Tag Archives: ballet

Rebellious Daughter: A Tribute to Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

Death has a way of waking us up, for a while. Yesterday, after hearing about the death of Arthur Mitchell, I retrieved my daughter from kindergarten with immense gratitude and received her love in full return. I was talking to Mr. Mitchell in my head the whole time, saying that I was sorry he never met my daughter. He should see her feet! I imagined him standing with us in the playground of the Nathan Hale Elementary School. I said to her, “I know you don’t like to perform on demand, but this is Arthur Mitchell. He’s a very special person and you have to point your feet for him,” and if she resisted, it wouldn’t matter, because he had a way of making people want to point their feet!

And I thought about how different it is to be a kid nowadays. Little girls and boys are steeped in ballet culture from an early age. You can buy a tutu at Target for goodness’ sake, whereas tutus, back in the day, were a right of passage. You couldn’t just buy one, anywhere, like a gun.

My daughter, Colibri, and I have a book about a dancing brontasaurus named Brontorina, who experiences predjudice among other limitations, but who continues to follow her heart. Finally, a community of children convince one skeptical teacher to come to Brontorina’s aid. It is easy to see through a child’s eyes, but applying Brontorina’s message into the real world is quite another matter. We adults know that this is a story about racism, a word that fires the trigger hairs of every American.

Brontorina is also an inspiring story about overcoming one’s limitations with the help of one’s community, because nothing big can be achieved alone. And about opening our minds in a way that will allow us to include everyone. That is what Arthur Mitchell strove to do. He was a black man.

Now we have books about little black girls who take ballet class and become ballerinas. I am a girl in that story. I want us to remember, and for our children to remember, how people fought to make the art form accessible to all. And to remember that sometimes you have to believe in something with all your heart. Mr. Mitchell fell in love with ballet. He, a black man, gave the world permission to allow everyone to love ballet, that is, to see things in a new light.

I meditate daily on the cost of change.

***

When someone that you love dies, for a while, everything reminds you of them. This morning it was overcast. Suddenly the sun burst through the clouds, and it was Mr. Mitchell’s sun bursting into the room, into the studio, shocking, purposeful, burning, determined, relentless.

I remember that sunlight smile as he offered his hand to be led by the ballerina to center-stage for his signature bow at the end of the performance. For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.

Last year, we spoke on the phone for what I knew would be the last time. Even though his health was failing, his voice was as sure as ever. Hearing it made all my cells stand up in salute. He was organizing a performance and wanted me to return to dance Firebird. I laughed, as it’s been years since I stood on pointe. But our conversation was warm. He had softened over the years and so had I.

***

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

I know you can hear me. I feel you hearing me. I want to talk to you as never before, while you’re still around for a few days, overhead, making the rounds. I could not sleep last night because of all of the souls here on earth, especially me, who are trying to contact you now. A comedienne recently said that when she dies, she wants everyone who ever loved her to take off from work. It was funny, the way she said it. I took today off just so I could talk to you in a way that I never could face-to-face. You just had this way of overpowering everything around you.

Sometimes, talking one-on-one, you would drop your performer’s armor and I could hear you, like when you told me over and over again that I had to wear the mantle, and I tried to keep myself from buckling at the knees. I am one of yours. I didn’t know my father, so any male in my life was bound to be resented. I don’t have words to say how sorry I am. I was such a jealous daughter. You tried to teach me how to stand in my power. I came to you already broken. I was fighting for what was mine like a wild dog. I’m sorry for that. You saw me as “smart” and as a “pure dancer.” As a black girl, I desperately needed to be acknowledged for having something that was good. I’d been beaten. All I knew was how to beat myself and the others around me with my disdain. In your own words, you said you wanted us to look like hungry dogs, and I saw the beauty in that. I was like a Bladerunner, hacking at my weaknesses. I thought I had to break myself in order to understand where I began. You warned me, but I didn’t listen. I had yet to learn how to trust, how to love.

