Tag Archives: dance

Las Vegas Happened To Me Twice

Last week Rich and I got up at 4 am to make a direct flight to Las Vegas, one of my least favorite destinations. If you don’t count stops at the Vegas airport on the way to somewhere else, I’d only been to Vegas twice before. In 1992, my in-laws took the family there to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember the kids sneaking onto the casino floor with Grandma Pearl hoping to learn how to be as lucky as she was at playing the slot machines. 

My initial time in Las Vegas was half a century ago in the glory days of the Rat Pack, when I wasn’t old enough to drink legally. I lived in Vegas for eight weeks while working as a dancer in the Tony Martin and Peggy Lee Shows, at the now defunct Desert Inn.  The pull of working in Vegas for New York dancers like me was the enormous salaries they paid. I don’t remember the amount, but if you watched expenses and brought a good portion of your salary back to New York you could live on it for six months. This meant you could avoid taking odd jobs that interfered with staying fit as a dancer and being available for frequent auditioning. In order to accomplish this end, refraining from gambling was critical as was economizing on living expenses.

It was winter, the rainy season, which meant sunbathing, swimming, golf and tennis were not frequent activities. For us, the highlight of most weeks was the other shows we were able to catch on our night off, and the dance classes we took from whatever choreographer’s’ assistant happened to be in town.

The glamour of the place, then as now, did not extend much beyond the footlights. Though we wore elaborate beaded costumes and glued on false eyelashes to perform, my roommate and I grocery shopped after we got off work at 2 am, cooked and ate all our meals in our motel-style apartment, and to further economize, we rented a sewing machine and made the evening clothes we were required to wear in order to come on to the property.

Weird Las VegasThe weirdness of the place is still intact. We encountered people clearly under the influence of something, forgetting how to walk or talk properly, but the dress code has changed dramatically. Locals and tourists alike dress in what I would describe as “grungy casual,’ jeans, sweats, and workout clothes. I noticed this especially because all the women, from waitresses to chambermaids, to teenagers on the street, proudly sported elaborate eye makeup and glued on eyelashes.

Students on the campus dress like students everywhere, though a hundred or so wore black tee shirts with the letters TEAM on their backs. I came to appreciate their dedication and effort as the purpose of my return trip to Vegas was to present a talk, “When Death Threatens, Life REALLY Matters.” at the TEDx UNLV event. It was fittingly titled, “Living in the Extreme.” Who says the universe doesn’t have an outlandish sense of humor?IMG_1888

Why Dance?

performing the book sheila twirling1Nearly 25 years ago now, I branded myself a “dancing social worker.” I wanted to connect my two careers, that of a professional dancer and my social work career, which included time as a social work professor, a family therapist, and the director of a behavioral health care clinic. I believe now that I also wanted to lay claim to the power of remaining a person who dances, no matter what career I might pursue.

In my personal life when I would tell people “I’m a dancing social worker,” the frequent response I’d get would be an appreciative laugh. It seemed to me that people recognized that I was owning a more important truth than any of us could articulate at the time.

Scientific documentation for the value of my decision to “just keep dancing,” is now available. Neuroscientists, through brain imaging methods, have documented that dance “bulks up the brain,” sparking new brain cells and their connections. According to Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, the author of Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement, dancing stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. Plus, dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network, improving memory and different kinds of learning.

performing the book sheila twirling5What this means is that dance activity promotes cognitive development by increasing the plasticity of the brain of the mover. At this time of near epidemic cognitive impairment diagnoses in older people, it’s important to note that these advantages continue throughout life. Some sports, martial arts, and exercise regimes, may offer some of these brain enhancing results as well, but they must be as totally physically involving and varied as participating in a variety of dance forms is for the person who continually and consistently continues dancing.

 

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another. 

Memories

“My memory is perfect,” our 98 year-old former dance teacher, Eddie Deems said, as we gathered in Fort Worth in the living room of mutual friends. My husband and I hadn’t seen Eddie for at least 10 years, and on this recent visit to our former hometown I’d been delighted to learn that he was still alive and able to meet with us. The original plan was to have dinner together but Eddie called that morning to tell our hostess he wasn’t having a good day, so he’d not make dinner. But he was determined to come to see us, so he instructed us to go ahead and eat without him. He told me later, there are no more good days due to his emphysema. Breathing problems make it hard to eat and talk at the same time, and he’d decided he’d rather talk.

IMG_1165Before he began reminiscing with exquisite detail about experiences with famous customers of the dance studio he and his wife ran for over 50 years, he prefaced his remarks. “Now I’m going to name drop, in order to tell you this, so forgive me. This is something my son holds against me. I’m a namedropper.” Getting well into a story he would sometimes interrupt himself and ask, “Now why was I telling you that?” The people in the room, our friends, and Eddie’s present wife of 17 years, would then reconstruct the threads of the conversation and he would remember how the particular incident he was relaying fit with the point he was trying to make. He would then pick up the story where he’d left off.

