeds jealousy. It makes someone a loser and someone else a winner, but that is never the truth. It’s ok to want something that someone else has. It is good to feel inspired by others. But when that wanting leads us away from our own path, we get lost. Our purpose, our medicine, is unique in the world. It is our job to bring it forth, with the help of our community, nature, our ancestors and other invisible forces. Our culture spends a lot of energy cultivating competition instead of focusing directly on helping people manifest their purpose. Competing in a competition may indirectly point you in the right direction, but why not have healing as a starting point? Competition is therefore a primitive and inefficient means of moving forward. Love and nurturing make better flowers.

10. Fun. If I could change one thing about my career, it wouldn’t be to have had more roles, to have made more money, to have better feet, better extension, more turns, or any of that crap. It would have been to have had more fun. Laughter is great medicine for body and soul. It takes many lifetimes to master an art. We have a long way to go. Make fun along the way. It will keep your love for dance ALIVE.


21 Day Challenge

May 14th,

Two little birds swing

On thin branches, suddenly

All the leaves have eyes.

One day, while driving around in the Grey Pearl, I wanted some company, so I switched on the radio. The tape and cd player haven’t worked in ages, which doesn’t stop me from having tapes and cds in the car. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. It’s sort of like keeping a picture of an old person from when they were young. You want to remember them in their glory days. Or maybe I just want to remember myself that way: Tai and Natasha driving downtown on the FDR listening to Missy Elliot, Tai driving to Boston for the first time listening to Destiny’s Child, etc.

The Grey Pearl is at the point in her life when I’ve stopped fixing things. She’s all meals-on-wheels-y and has the eau of stale popcorn and wet dog. I take her out once in a while for a slow drive to the Stop-n-Shop.

April 24th, Buy turkey sausages and tangelos. Not necessarily in that order. pause pause pause pause pause pause pause pause pause pause pause…

The radio still works as long as you don’t have the wiper blades on, the lights on, or the defroster on. She can only handle one function at a time before she starts screeching like a Nazgul, a sound so ghastly, it makes even the hardest homie on the corner cringe with fear as I roll by.

It’s hard to mention the Grey Pearl without indulging in a bit of nostalgia. But this is not about her. It’s about what I heard on the radio that day.

It was a sunny day. I risked the radio without a complaint from Pearl. I tuned into NPR with me and Pearl cruising along at 30 mph. Good times.

April 29th, Let go let go let go let go open open open…

Enough of this it’s time for bed

Undo the thread of writing dread

Unknow my head

Uncross my doubt

Navigate the round-a-bout

The moment I switched on the radio, I heard a male voice say, “If you want to write, you have to write every day. Around the 21st day, something happens. It takes on a life of its own.” I took this as a sign.

I drove home with images of how I might transform into a Rumi or a Murakami after my twenty-one days of writing. One day they might even interview me on NPR!

I wanted to take on the challenge. I tried to write every day, but some days I just couldn’t. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I gave up, boo hoo. I’d heard from writers before that in order to grow, you have to make it a daily practice, but I could never assume that discipline.

I mentioned this to an artist friend of mine who suggested just writing without any agenda. Without the need to share it or even have it make sense. Just practice every day, even if you write the same word over and over again.

April 28th,

Inscrutable Inscrutable Inscrutable Inscrutable Inscrutable Inscru–

Let’s keep dancing, shall we?

Maybe not.

Genius isn’t creating.

It’s knowing when to stop.

Stop your roll

Stop your flow

You enter things you should not go

Ho ho, said the keeper of the beat

Learn to make your moves discreet

I do not mend the mind that flows

It knows its road

It holds its goal

The soul of hand, of paper, pen

That moves the glen

Of writing zen

Cannot compete with screens of light

Of kindle fires made with wires

Delight the light-weight simpleton

Whose cannot-carry shoulders win

The world gets smaller every day

A box-shaped box

Has found its way

Into our hearts

And don’t forget the world of art!

