Tag Archives: Ken Ludden

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.


Shared Music

I am a truthful man from this land of palm trees.

Before dying I want to share these poems of my soul. –Guantanamera

People are always telling me I’m too much in my head. I think I know what that means now. I think it means that I hold myself apart from things as they happen, from people, so that I can analyze the moment while it’s happening. The majority of my being is focused on this analysis, instead of being in the moment, as they say. It’s like, I don’t trust myself to simply respond to things as they arise, but you can’t look at it and be it at the same time. Wave vs. particle.

Sometimes, I could let go and be it when I danced. I think I do that when I’m teaching dance class as well. I can clearly see when the dancers are too much in their heads. But when the music stops, back in my head I go. Maybe it would be useful to think of everything as a dance. Well, it’s one thing to think it and another to dance it. Thoughts are things but they are not the thing, I’m learning.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try that. I’m going to have my coffee like it’s a dance. I’m going to go to work like it’s a dance. I’m going to listen like it’s a dance of sound. I’m going to eat a turkey burger like it’s a dance. I’m even going to let my thoughts flow like they are dancing.

Maybe that’s why people listen to music with their earphones all the time these days. They want to be in the dance. The only quarrel I have with that is that it seems a bit isolating. You are not dancing with others, but I think that’s when the dance gets really interesting.

I did an ayahuasca (shamanic drug) ceremony once and I could feel how energy moves in waves. I could actually feel it moving through the room and could witness its affects on people. By observing others, even the dog and myself, I could follow the energy’s path and see how it connects us all. We become individual expressions of the wave but we are connected by it at the same time.

I never wear headphones because I know about the wave. I want to see it coming. You can’t do that with headphones on. I mean, talk about being in your head! I don’t like being out in the world, yet cut off from it at the same time. We have to stop and ask ourselves what are we cutting off?

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of things I’d like to avoid in this crazy rag-tag world of ours, but I just don’t think that’s useful or healthy in the long run. What we resist persists. And as one of my teachers, Ken Ludden, said: “The lessons we avoid in life come back around with interest and the interest is pain.” Yeah.

I look upon those ever-present ear-buds, generally, as a numbing mechanism. Same thing with those hand-computers we call phones. Sure, they are useful, but we are often on them with no real use in mind other than to escape. Everybody, Tai says put down your phones. Put them down. Well, it was worth a try.

There is something in me that wants us all to look in the same direction, even if it’s just for a moment. But oh, what a moment it could be. Like when Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk. Like when Obama got elected. Like when the wall came down. Maybe in that terrific moment we could all just look at each other. Really look. The music that unites us is the music that is shared.


Happy Snake Day

I lifted the lid of the diaper genie with my foot and there it was again: a whiff of fear so strong it cut right through me. I got angry. “How the fuck am I supposed to deal with this?” I asked out loud.

What I was referring to were the tsunami-like waves of worry that I experience with regard to my new daughter. She is a plump, healthy little thing. I have no logical reason for this overwhelming fear response but sometimes gruesome images suddenly snap into my brain without warning. I call them panic-visions. I asked my husband if he had them, in general, and he said yes. I’d had them before too: of the truck plowing into me, of the subway blowing up, but now, with my baby bird, these visions have spun out of control. A couple of times every day, I am reduced to tears that I will lose my hold on her while falling down the stairs and she will be sent tumbling, or I will get into some other kind of accident, or worse yet, that someone else will be holding her at the time of said accident, for which I will feel guilt as well as grief.

I wonder if I am experiencing postpartum depression. A friend of mine once brilliantly described depression as the result of refusing to change when it’s time to change. Then, what is depression if not a form of fear? Images of depression on tv are of listless, un-showered people, staring off into space, refusing to play with their dog. I don’t feel like I fit that description exactly. I’m still wearing lip-gloss and have moments of downright perkiness. What I’m feeling is a little more violent. More passionate. But maybe it is a form of depression after all.

I know with postpartum, there are hormones involved. Women are often told that our experiences are due to hormones, as though that makes it less real. But maybe the added impact of hormones upon depression makes things more real and adds to the urgency of needing to change. I’m not saying this is my fault. I’m saying, hormones or not, it’s my responsibility.

Makarta, a spiritual teacher, channeled by Ken Ludden and a few others, once said that one of the purposes of incarnating as a female is that it forces you to deal with your emotions. I thought of this now, in the wake of one of my panic-visions. Either I learn to put my fear in a box or it will eat me from the inside. I can already literally feel it draining my life-force.

I take a deep breath. I think of the multitudes of mothers who have come before me and have suffered The Worry. This gives me strength, knowing that others have endured this aspect of motherhood. I check in on my little one, sleeping soundly. I try very hard to receive this moment with gratitude. On some remote level, I know it is helping me to grow. Helping me to appreciate life. Also, it’s one thing to meditate when everything’s hunky dory. It’s quite another to find stillness in the heat of the blaze.

I am stripped and raw. I had no idea what this would cost me. Yet, I have no regrets. I am in love. I have wanted love more than anything. And love this big brings about a restructuring of sorts. Maybe part of what I’m feeling is the fear of the snake the first time it sheds its skin, the fear of the tree in its first autumn, mistaking the loss of leaves as a sign of death. And it is a little death. If I can manage it with a measure of grace, who knows, maybe I’ll manage the big death with some of that same grace. That is my hope.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.  At this point, motherhood is teaching me, through its sheer impact, to live one day at a time. Today, I took us all out for a walk, baby, dog and me. We watched the leaves falling in the breeze and the light peeking through the trees, teasingly. We stood beneath the noble evergreen and for a moment, embraced in that green, I felt safe.