***

I remember the time my complications first met up with your complications…I was at DTH in the summer of 1987, at the age of 17, dancing with the Ensemble under Nancy Shaffenburg. We were finished for the day, so I went upstairs to watch the main company, as had become my habit. You stormed out of studio 3 after raging at the dancers. You spotted me in your crosshairs and shouted, “Oh, you’re the one from Madame Darvash! (like that wasn’t a good thing), and marched abruptly into your office. Thank God for Sharon Williams-Duncan for saving us in those days. She has glory, under God.

***

I didn’t know your middle name was Adam, until yesterday, but how fitting. You were the first. I can’t imagine what that cost you. In yesterday’s New York Times article, Jennifer Dunning wrote about your premier with New York City Ballet. She said it was in Western Symphony in 1955. She writes that, “Years later, Mr. Mitchell recalled hearing gasps and at least one racist comment from the audience when he entered the stage that night.” (Arthur Mitchell is Dead at 84; Showed the Way for Black Dancers. nytimes.com)

But I remember you telling that story very differently. In my recollection, your premier was in Swan Lake. You’d asked Mr. Balanchine not to write a press release. You didn’t want there to be any controversy stirred up before you hit the stage. I think that was a brilliant move on your part by the way. Besides, dancing Swan Lake is hard enough. I’ve seen people piss their pants with fear. Anyway, when you stepped out onto the stage, someone shouted, “Oh my God! There’s a nigger on the stage!” And then some patrons started to exit. Some of the Balanchine dancers were quite young, and their parents had them removed from the company, because they didn’t want their daughters to be near a black man. That’s the way I remember you telling it, and I want people to know. We have to tell our own history or it will be erased.

By the way, you were right about it being a mistake for me to go to Boston Ballet after DTH went on hiatus. I couldn’t understand why you felt so betrayed at the time. Honestly, it surprised me. I see now that being in a white company was never the point. The point was to continue to celebrate what we had in the hard times. You needed me then, but I was too caught up in my own agenda to understand that. You know how hard it is to let go.


Gelsey

A dear friend, dancer, choreographer and teacher, Robert Garland, recently shared a video of the renowned ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland, on my Facebook page. Seeing her again led me down a rabbit hole of memory that I thought might be better served as a blog post.

Unfortunately, I only ever saw Gelsey perform on video but even the force of her two dimensional image was enough to change the way I thought about dance. The first time I saw her was in fact in Robert’s apartment. We watched her perform in Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker.” This was back in the days of VCRs and I repeatedly asked him to tediously rewind to her Sugarplum solo so I could etch it in my memory forever.

Among other things, I was amazed at her pointe work. It wasn’t simply that she had the sort of beautiful, high arches that dancers crave. It was in how she used her feet. They were like sensuous tongues lapping the floor in a kind of prayerful reverence with each step.

During my own training, the only note I got at my yearly evaluations was that I had to work on my feet. After seeing Gelsey that first time, I suddenly knew that the feet could become as expressive as hands, as eyes. While practicing, I would sometimes imagine that eyes were at the soles of my feet, seeing, expressing and being seen. Arthur Mitchell, my director at Dance Theatre of Harlem offered rare praise at my transformation.

Around that time, I could often be found studying Gelsey’s videos at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. This reminds me of something Robert used to say: “People often mistakenly assume that dance is not a studied art form.” Well, I can assure you that it is. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time watching dance if you want to dance well. I learned as much from watching great dancers as I did from teachers and I watched them in class, rehearsal and performance.

In Gelsey I witnessed a pure vessel. By that I don’t mean that she was a pure human being. Her struggles with anorexia and drug addiction are well known. By a pure vessel I mean that when she danced, she was in complete service to the art form and to the Spirit that danced her. As such, she elevated ballet to such an extent that nowadays I am often grieved to see it reduced to a kind of soft porn by certain contortionist ballerinas.

For all the Spirit that shone through Gelsey’s dancing, she seemed to have an intellectual center. She was analytical when it came to her work and she needed to understand every moment. It is useless to tell someone with an intellectual center, “Don’t think. Just do,” as choreographer, George Balanchine, once make the mistake of saying. I wonder if one of the reasons Gelsey had to leave the New York City Ballet is because she needed room to be smart!

