Three flights above the hardware store on Main Street
a brown wooden door opens off a musty hallway into
the studio. There, my ten year old legs carry me to
my first true home. Splotches of light from three dusty
windows along the back-alley wall ignite the floor. Framing
the teacher’s luminous body. Keeping her suspended on an
island opposite the young dancers. Forecasting a transcendence
that will dominate my life. Surrounded by orange groves,
palms and pepper trees, bean fields and vineyards – midway
between Los Angeles and Palm Springs – high above the street,
above regular life, I blossom with lessons in the ballet.
Late afternoons and Saturday mornings, the scent of magnolia
and honeysuckle wafting through studio windows – mingles with
melodies by Vivaldi and Chopin. After hours of plies, arabesques,
jete, pirouettes – I learn to dance Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker,
Les Sylphides. I am enchanted. I am in love.
At fifteen, I abandon tutus and toe shoes, for vigorous
barefoot dancing. Modern dance gives me the freedom to run
and pounce. To shout and to weep. The greatest thrill comes
when leaving the earth. Not just in the obvious leap, but while
spinning, lunging, jumping around the golden studio. Reflections
of my body in the mirror, swirling from corner to corner, my
adolescent longings thrashed out barefoot on wooden boards,
anchors me to the studio, and to dancing. Often dancing in the
studio is more deeply felt, more pure, than dancing on a stage.
In the studio I dance for the teacher, for what the dance means
to me. I am not striving to entertain or fascinate an audience.
I am not distracted by lighting, costumes, stage fright.
I become part of the music. Part of vibrations from the floor.
The dancer, the dancing, the dance – become one.
With raw exuberance I dance the forces that took me to NYC
in 1960. I dance my bus trip from Los Angeles. My $50 a week
job at Scribners. The walk at 6PM from Fifth Avenue over to
Broadway. Quick papaya juice and yogurt I gobble before
hurtling down two more blocks to The New Dance Group,
I dance around panhandlers, the early theater crowd, actors,
musicians, more dancers on the dash to classes and auditions.
At last – the hike up splintered stairs.
I am always front row in classes by Donald McKayle.
Standing before this eight-foot tall master-teacher,
a veritable Masai chieftain, I respond to god-like breath
and sinew, as he begins each class. Sliding his right hand
upward along us thigh, up the side of his body to his waist,
his palm strokes his rib cage, his fingers graze his armpit.
He thrusts his right arm through the ceiling – in the first stretch
of the evening. I follow. Together we thrust our left arms even
higher. I gather all my glory : from feet planted in the earth,
knees bent deep in readiness to reach up farther from my
pelvis. Stretch up again through my ribs, chest and neck.
Feeling hot sun and wind from farms in the Northwest to the
Hudson River, between my outstretched arms : I burst and float
above the floor. In that one-hundred-year-old-brownstone,
in that glowing rectangle of wood planks, metal window gratings,
peeling paint, rows and rows of eager dancers, McKayle stops
the class. “Do that again, Joan,” he shouts.
“Look now, everybody! – That’s dancing! That’s dancing!”
© Copyright 2012 Joan Nicholson All rights reserved