It’s found its way inside there too

Next to the extinct kangaroo

Reducing nature to a myth

No one will remember this

Except in dreams

That thing of green

You mean a tree?

Is that its name?

A fiction, unicorns the same.

His words freed me. Writing became a part of my daily practice. I found that because I had to write things down, I could not avoid anything. What I mean is, often when I feel blue let’s say, I try to avoid or change this uncomfortable feeling, but I found that, in the space of avoidance, I couldn’t write. Not even a stream of consciousness. I had to write the truth of what was and somehow the writing of it allowed me to process it and move on. I know this is nothing new. That’s why people keep journals. It’s just new for me.

I became interested in the process itself. I started out printing by hand. Then, a day or two into the twenty-one day challenge, my writing switched to cursive, mid-sentence. Then one day, I started writing vewy vewy small.

May 15,

I am so lonely. I am Yoda’s little brother, only five hundred and eighty-seven years old. I am not a Jedi like my brother. I am an alcoholic.

The rest of the family does not talk backwards like Yoda. We speak in straight sentences. Our father tried to beat it out of him, this quirkiness of speech. He said it’s a big waste of commas, so Yoda ran away.

Yoda came to my room one night. He said, “Fred, running away, I am. Take the beatings any more, I cannot. Miss you, I will.”

I cried. I begged him to stay, or take me with him. He said I was too young, only eighty-seven at the time. That’s young for us Yodas.

Yoda, incidentally, is the family name. The one you call Yoda is Clavsti(((comb Yoda. It’s hard to pronounce in your tongue.

Before he left, he gave me an (((-))) 8, which is a kind of seventeen legged creature from our planet. It wasn’t a real (((-))) 8, but fashioned out of mud and aluminum foil. By swinging it in loops from its tail, Yoda said I could contact him wherever he was in the universe.

At night, I like to swing my (((-))) 8 by its tail and talk to my older brother. I like to believe that he can hear me, wherever he is. Sometimes I hear stories at the bar about the great Master Yoda, about the battles he’s fought against the empire. I like to wave my three-fingered fist in the air and cheer him on: Go Clavsti(((comb!

Epilogue: Day twenty-two

A dose of nature

Free me from this mundane head

All the snakes are out.


Divination

“The health of the eye depends on a horizon.”–Emerson

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the mystical branches of spirituality. As part of my search, I occasionally sought divinations including I-ching, tarot, palm readings, astrology (both Western and Vedic), channelling, past-life regression, Michael charts, numerology, Ifa readings and most recently, the shell divination of the Dagara tradition of Burkina Faso as taught and practiced by Malidoma Some.

I go to see a diviner when I need help from the other side. The strength of a diviner seems to be based on the extent to which they are able to become a vessel for a disembodied being: an ancestor, a spirit guide or angel, a kontomble (the little people in Dagara cosmology), etc.

I consider divination to be a kind of art. Finding a good diviner is sort of like finding a good massage therapist. Everyone has a different style. You just have to find the one that works for you.

Skeptics argue that diviners are charlatans who are only after money, but such charlatans exist in every field. These skeptics also argue that diviners say such general things that may be true of just about everyone, but so do most doctors. Even as a ballet teacher, I find myself saying the same things over and over again to different students because people tend to make the same mistakes.

I go with the understanding that even the shabbiest diviner can extract a kernel of truth from the cards, bones, shells or what have you, and it is then up to me as to what I do with that message. Of course, one should practice discernment when going to see a diviner. When you hear the truth, you feel a kind of resonance with it and it’s ok to trust that. If you don’t feel resonance, go to someone else.

Getting a divination from a skillful diviner is like being served a large meal. You can’t eat everything on the plate, but you do the best you can. Some of the things you may not initially understand and you find that the message unfolds mysteriously in layers as you become better able to digest it.

For example, one of the things Malidoma told me in a divination was that I had a weakness in nature. A weakness in nature, now what could that possibly mean? It’s true, as I said in the previous post, that I have a thing for trees. Is that what he meant? Or does the weakness have something to do with my own nature? What is my nature?