I do not mean to imply that City Ballet dancers are not smart. All dancers at that level have a kind of genius. I just mean that Balanchine seemed to prefer his women a certain way: young, anorexic and worshipful. Gelsey needed to find a way to worship her own substantial genius.

It is regrettable that after leaving New York City Ballet, that genius was overshadowed yet again by another male, namely Baryshnikov. That would drive anyone over the edge. Nevertheless, Gelsey bestowed her gift to so many, including me, and I don’t think I could thank her enough for all she gave and at such cost.


Broken, full of dreams

“Summary: First performed by American Ballet Theater on April 22 1948, Fall River Legend is the story of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts spinster who was tried for the ax-murder of her father and stepmother. Although Lizzie was actually acquitted, in the ballet she is convicted and hanged. De Mille creates a portrait of a shy, sensitive but receptive girl, turned into a murderess by her father’s psychological abandonment in favor of his second wife, a sour, jealous, manipulative woman who frustrates Lizzie’s budding romance with her minister. Gothic in tone and deeply perceptive in its depiction of the consequences of love thwarted, Fall River Legend reveals a truth deeper than reality.” From http://agnesdemilledances.com

Fall River Legend is one of my favorite ballets. The masterful choreography by Agnes de Mille was matched by an epic score by Morton Gould. Fall River did the thing that art can do at its best: be a vehicle for feeling. Fall River articulated the hush of hidden things, longings, humiliation, humor, frailty, the dream of the mother.

And those goddamn consecutive pirouettes, from fourth-to-fourth, that changed direction. Fall forward! Put on the brakes!

For me, Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem, defined the role of Lizzie Borden. Of course, she managed to make those damn turns look easy, as one skipping into the throes of first love. Those turns…not perfect, never perfect, but so fully alive. Virginia spoke to us in how she picked up the axe. Picked it up and hid it in her skirt. The horror of realization. The chill up the spine.

How does one make sense of the need for sexual love in a world like Lizzie’s, that is, 19th century religious New England? How does one meet that need within when something about you doesn’t meet the society’s standards of worthiness in that area? How does a spinster feel good about her need for sexuality, when, at least externally, she has been stripped of it? How could Lizzie love herself when love was not reflected to her? How do you see past the reflection, or without a reflection? These were some of the underlying issues that Lizzie faced. I was fifteen the first time I saw Fall River, hardly a spinster, but for different reasons, outcast. As such, I was also desperate to make sense of those questions.

Lizzie falls in love with the pastor, and in doing so, reveals herself to be more than her pain. She is a sexual being. For this, she is punished by others for reflecting what they had denied in her and denied in themselves, through her, which was of course, her beauty. Her beauty, unique in this world. Her beauty, broken, but still full of dreams. Just like all of us. (Blade Runner 2049 airhorns!).

Where was I? Lizzie was punished by the preacher, whom she felt betrayed her. She was punished by her jealous mother-in-law. Lizzie was punished by her father’s indifference. And it doesn’t end there: she was punished by a community that tried to console, but lacked the togetherness of spirit and rituals that give a warm coat to the cold night of grief.

Lizzie kills her father and step-mother. Please, understand, I am not advocating killing anyone, but why is it, that when men kill the bad guy, they are seen as heros, but when women kill the bad guy, they are labeled, shunned, imprisoned, burnt at the stake?

The towns-peoples’ rejection of Lizzie is a rejection of themselves. They are unwilling to look at their own failure in the matter, or to even recognize that they have a responsibility towards Lizzie, and so they chose Lizzie as a scapegoat. In other words, they choose to reinforce an idea of separation between themselves and the “other.” That’s how we hate. Lizzie had no one. Her tragedy points us in the direction of love.