And of course, writing always helps. Being heard is the icing on the cake, so thank you.

Happy Snake Day to me.


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.


Ancestor Medicine

“The lessons we avoid in life will only come back with interest and the interest is pain.”–Ken Ludden

“As an artist, you can only ever express who you are.”–Qasim Naqvi

*****

“Is Tilly, my maternal mother the one I am supposed to ancestralize?” I ask.

The shells are tossed and answer an emphatic yes. I am not surprised. She is the one on the other side I carry closest. 

It is believed in most traditional cultures that the relationship between the living and the dead is sacred and symbiotic, because essentially we are them. I’ve heard one woman say that we are simply ancestors in the flesh. Birth and death are two sides of the same coin: when we are born here, we die someplace else and vice versa (Malidoma Some). Just as there are people here, hopefully, waiting to receive us, there are those on the other side, hopefully, who mourn our loss. The tears we shed are like amnion for the dead.

The efforts of the living and the dead are essential to the success of a birth/death. Both side have responsibilities. One of ours is to help them transition to the ancestral realm, as they help us to transition during birth. I think it was in Malidoma’s biography Of Water and the Spirit where I read about how a child is born into the Dagara culture of Burkina Faso. Prior to the birth, a diviner consults the ancestor-waiting-to-be-born in order to determine its purpose in incarnating.

Now, many of us in modern culture are lost, searching for our purpose, melancholic and weighted down with the burden of our undelivered gifts. Can you imagine coming here and already knowing why you came? Can you imagine being named for your purpose so that you can’t forget it? Can you imagine that your community also understands your purpose and helps you fulfill it? To the western mind, this might feel like too much pressure and a lack of personal freedom, but traditional cultures are built on community. Your life is not simply yours alone and your purpose has to do with the well-being of all.

When the mother is ready to deliver, all of the children in the village gather around. As the baby’s head appears, the children start shrieking with delight and praise. Since children’s voices are the closest to the baby’s, this is a signal to the baby that they’ve arrived in the right place. It is hard for most westerners, born into cold, sterile hospitals, to imagine such a warm, beautiful, welcome. Reading this made me weep with a profound sense of loss.

Conversely, If one is not aided by the living in their death transition, well, things don’t go so good. Since modern culture has lost touch with the true essence of ritual and grief, the kind of grief “that,” as Martin Prechtel says, “makes you look bad when you’re done,”  the dead struggle, lost, purposeless on the other side. Outside of their rightful seat among the other ancestors, they are rendered powerless to help those they’ve left behind.

As above, so below. So, as a result of the improper send off of our loved-ones, well, their world and our world, which is one world, is in a creepy place. Maybe you’ve noticed. From an indigenous perspective, we cannot begin to heal the wounds of this world until we heal the connection with our ancestors. As Malidoma says, “anything we do here without the sanction of our ancestors will bear little fruit at an unbearable cost.”

All day and night, forty or so of us perform an elaborate ritual to help our deceased loved-ones cross over into the realm of the ancestors. As part of the ritual, we keep an all night vigil. Some of us gifted with sight can see their ghosts gathering around the fire as far as the eye can see. There are so many needing help. They have waited so long. At around 3am we consult the shells again to see if the ones the shells designated have made it.

“Has Tilly made it?”

“No.”

Is there something else I need to do?

Yes.”

Does she want to see me dance?”

Yes.”

Great. This is the last thing I want to do. I am cold and tired, but I can’t say no to Tilly. We have come this far. I approach the fire and dance around jerkily. My mind is racing the whole time.  I’m sure this is the worst dance I’ve ever done and it’s in front of all these people. I want to give Tilly something beautiful and I’m sure I’ve failed.

The shells are consulted again. Has she made it? Yes. Well, at least my efforts were enough to get her there. Mission accomplished, but I cannot forgive myself for that awful galumphing gorilla dance. Suddenly I hear something inwardly that carries a jolt and I know I am plugged in:

THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH DANCING. IT NEVER HAS BEEN. THE PROBLEM IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOURSELF.

Damn. Those ancestors are not wasting any time. I better hold onto my seatbelt: shattering of illusions straight ahead! The words take a minute to settle into my stomach. It’s so obvious now, so clear, I almost want to laugh. It’s one of those things that you can see in someone else, but can’t recognize from the inside.

I think back to the many years I suffered a contentious relationship with my dancing. It’s true that I often used dancing to punish myself. And then I turned around and blamed dancing and everyone in it, but it never hurt me. I hurt myself and tended to attract the energy of victimization.

Now I understand why I’ve been so blocked in renewing my life after retiring from dance: even though a new career or relationship might give me the illusion of moving forward, without this new understanding it would just be the same shit, new package. In order to move forward I would have to bring all parts of myself.

Of course this understanding, though hard, comes with a gift. Now, I can peel away another layer of healing. (I suspect this goes on forever).

“Besides, the whole tortured artist thing is so last century,” says Mr. Octopus.

Yeah. This is the age of enlightenment. You gotta get your shit together.


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