During the divination, you are free to ask questions, but at the time, I was so busy trying to grasp other things that I let the weakness in nature issue go until several months later another diviner of the same tradition told me the same thing. And yet a third Dagara diviner looked at my numerology and verified this weakness in nature yet again.

But what does that mean? I decided to start spending more time in nature. Perhaps I would find my answers there. My husband and I started taking almost daily hikes in the Blue Hills reserve, not far from where I live in Boston.

No matter how reluctant we are to make the twenty-minute drive, we are always grateful that we made the effort. We notice that every time we walk through the woods, whatever stress we are carrying is magically cleansed and there is always a gift: a tiny bird’s nest, six hawks that swooped close by, a gentle rain, a horizon, a new path. And we notice too, that the rest of the day seems to flow more sweetly after the time spent in nature.

As I started to become nourished by nature, further understanding of my divination began to unfold when my husband and I took a trip to Manhattan to look at museums and galleries. The streets were crowded. It was a nice weekend but the more we walked through the chic lower West side, the more I started to wither inside myself. Feelings of alienation and inferiority began to overwhelm me. Everyone and everything was so fabulous. I felt like a dandelion struggling through a crack in the cement, surrounded by rare and exotic flowers.

I grew up in New York City and the place holds a lot of memories for me. At night, I was assaulted by dreams of experiences in which I was made to feel small. In those moments, when I felt weak in the presence of others, I could see how my lack of strength in my own nature caused me to cower. Sometimes this energy was intentionally inflicted but other times not. I was just too easily intimidated because I was un-rooted, not at home inside myself, and easily blown off-balance, like a shallowly rooted tree in a hurricane.

Aha! So this is how the weakness in nature manifests itself in me. I could see how I built up an armor around this wound without having healed it and how the recent initial healing in nature was allowing me to see this issue more clearly in myself.

I could see how my nature is tied to the big nature of the world. And at last, I could feel some compassion for myself. Finally, I could unclasp the heavy armor encasing my heart, and reveal it without shame, naked and bleeding, because in my embrace of nature, I have begun to take root.

Malidoma says that a weakness in nature is common for modern people. During my recent visit to NY, I could see evidence of that. In a city, we are constantly told how to be, what to think and do. Walk, don’t walk. Buy this. Eat here. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Faster. Upgrade. I think even if you are strong in your nature, everyone is influenced by city persuasion to some extent.

And I’m not saying that those things are inherently bad. I like sushi and a fancy pair of shoes. I’m just saying that it’s easy to lose yourself by being swept up in a tide of fabulousness that has nothing to do with who you really are. To know nature is to know yourself. And to know yourself is fucking fabulous.


Tai’s Room Part II: Daughter of Africa

Before I enter the museum, I have to breathe. I have to take long breaths and consciously let go. I can’t just walk in off the street with all that worldly smut clinging to me. Even just getting there and circling the Fenway for twenty minutes looking for parking is stressful. So I have to let go. Drop the pace. Find the moon. Tune.

Then I enter and let myself be guided. Getting lost is rather the point, though it is impractical when one has to pee and can’t find a bathroom. Plus I’m shy and afraid to ask the guards for directions. They look mean. Especially that big one on loan from Spofford. So, off I go, hunting for those universal bathroom signs with the triangle lady/rectangle man and their floaty round heads, when I  instead find myself not in the bathroom at all, but in the room of African artifacts. Goddamnit.

Oh, this is a clever trick of my unconscious (or something else) indeed, because I’ve been avoiding this room. This room is not like other “art” to me, to be viewed from my own, comfortable, self-indulgent perspective, basking in the reflected shimmer of oil paints or whatever.

I was unsure of how to approach it, but it was too late to turn back. They saw me. They’ve seen me every time I’ve come. What was I waiting for? With all due respect, little sister, you should have come to us first. Showing up in this room felt like being put on the spot to give a speech at a wedding. I was afraid of what to say, what I could possibly say, having nothing to say. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I did.