I could not have articulated all of that upon my first viewing of the ballet in 1985 at age 15, but I could feel the mystery that it stirred within me. That first experience of Fall River was one of the few examples I remember then, of seeing a complicated, thoughtful woman character, through the medium of art, that looked like me, inside and out. For the first time, I saw myself onstage, especially through Lizzie, but also through the predominantly black community portrayed by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s version, dealing with issues about being human in the way that only stories can.

If you’re not in the story, you’re not fully in the collective consciousness. So art, and in this case, Fall River danced by Dance Theatre of Harlem, put me in my own narrative. Dig that.


Finding Your Voice

“The final statement is not a deliberate one. It is a helpless one.”–John Cage

I’ve always been drawn to visual art. As a child, I poured over my mother’s art books. I had an ability to project myself into a scene, to inhabit its world and to immerse myself into a story. This was during a time when we were not so innundated with images. Art was an entry into the magical parts of my own being. It allowed me to experience emotions that, at that tender age, had yet to be named. I think the way art stimulated my imagination served me as a dancer.

There were two paintings in particular that captured my attention: Rousseau’s “The Dream,” and Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In the first painting, I was drawn to that mysterious woman lying on a couch in the jungle with the tiger lurking in the bushes. It appeared playful, sensual, yet dangerous. It was very exciting to my young mind. I wanted to know what was about to happen. I wanted to be the convergence itself of woman, jungle and tiger.

The Bosch was more complicated. I couldn’t figure out, based on its vision, if the world was a good place or a bad place. It seemed to be both. This terrified and confused me. I stuck with it because I so desperately wanted to understand the nature of things and this painting seemed to hold some kind of truth to my own life.

Now, in the art world, from the beginnings of one’s education, the necessity of finding your own voice is emphasized. You can’t go around doing splatter paintings and expect to be taken seriously. Jackson Pollock did it already. You can be inspired by Pollock, but you have to dig deep into the recesses of your own soul and speak from there.

As dancers, however, this search for one’s own voice is rarely emphasized in traditional training. Most dancers, it is assumed, will be interpreters of another’s vision, namely the choreographer. We are trained, rather, to take direction. To listen. To fit into the line and stay there. To match a previously held standard.

As a teacher of ballet, I try to encourage this individual expression. In my attempt to do that, I have to take a moment to apologize to the great ballerina Sylvie Guillem whom I’ve often used as the butt of a joke: I will often quip that her perfection of line and extension ruined it for everybody. But now I look at Sylvie in another light. She has in fact freed us. I’m not saying you should not get your legs up. I’m saying don’t try to be Jackson Pollock. Leave your own mark.


Follow-up to the Peter Martins Letter and a Special Offer

get-attachment-1.aspxWell, it wasn’t that deep, actually. SAB sent me an email saying that mine was exactly the kind of feedback the committee was interested in. Did I still want to join? I responded, respectfully, no, but please feel free to contact me with any questions, etc.

As to the issue I presented, of me teaching at SAB, that was just a ruse. I could never teach there. My approach to teaching ballet is too different from theirs. They want to create dancers. I want to create an ecstatic moment of dancing. They teach one to master a certain style and technique. I teach dance as a tool for self-mastery. They teach people how to squeeze themselves into a certain look. I teach people how to love themselves as they are and to dance from there. They promote an ideal. I expose the myth. They teach competition. I foster community. They teach hierarchy. I restore sovereignty of self. They pick favorites. I acknowledge everyone’s medicine and stir it up good.

And sometimes, I play hip-hop. SAB ain’t ready for this jelly.

Anyway, some time ago, my dear friends, Kate Penner, Jun Toguchi and I put together a ballet class DVD. I thought, perhaps I can use this DVD as a tool to connect with students far and wide. Here’s my idea: I will mail a copy of the DVD to the first 100 people who ask. Then, you can upload a video of yourself on YouTube (it can be a private channel) and I will give you some personal feedback. It’s not the same as being in class, but it’s something, and it could be fun.

This is a free service, but small donations are welcome.

Please write to me at Piyung@aol.com with “Class DVD” in the subject line, and please don’t laugh at me for still being on aol. Ok, go ahead, laugh.


