Tag Archives: loss

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.

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The (W)Hole of Love

A friend of mine once said, “To know yourself is to know yourself in love and honey, at some point, you have to stop learning.”

I was in the middle of yet another ship-wrecked romantic entanglement, doing the love contortionist jig-a-ma-joo, bending, twisting, crunching, folding, tap-dancing and stretching myself into a shape I thought would make the relationship work, as though the problem could be fixed if I simply conformed to the image of his expectations, his needs. My partner was sweating just as hard, bouncing off of me at odd angles, trying to catch himself before he broke the furniture.

Of course it hurt to squeeze myself into an unnatural container but so did being alone. I hoped that a little hard work would compensate for a bad fit, but, of course, it didn’t. It never does. You can’t have a homely beauty queen, no matter how great her personality is, and that’s just the harsh truth Ruth.

When we’re young, we are easily swept away by the tidal-wave of romantic love. We expect it to hold the answer to the question of life. We hope it will show us the yellow brick road of our lost, confused souls. We will do anything to hold onto that love even when it hurts, when it scorches, when it consumes.

We go from relationship to relationship searching for fulfillment, as though such a thing as the hole of love can be fulfilled. We are too young to know that love and loss go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Loss is the price we pay for having the gift of love. Period. There is no way to fix this. No remedy for such things. They are only meant to be lived, expressed and accepted.

I remember first meeting my fiance. I wasn’t looking for a man when he came into my life. I thought maybe it was time to let go of the whole romantic thing. I was ready to toss it in the trash with the curling irons and steam rollers from so many ill-fated hairdo’s.

A gay friend of mine once suggested that if neither one of us found a partner by a certain date, we would buy a house and move in together and just have each other as companions. We would write our own version of happily-ever-after. After so many failed relationships, on the brink of my fortieth birthday, I was considering taking him up on his offer.

But after a series of magical, sacred heart opening experiences (involving yoga retreats, sweat lodges, singing naked on a Vancouver beach, you know, my kinda stuff) my heart said yes to him. And my grizzly ole’ thumper ain’t never ever said yes to nobody! It’s not that I hadn’t loved before. I had. Deeply. It’s just that I’d never had the sanction of my inner voice.

In fact, once, when getting involved with a younger man, my inner voice said quite clearly: no no no no no! Now the inner voice is usually subtle. She speaks in metaphor, in feeling. But this time, sista came through loud and clear, saying, and I quote, “He does not belong to you. You will have to give him back.”

Word.

Did I listen to sista? Naaah! Of course not. I went on a roller-coaster ride of sorrow that lasted four years, not counting the year and a half it took me to get over him after we finally broke up.

But this time, with the man who is now my fiance (applause, applause, thank you) I got the go ahead from Inside. Sista said softly, at last, “Yes.” Our first real get together was at a party for a mutual friend. As I was getting ready (cute outfit, not too hoochy) sista spoke up again. She said something like, “Just go along with whatever happens tonight.” And I said, “Ok,” and she said, “Ok,” and we said, “Ok, Ok.”

The first stop of the party was at a drag show, and you know I love me some drag. But the show ended rather early (that’s Boston for you). Some people from our group wandered off, but about six or seven of us, including my suitor, were still itching to party. So we go to a strip club.

Now, this is where I have to remember what sista said because, Lord have mercy, I think of myself as a spiritual, feminist type. But strangely, at the suggestion of the strip club, my hackles do not go up. I play along.

[Mom, if you are reading this, please skip the next  two paragraphs.]

All of the dancers look so young. All I can do is think about dey poor mamas at home, hunched over the kitchen table with a half-empty bottle of scotch, wringin’ dey hands with the worry, wondrin’ what went wrong. I am about to reconsider when a fine lookin’ sister starts her strut down the stairs to the stage. Suddenly, I hear a ding in the universe. She is hot hot HOT! Cyrille, my suitor, elbows me in the side. Says, “This is gonna be good.”

Indeed. Now, as a dancer, I gotta give her props. She was workin’ that pole like nobody’s business. She sported a hoe-stamp tatoo of the letter “T” and forever after, she is “Miss T” to us. She was like some Hindu goddess and we were under her spell. She broke through the barrier of fear around my heart like a knife through creamed cheese. We followed her, dazed, to the back room where Miss T gave us a lap dance and Cyrille and I shared our first kiss. And a little extra. Hehe ;).

How romantic.

Actually, it was.

And the rest is history.

Throughout our courtship, followed by moving in together and our engagement, there has been little resistance. My fear perked its ugly head up out of its rat-hole from time-to-time. Sniffed around. Poked Cyrille in the ribs here and there to see if he’s real, but eventually, I dropped my contortionist routine. I didn’t need it anymore. I started to let go. It’s not just that I love him, it’s that, well, to put it in new age-y lingo, our frequencies align.

Recently, I came across an old boyfriend on Facebook. My first love, in fact. We hadn’t spoken in over fifteen years. When I saw his face again, different and the same, I realized that the love was still there. It would always be there, but what I can see now that I couldn’t see before in the chaos of young love is that we could not be together in a long-lasting way because we are too different. I could never need the things he needs in life and vice versa. To love him is to honor that.

In other words, we can tune into each other’s frequency, but that takes some focus. The frequency that we tune to is too far from our normal resting, every day frequency. We have to work at finding the place where we meet. There’s nothing wrong with this. We do it naturally with others all the time. But a marriage, it does not make.

So, here goes. Marriage round two for both of our old, middle-aged asses. And I haven’t forgotten about the love and loss part I talked about earlier. I have to accept that. As much as I love to joke on this blog, knowing that we will change, that this state of affairs will someday end, hopefully in death, brings a stream of tears down my face.

[pause…]

Well, it’s good to cry. It means it’s special.


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