“You know exactly why,” says Mr. Octopus.

I received my little glass of the thick, dark liquid and drank. The ayahuasca worked its way through my system, taking a reading of me from the inside out. In a while, my solar plexus felt charged, on fire. I heard some African music (Ali Farka Toure’s “In the Heart of the Moon”) coming from the speakers on the other side of the room. I had to be near that music. It seemed to be calling me. I couldn’t stand, so I crawled to where the sound emanated. I wanted with all my being to touch this music. Oh, please, if I can just touch you, so beautiful.

Once I settled in by the speakers,  I felt a sudden unexpected rush of emotion. A kind of summary of slavery and colonialism tore through me. It was not like reading about these things from a textbook. It was like having pain rip through you, entering your back and out through your guts like a horde of hungry poltergeists. I was left drowning and screaming and crying on the floor, eviscerated. 

Then, through this music, I heard, with my inner ear, the warmest, kindest male voice “speaking” to me. I grew up without my father and have never known a father’s love until I heard this voice that I recognized as Father. With a love I cannot describe in earthly language, he said, “You are a daughter of Africa. Come home.” And I laid down in the amnion of my father’s music for a long, long time.

A classical music concert just started nearby. Late-comers rushed through the African room on their way in. I waited for the foot traffic to die down. Alone, finally, I spoke out loud to all the sacred vessels and to the spirits they served: I am sorry. I am sorry I didn’t come here first during previous visits to the museum. I sometimes don’t know what to do with all the love I have for you. You remind me of my spiritual longing and it hurts. I am sorry that you were taken and neutralized behind glass, treated as dead artifacts instead of the sacred conduits for beings that are very much alive. I hope that someday you will be returned home.

I felt inwardly that my apology was received and that I was now free to move about the room. I found a photograph of a Fon altar dating from the mid 19th to early 20th century. The description of the photograph describes a central figure with a top hat and pipe and goes on to say, “The figure probably represents Yovogan, a special minister named by King Guezo (ruled 1818-1858) to oversee foreigners and trading houses in Ouidah.”

My inner-knowing perked its little head up like a hot turkey timer. I looked more closely. Hmmm. Very suspicious. I don’t think that’s a politician sitting up on that altar. I could be wrong, but in the top hat and pipe I recognize deities: Elegua to the Fon and Papa Legba to Haitians. It’s possible that Yovogan channeled Elegua in ritual, or even imitated his dress in public, but in any event, I’m convinced that the writers of this placard did not do their homework. So I write a little sign of my own (hee hee hee) that says “I am not Yovogan,” and affix it above the photograph with a piece of chewing gum. (Hee hee hee).

Next, I move to the Nigerian carved stone head, chewing gum at the ready. The placard reads that “this piece was perhaps intended to memorialize the dead.” From what I understand, traditional Africans would not memorialize their dead like we do here in the west. For them, the dead are not reduced to memory. They are alive in another realm and very much involved with us who are still embodied. So, I write another sign that says, “I am not a memorial” and stick it to the glass.

At this point, a guard enters the room with his walkie-talkie, talking. He sits down. Are they on to me? I flat-out ask him, harumph, if he’s watching me, curious as to why I’ve suddenly become so bold when a few minutes ago I was too shy to ask directions to the bathroom. Caught off guard, literally, he stumbles with his words and finally manages to confess that he’s just trying to get away from his boss! Hee hee hee.

Anyway, now under surveillance, I have to quit my chewing-gum shenanigans. I wander as unsuspiciously as possible back over to the cases. I wonder what it would be like to dance behind a ritual mask, to channel those spirits.

There is a Chokwe mask used to honor female ancestors. Do the Chokwe want their mask back? And the Makonde? Do they want their mask back? And the Dan and the Fang and the Vai? Who are these people? I have heard of the Goths, the Vikings, the Celts, the Basques, the Bretons and many other European groups, but these names are all new to me.