Eddie remembered some things I ‘d forgotten until he reminded me. He still seemed grateful that I had visited the hospice hospital room of his first wife, Lavonia, who had also been our dancing teacher, when she lay dying twenty years earlier. This reminded me of attending her funeral and a visit I’d made to Eddie’s hospital room several years later, when he had seemed surprised that anyone he knew would make such a visit.

We hadn’t been able to get our dinner in before Eddie arrived so we were quite hungry by the time he got up to leave. “I’m amazed I’ve been able to talk this long,” he said, “I’ve said more tonight then I’ve said all week.” After posing for some pictures we would treasure as mementos of the occasion, Eddie left and we sat down to dinner, grateful to have the time with it and glad he had elected to talk rather than eat.

Embodied Connections

Growing up as a dancer the body was, and still is, my first language. I often sense or “know” things before I can explain them to myself or anyone else. This has caused me some difficulties since I, like you, grew up in a culture where the top priority or measurement of intelligence was Mental Intelligence (IQ).

 toddler-excitedFortunately in recent years, another kind of intelligence, Emotional Intelligence,(EI) has become recognized in some circles as important to our personal and social lives. And finally, the importance of Body Intelligence (BI) is coming into our culture’s awareness.

 As a teacher and practitioner of InterPlay, an art-based approach to unlocking the wisdom of the body, and the president of Body Wisdom, Inc,. its national board, I know something about the intelligence of the body but I’ve struggled to find the language to communicate about this to others. Among InterPlayers who are working and playing together to master body intelligence we speak of “going the speed of the body,” recognizing that what may take seconds or minutes to conceive will take hours, months, or years to achieve.  During our on-line board meetings, we remind each other that we are attempting to be a “body-wise non-profit,” meaning we aim to not push people beyond the limitations of their physical human capabilities in order to achieve our organizational goals. The good life is about the journey not just the destination.

1146703_10151654919806655_830122018_n What does body intelligence look like? According to an upcoming online conference on body intelligence here are some of its benefits – From Visceral fear to embodied sense of love, Separation to deep connection, Depleted to energized, Rigid to flowing, Uncreative to Powerfully Generative, Working hard to Joyful Ease, Low-level anxiety to Calm, Stress to Dynamic Energy, Chronic body issues to Radiant health, Discomfort to Delight, Heaviness to Playfulness, Adrenal overdrive to Relaxed energy.

 Join me in attending this free online conference Monday February 10 – Wednesday February 10 2014.    http://bodyintelligencesummit.com/  We’ll hear from scientists, dancers, and health professionals. InterPlay, Co-founder Cynthia Winton-Henry, will be a featured speaker. And let’s find a way to talk about it after we attend.

Speaking My Mind

As a writer with a new book out, I’m not turning down any invitations to read my work in front of an audience. I had the privilege last Sunday of participating in an outdoor literary event sponsored by the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. http://www.cityofasylumpittsburgh.org/

CityAsylum-30

The provocative theme we writers were asked to respond to was “I Don’t Know What I’d Do if I Couldn’t Speak My Mind.” Every 10 minutes for six hours, a different writer read from their work while groups of people walked past, lingering a bit as they participated in the Mexican War Streets Annual Home Tour.  I read a short excerpt from Warrior Mother, and three short pieces inspired by the topic.

Speaking My Mind
Before I speak, my focus goes to stillness inside.
Before I speak, my ears listen for the sound of suffering
Before I speak, my heart decides, will this serve love?
Before I speak, my gut signals something must be done.
My hands speak as I type and text.

The tone of my voice speaks, revealing sorrow.
My muscles speak as I lift debris from the river.
The twinkle in my eyes speaks of a grandmother’s joy.
My arms speak as I churn the chocolate chip cookie batter.
demanding peace.

Speaking My Mind 2
My mind’s in my feet, like a choreographer taught me years ago. We were rehearsing a dance in a church, suspended high over the pews that the congregation would soon fill for the service. We danced on a ledge over the pulpit, perhaps illustrating a story from the bible, “And David danced before the Lord.”
There was no railing, nothing to catch us if we fell. “Keep your mind in your feet,” she called out from below. “That’s the only way to stay safe.”
That’s how it is for dancers, writers, musicians, spoken-word performers – people who insist on staying in touch with their souls. Having your mind in your feet means that your sole is in touch with the earth, a necessary connection as you move about on uneven surfaces, exploring the territory close to the edge.
To be an artist is to live there, on that edge, and though you become accustomed to dancing with your own fear, your witnesses, fanning themselves as they recline in comfortable cushioned seats, are both enlivened and terrified by the possibilities you present.