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


Artist Challenge Part I

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: Jodi Fugate, Jan Miller, 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.


Down the Rabbit-Hole

I belong to an on-line google group that discusses spirituality. It is an extension of a group that meets up periodically for retreats and serves to maintain communications when we’ve returned from the retreat back into our everyday lives.

Recently, one of our members went on a rant: she was frustrated with the community, with the lack of tangible progress, feeling unsupported and lost on her path. I got it. At times, I’ve felt a similar longing and despair.

It got me to asking the question of why we pursue this thing called spirituality and what we hope to get out of it.

I think what started me on my own spiritual quest was a deep unshakable feeling that something was missing. I’d accomplished a lot externally but felt empty inside and unknown to myself. Nothing in the modern world could fill that void. In a way, it’s fair to say I didn’t know what I was longing for, but something about the spiritual texts I came across at the time gave me hope. Also, I had a paralyzing fear of death that…was like…a…wall…to…living?

When I use the word spiritual, I am not only referring to elevated disembodied beings, but to an essential human part of ourselves. It is the non-physical part of us that is associated with light. So, for example, thought can be spiritual or not, but love is and all its subsidiaries: forgiveness, compassion, kindness, truth, etc.

Being spiritual, opening to spirit, doesn’t necessarily give you an immediate answer to the problems of your life. For most of us, the initial opening is more like a can of worms. The light of the opening can illuminate all of the ways we have not loved and then we have to take a long hard look at our crap. Malidoma Some likens the spiritual path to the fall of Alice down the rabbit-hole. The landings are usually hard.

I’ve been falling for some time now. Gradually, your eyes adjust. The real trick is adjusting your spiritual vision during the fwifs and fwams of ordinary life and to eventually maintain a sort of dual vision, for without the dual vision of the mundane and spiritual, you are only seeing half the picture.

The spiritual aspect allows you to see what happens in physical life from a much broader perspective. In my travels, I’ve met people who have extraordinary gifts. They can actually see beings, guides, kontomble and the like. They can travel to other dimensions. They can converse with the dead. You may or may not possess those kinds of gifts, but even without them, one can cultivate spiritual vision by paying attention to how one feels. When you have a bad feeling, you find a moment to stop. Hold onto the feeling and follow the thread to its source. The thread will most likely take you to something you don’t want to look at about yourself, but the moment you see the jealousy, self-hatred, fear, is the moment the door to compassion and then forgiveness can open.

I think we can all do this sort of detective work with ourselves but a lot of us are a little rusty. It’s like a muscle that’s softened with disuse. Plus, we’re afraid to stop, to put our frickin’ phones down.

One of the ways we can strengthen this muscle is through story-telling. Story-telling helps us to practice the art of perspective which is essential to developing the dance between the mundane vision (what appears to be happening) with the spiritual vision (what’s really happening). To tell a story, one must rise above the story itself. There are no bad stories. Just unpracticed story-tellers.

I did a divination for someone recently. I could see that he’d had some kind of early childhood trauma. He was unable to speak about it or to cry. In being unable to tell the story, he was still beneath it, burdened by it, and the water he was unable to release through tears was causing toxicity. I suggested he begin by writing or speaking his story, to let the flow of words assist the flow of water so that he could begin the cleansing process.

And if healing is a process, grieving is a practice. We in modern culture are all looking for a way to cure (end) the hurt, but some things can’t be cured forever. It just needs to be cleaned out periodically. Over time, the hurt comes up less and less, but will still come up until maybe it doesn’t have to any more, but by that time we will have accumulated another hurt. And the practice is that when it comes up, we clean it out with tears, with our story. Most of us don’t need a drug. We need a practice. Without the practice, we are not really living.

The other day a friend of mine sent me a link to a YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIuWY5PInFs. In it a woman is courageously and honestly talking about her ballet career before she is about to give her last performance. I was a mess. I hadn’t grieved my own retirement in a long while. But this time was different. I didn’t get stuck in my head. I didn’t feel regret or the need to question my choices. It was almost like I was grieving for someone else, like watching a movie. I could see a much larger picture. The confusion and fear were replaced by compassion.