Hello. I hope to meet you someday soon.

I never did find that bathroom.


“tai jimenez eating disorder”

In case you are unfamiliar with blogging, there is a menu that you can click on for your own blog that reveals internet search-words people used to find their way to your blog. This may happen by accident. For instance, if someone is doing a search for “tides” the entry I wrote called “Queen of Tides” might show up. There are ways to manipulate the search engine so that your blog shows up near the top of the queue for the purpose of increasing your readership. I have no idea how to do that, technology boob that I am. I just write the stuff.

Anyway, lately there have been a lot of searches for “tai jimenez eating disorder.” I haven’t tackled this subject in-depth here, but someone or some people want to know this story. This is a big subject and I pray that I can write about it in a way that is useful to others.

[Ooh chile, wait a minute. I gotta light a candle first.]

Here goes…

I was very fond of Oreos. When I had a little change, I would go to the cafeteria at the School of American Ballet where I was studying, and buy a six-pack of Oreos from the snack machine. I looked forward to this ritual without question. Then, a couple of years into my training there, I was skipped a level. I suddenly found myself in class with girls several years older than me. They talked about dieting. For the first time I heard words like anorexia and bulimia. I wondered, licking the icing from my Oreos, why anyone on earth would entertain such things.

After my fourth year, I felt lost at SAB. I left and went to study in a small, now defunct school that gave more personal attention to its students.  The summer I left SAB, before freshman year at high school, I remember putting on a pair of shorts. My mother shot me a withering look. I was not allowed out in those shorts anymore. My body had started its change. I filled out and continued dancing with my new curves. My new teachers did not emphasize thinness. There were dancers of all body types at this school. There was one severely anorexic girl and the director of the school made her eat under her watchful gaze if she wanted to continue to take class there. It was tough, motherly love. It was understood that you had to be healthy to dance, not too fat, of course, but not too skinny either.

When I was sixteen, I started auditioning. I wasn’t quite ready for a professional company but was encouraged to go to auditions to get the feel for it. I asked my teacher if she thought I needed to lose weight. She said I needed to drop about six or seven pounds which I did by cutting out red meat and the oversized muffins that were popular in New York City coffee shops at the time. Oreos and soda were history. A year later, an audition was arranged for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and I danced with the junior ensemble for a few months before joining the main company.

Company life was very different from the small homey school I had attended. There was no tough motherly love. It was just tough. I won’t get into all the gory details here–

“The word Hitchcock suddenly comes to mind,” says Mr. Octopus.

What I mean is, ballet is supposed to be tough. I loved the challenge! I did it for the challenge, but that challenge is built-in. In a lot of ballet companies however, well, it is tough for the wrong reasons but I don’t want to get into all that here. I’ll save that for the inevitable ballet company reality show. I want to make it clear that I take full blame and responsibility for what I did to myself and will admit also that I was less than a ray of sunshine all those years to my fellow dancers. I don’t think I was an asshole, exactly. I was just…neutral. I adopted a stance of neutrality in order to survive. In order to keep dancing, which was sacred to me. I am still struggling with my default-into-neutrality setting. Teaching has helped with this somewhat because to be a good teacher, baby, you gotta fight.

Some dancers who were not the waify type were chastised about their weight. They were shamed publicly before their peers. I suspected that roles were withheld from those on the weight-list, not based on ability, but based on size. I didn’t want to suffer that fate. I wanted to be a principal dancer and most of the ones I idolized were tiny.

I started dieting with renewed force. It wasn’t even conscious. I was hungry and tired all the time. One day on the way home from work, I bought a pint of ice-cream. I ate the whole thing and, in a sort of trance, I purged. A few days later I did it again. I told myself I could stop whenever I wanted but it quickly became a nightly routine.

One evening, my mother heard me vomiting in the bathroom. (I was still living at home). She confronted me but I denied it. I felt terrible for lying to her and finally worked up the courage to confess. I could barely get the words out through my tears. She got angry at me. She said I was taking the easy way out. I thought she was right and felt humiliated and weak. She abruptly left the couch where we were sitting and came back with a piece of paper that had a phone number on it. It was the number for a therapist.