Speaking My Mind 3
People who know me as I am today might not believe it, but I haven’t always spoken my mind. On the surface of things you might say I’ve had the freedom to do so. But like other children of “The Silent Generation” I learned early not to disagree out loud with the adults around me.

As a young woman I followed the rules, even the stupid unwritten ones, like women must behave as proper ladies, and be careful not to threaten men. I finally found my voice to object to being paid less than men I supervised, to being given half my ex-husband’s debts but not his good credit score.

Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.

desertlabyrinth

This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”  

                         

A Healing Ritual at Serpent Mound

It was a trek, as all spiritual journeys are, with five of us traveling six hours from Pittsburgh in my SUV. The Serpent Mound is in southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati and my friend Vikki Hanchin’s recent book, The Seer and the Sayer http://www.amazon.com/The-Seer-Sayer-Revelations-Earth/dp/1452557276 told of her experiences there. So twenty or so of us set out to see for ourselves this jewel of Midwestern archeology. A world-class expert on the 5 to 6 thousand year-old effigy mound, Ross Hamilton, would be meeting us there.Serpent-Mound-panohttp://www.ohiohistory.org/museums-and-historic-sites/museum–historic-sites-by-name/serpent-mound

After the final hour’s roller coaster-like approach over hill and dale, on serpentine curves through fields and farms, Vikki’s stomach was talking to her, but not in a good way. Once we arrived, another passenger, a Reiki practitioner, began working on Vikki but each time she relaxed into the process she began to cry. It became clear she was tuning in to a sorrow beyond her own skin. When she told Mr. Hamilton of this, he shared that a few minutes before, he and his wife had learned of a dear friend’s daughter having been killed the previous night, crossing the highway near the Mound. A few minutes later when we began preparing for our Serpent Mound ceremony Vikki suggested, “We can help this family with our prayers,” and this death of a child shaped the ritual we were to do at the site.

imagestwowomengrief One of the participants, a Mohawk grandmother and friend of the family, taught us the chant her people sing to assist someone in their crossing. We began chanting to the young girl whose life had ended, suddenly and prematurely, the previous night.  As the ritual progressed, I began thinking of the girl’s mother and grandmother, and, having lost two of my own adult children, I felt called to do something for them. I brought to the group my need to call the names of these women, now in the midst of their unbearable loss.

I thought of what had helped me to heal and I taught the group a dance and chant developed by my Texas women’s spirituality group.  The movements begin as a spiraling of the hips, rocking back and forth as women do when comforting a child on their hips. “We are women, we grow out of the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”  The movements in the second verse repeat but the words change, as they did when I accompanied my friend Rose at her crossing. “We are women, we go back to the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”

After completing the chant and dance I felt a strong reassurance in my body that my book, currently in press, Warrior Mother, Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and Rituals That Heal would be helpful to other families dealing with grief and loss.    

The Dance of Flexibility

Until a month ago, if you’d asked me if I consider myself a flexible person I would have said yes. In face, on some occasions I may have been too flexible, putting up with things longer than I probably should have. But there’s nothing like a construction project in your home space to test whatever good qualities you thought you had.

learning-flexibilityEver since coming down the stairs to my studio on the lower level and being greeted by water pouring from two light fixtures in the ceiling, tests and challenges to my character have abounded. Learning to sleep while fans the size of airplane propellers ran night and day to dry out the damaged wood, followed by weeks of waiting for insurance estimates and ordered materials to arrive. The workmen have been as polite and unobtrusive as possible under the circumstances, but I’ve been relegated to finding workspaces in various places around town. A senior center down the street hosted our improv troupe rehearsals for several weeks, and friends graciously allowed me to camp in their spare room when the paint fumes and disarray got the best of me. I’m told we’re nearly to the end of this destructing and constructing project but checking in with my insides, it’s clear my belly doesn’t believe it. 

Sitting in my upstairs bedroom, which is now the sum total of my living and working quarters since the floor refinishing crew has taken over the downstairs, I’ve thought of the quality of  “flexibility.” Being a dancer I’ve always thought of myself as having perfected the ability to bend and stretch in many directions at once but this experience has been showing me, I’m not that good at it. Especially when the impetus for such movement is coming from something outside myself and leaving me with not much ground to stand or sit upon.

There have been some humorous moments. One night we actually watched television seated on high kitchen stools in the living room in order to see over the stacks of furniture piled between the sofa and the screen. I’m sure I  overreacted today when my husband told me the floor might need one more coat than we’d planned on. I saw what I aspire to and how far I am from it when I read the late Everett Dirksen’s description of himself. “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”