And then I ate lunch.


One Dance

Hip-Hop is one of the most influential cultural movements of our time. Its presence has touched everything from ballet to Sesame Street.

Growing up in Queens, NY, a strong-hold of hip-hop, I always loved the music, but while teaching at the Boston Arts Academy, a public arts high-school, I began to fall in love with the dance aspect. Many of my students came to the study of ballet whose only prior dance experience was hip-hop. (I’m using the term “hip-hop” here in a generic way to include various forms of street dancing, ranging from popping and locking to krumping and etc).

These extraordinary dancers taught me a lot. Their movement had an aliveness, a spontaneity, a freshness and built a community that I often felt missing in the concert dance world.

I wanted to touch that aliveness in myself and after much deliberation, worked up the courage to strap on my hot pink Nikes and take a beginner class. My fears proved to be unfounded. There was every sort of person in that hip-hop class, from experienced dancers, to children, to the middle-aged housewife, to the aging hippie, to the Japanese business man. On certain Saturdays, Ms. Jimenez could even be found taking “popping” classes privately with her own hip-hop guru and historian, Jose Eric Cruz.

I did not have any delusions about joining a dance crew in Brooklyn or South Central in order to gain some street cred, but I was having a lot of fun dancing again. It was like a whole new world opened up for me. I found my swag.

As hip-hop movements started to find their way into my contemporary ballet choreography, I began to find startling similarities. Ballet has its own term for swag. It’s called aplomb. Aplomb is the attitude, the carriage, the scent of ballet. Just as an opera singer must always sing with vibrato, a ballet dancer must always move in the universe of aplomb and a hip-hop dancer must always move with the somewhat aggressive self-assurance that is swag in order to be convincing.

Another surprise was that teaching hip-hop to dancers mostly trained in ballet highlighted their weaknesses in ballet. What I mean is this: in a sense, there is only One Dance with many faces. Musicality, dynamics, presence, grace, articulation, expression are qualities found in all its forms. So, for example, if a student was having trouble finding the heavy and obvious down-beat in a hip-hop movement, it usually highlighted a lack of listening in general.

The issue of dynamics, in particular, has suffered in ballet in recent years, due to the emphasis placed on high extensions. Let me explain: nowadays, I find that the dynamics of a movement are often sacrificed to emphasize or accommodate the time it takes to lift the leg very high. I’ve seen conductors stretch a phrase of music to allow more time for an extension to the point where the musical tension was rendered to mush. Some artists tend to prioritize the pose at the end instead of the overall flow of movement. A certain speed and attack are lost. This is a general observation that I see in ballet and of course is not true in every case.

When I was dancing, I was swept up in that trend and often made this same mistake, but now that I’m watching more than dancing, I see it as a kind of sin. When we are dancing, we have to make a lot of choices, but, to me at least, there is a certain hierarchy to those choices and MUSIC TRUMPS EVERYTHING. The dynamics of the music must be respected as holy and mirrored in the body. In that way, I think my own understanding of dance has come full circle. Before I had any training, before I aspired to look like this or that ballerina, I danced, as a child, because of the music. I wanted to be the music.

There was a dancer I loved (now an ancestor) named Mari Kajiwara who danced with the Ailey company for many years before dancing with Ohad Naharin. Mari had an amazingly solid, earthy, supple, fluid movement quality. She also had an extraordinary extension, but her use of extension was always in service to the movement quality, not the other way around. So when she extended, it always felt like the right surprise.

So, I am learning a lot from hip-hop and stealing outright whenever possible. Conversely, I see how ballet has influenced hip-hop, in the fluid, graceful turn-out and port de bras of Lil’ Buck, a true dance pioneer. I know we are all familiar with the platitude that anything’s possible, but when I first saw Lil’ Buck bourre-ing around on the toes of his sneakers, I became a believer. And I cried. One Dance, y’all.

Maybe next we shall fly.


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.


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