I went to therapy. For years. My therapist was somewhat impressed with the elaborate and unusual ritual of my disorder: I would stuff myself secretly, until I achieved a kind of numbness. Then I would sit on the toilet and sing my guts out, sometimes for hours. I would sing and sing and sing. By the time I purged, a lot of the food was digested, but I did it anyway. Looking back now, I think it was my soul trying to sing itself free…free from the pressure and constant criticism I received as a dancer, free from my debilitating sense of isolation and feeling unimportant, unrecognized, and unwanted in a mean cut-throat world that I nevertheless wanted to succeed in. I liked my therapist very much, but my “symptom” persisted, unabated.

I lived this way for thirteen years.

Somewhere along the way, I left therapy. I remember one day having the epiphany that mine was a spiritual problem and could not be solved this way. Truth be told, I do not “know” how I healed myself, or that it was all me that did the healing. I do know that I wanted to heal even though it was hard for me to imagine being free.

I started going to yoga. In my first yoga class, there was a lot of chanting. I just let myself cry openly. I realized in my first attempts at yoga that in spite of years of dancing, I was actually very weak. There was a spiritual bookstore at the yoga studio. I started reading spiritual texts and going on retreats. I spent time with like-minded people. I made friends. I enjoyed spending time with my friends so much in fact that I found myself sticking around, hanging out, instead of going home to my secret shame. I guess you can say that I “needed a whole community of people to pull me out of the water I was drowning in,” as the great teacher, Martin Prechtel says. There are certain things, like recovering from an eating disorder, that are too big to do alone.

In the beginning of my healing journey, I still thought about food a lot. Every once in a while, I would binge, but those times became fewer and farther between. I sometimes woke up in a sweat from a dream that I’d started bingeing and purging again. I didn’t consciously work on curing myself. After years of therapy, my will had proven itself impotent in the face of this monster. Rather, I just allowed myself to be pulled out of the water. I turned my attention in another direction. My friends that pulled me out of the water didn’t know that they were doing that. I need to find a way to thank them.

I am close to my mother now as well. Having a daughter who wanted to be a ballerina was the furthest thing from her mind when she gave birth to me. I was a hellion of a teenager. We were both in over our heads. I love her more than I can say. This blog entry is just a little part of the story. There is so much she gave, so much she sacrificed, and I am grateful to her.

It has been over a decade now that I’ve been on the other side of this thing. It is hard to believe with all the love I am blessed with, that I ever lived in such utter despair. There were times when I wanted to die.

I remember at some point opening up to the idea that I could actually love myself. It was just an idea at first, but a seed was planted. However, that hope came at a price. I had to openly look at the time and relationships I’d wasted obsessing over food. I realized that my best dancing years were squandered in a haze of self-loathing. I imagined, regretfully, what I might have achieved with a healthy body. I coulda been a contenda! I knew that in order to move forward, I would have to take all parts of myself, meaning that I had to forgive myself. Now, that was work.

I also had to do a lot of work with holistic medicine, especially acupuncture, to help with the healing process. One practitioner described me as having pushed myself so hard that I’d split myself in two. I still have painfully sensitive gums from all the years of bingeing and purging and for a long time, I had these weird stomach convulsions. But I feel healthy now. There was certainly a lot of grace involved but I am ok.

And if you are struggling with your relationship to food, I hope this story will help you find your way out. I am not a doctor, but I would suggest in the beginning, that you do not try to fix it. It will resist you. It’s very presence is your soul speaking to you. Try to be still. Listen. Turn your energy to what you love and to whom you love. That love will light your way.

A student recently asked me if it (my career) was worth it, and my answer was yes, but not for the obvious reasons. It was worth it because the struggle made me who I am today. And I am starting to really like her.

Blessings.

Ashe.

Peace.


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