In five and a half weeks I’ll read my thesis and hit the road back home to Bozeman. That hardly feels like enough time to take a nap. The next forty days will be filled with teaching, grading, traveling, drinking, eating, some sleeping, writing and revising, writing and revising, writing and revising. This semester I’m taking two writing classes while teaching: a nonfiction workshop, where we read each other’s work and give feedback, and then a lyric nonfiction class. Wtf is that, you ask? Yeah. I thought it would be poetry, which scared the crap out of me, because brevity is not my strong-suit. (Read: this long, rambling paragraph.) Lyric nonfiction is short flashes of prose that can be chronological or not, linear or not, sometimes fragmented or braided, sometimes all over the place. Write a true story in 250 words? Sweating ensues, procrastination, panic, and then bam: something explodes on the page. I’ve been surprised at how easily it’s been to write these instances of emotion or scenes, and try to make sense of little moments. It seems more manageable, more bite-sized.
Maybe lyric, ‘bite-sized’ is what I need right now as I near the end. I am writing a thesis that tries to craft a narrative and make sense of the the last 34 years of my life, all in 80 pages. But in lyric I get to take one tiny moment and explode it, like when I sun-tanned on my Minnie Mouse blanket as a child, or my grandpa’s strawberry garden. That’s it, that’s all I have to focus on for one sliver of school. It seems easier to look at life that way. Little bursts of emotion.
If you’re not aware, writers are nuts. We’re ego-centric artists, always looking for a way to describe the world in a certain number of words. Writers are emotional, unstable, unsure (or very sure) and always, always working. Watch a writer’s eyes. They’re always moving. Being stuck in a writer’s body is enough of a chore, not to mention being surrounded by fifty others. Which is why, when signing up for classes last semester, I said screw it, I’m taking a dance class. I had to get out of my head and into my body. I signed up for Modern Dance 100.
On the first day I entered the large dance studio with my friend and classmate, Miranda. Even though I was easily ten (or fifteen) years older than these kids, and taught undergrads with authority, I was terrified. Miranda and I hung near the bar and watched everyone in their element. As a 100-level class, this was their territory. We were invaders. From the back I observed these young animals as they established dominance, submission, and identity. Some people knew one another, others hung by themselves. Some girls came in make-up, a few guys wore beanies. One kid swaggered around the studio with his chin so high I thought he’d topple over backwards. When I teach I have easily established alpha status as the instructor, and rarely do I have a student challenge me. However, here, quietly submissive, I had the joy of watching a group of forty students organically discover their own animal hierarchy.
Our instructor Heidi jumped into action, corralling everyone into place, telling us this was a safe space to move our bodies however we wanted. Sometimes you might try a move, she said, sometimes not. That’s ok. She spoke with her hands, had a huge smile, and jumped around a lot. Her laugh was loud and infectious. I don’t know if I had ever seen someone with so much energy.
I was nervous that everyone in class would have years of dance experience behind them, and recent years at that, since everyone was fresh out of high school. There were a few dancers and cheerleaders with great technique, but for the most part, everyone was fairly new, at least to modern. Some people moved with the fluidity of hot gum, while others moved with the rigidity of two-by-fours. For the first couple of weeks I watched myself in the mirror, like dancers do, and critiqued my stance, my arms, my feet. But, why? It’s not like I’m approaching a career in dance at this point. It was just habit. But then, without knowing it, I stopped watching myself in the mirror altogether. I went weeks before I remembered the mirrors were even there. I started to feel the ground below me and the space around me. I even closed my eyes a few times. For the most part it was therapeutic. Sometimes I fell over. But I didn’t care!
Modern is about expression through the body. Actually, I have no idea what modern is about. I’m sure there are thousands of pages of theory written on modern dance, but I’m not going to read them. What I think modern is about, is each dancer making the movements uniquely theirs, exploding with passion, finding loftiness and grounding, and moving from the heart. Clichéd, I know. But I really do feel like I move from my chest. For some exercises, Heidi asks us to move around the room leading with different parts of our body. While I feel myself lead by my chest, maybe some people feel like modern is moving from their legs or elbows, or ass. That’s the freedom of dance.
When I emailed Heidi last semester, asking if I could audit her class, she wrote back, absolutely. She replied: “…it will be a much-needed recess!” And that’s how Heidi teaches class, like recess. We clap for one another and whoop as we cross the room. We leap and jump, not caring about extension or perfection. Over the last two months she has created a physical space where we can let go of stress and just play. I was nervous of how much older I was at first, but started using my confidence and too-old-don’t-care attitude to cheer people on and make them laugh. I could be the first to trip over myself, and give someone else permission to do the same. Trust me, none of this was faked. I fall, stumble, get the steps wrong, flail my arms, but still have fun.
Miranda stopped going to dance when she got sick and fell behind in class. Now, it’s just me. As much as I miss my friend, in the last couple of weeks something has changed. I no longer feel the age difference (unless I talk about going out for drinks, which most of them can’t do). We are all on the same page, all laughing, all dancing. They ask me, with genuine interest, about my weekend, how my classes are going. An ongoing topic of fascination are my tattoos, which I forget about most days. But I remember they are just turning 18 and finally able to think about getting some themselves. They tell me all about what they want.
Twice a week I can’t wait to get to dance class. I rush across campus and open the dressing room, excited as the lights come on. I change into my dance clothes and enter barefoot into the studio. I can’t wait for the collective energy that rises when Heidi leaps into the room and turns on the music, telling all of us: “Everyone start walking! Explore the space. See the people around you.” And I do. I see every one of those young people taking five classes, working long hours, participating in sports or clubs, and still energized and friendly, not cynical and bitter, as can so often come with age. I see myself fifteen years ago — a full class load, two jobs, parties on the weekend, wide-eyed and eager, ready to dance, ready to take on the world.