Body of a Dancer

By Renee D'Aoust


Etruscan Press
December 2011


"Many dancers simply walk out one day, unwilling or unable to play pretend any longer. Some leave to go to academic schools; the Columbia University School of General Studies, for example. Others decide to look for jobs that are less taxing physically, better paid, and more befitting the personal dignity of an adult."

—Joan Brady, The Unmaking of a Dancer: An Unconventional Life


You enter the theatre. You do not enter through the stage door, through that exalted entryway. There is no guard to tip his hat or raise his chin ever so slightly. There are no aspiring dancers, young ones to play the student parts, who gaze at you, a Chosen One. You are not dancing in Diversion of Angels or in Acts of Light.

You enter through the front doors of the theatre. You buy your ticket for the Martha Graham Dance Company. You are an audience member.

You will see Program A: Errand into the Maze, Sketches from "Chronicle," and El Penitente. You really want to watch Tadej Brdnik; he was in that first Summer Intensive with you at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. He got a scholarship from the former Yugoslavia. You got a scholarship from Montana. You want to see Alessandra Prosperi, too. You wonder how these people still dance. You know you are now fat.

El Penitente, surprising you, turns out to be your favorite piece of the evening. Simple, spare, direct. You used to hate that piece—so simple, spare, direct. Tadej is strong. Alessandra is quick-footed. You wonder how they do it. Have you forgotten?

You had thought you would love Sketches from "Chronicle" because you love the dancing of Fang-Yi Sheu, but you don't. You may just be jealous. Fang-Yi beat you out to join Kaleidoscope—David Hochoy's company in Indiana. You were third in line. She comes from the same school in Taiwan as Hsiu-Ping Chang and Kun-Yang and your favorite Limón dancer Ruping Wang. Fang-Yi turned down the David Hochoy position.

Hochoy is one of your favorite Graham teachers, or a close second to Steve Rooks, although for consistency and musicality you always took Armgard von Bardeleben's class. The Hochoy position goes to the second in line, whose name you do not remember. Fang-Yi had told you, standing on the street outside of the old Ailey studios, "I'm waiting for the Graham Company." Maybe you've seen Sketches from "Chronicle" too many times.

It takes ten years to make a dancer, says Martha.

Sure does, you think, and then some.

City Center is the theatre with the mosaic tile on the front façade, and in this same place with the red velvet seats, you remember seeing Twyla Tharp's new work for the Martha Graham Dance Company and also Robert Wilson's Snow on the Mesa. You actively want to see Martha Clarke's ballet, Sueño, inspired by, or derived from, Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. You like seeing Graham dancers do pieces other than the Graham repertory, but Clarke's piece seems depressingly dark. Given the subject, though, it is honorable that the dancers look as full of air as they do, racing around the stage away from violation.

There is no ticket on reserve for you because of your dedication as an understudy for Panorama or your work in the Company office or your endless hours at the school's front desk checking in students for classes and collecting their money. Your friends no longer work as ticket agents or as ushers or as theatre managers, so you are unable to get free tickets that way.

Nevertheless, you do know people who dance tonight. "I trained with them," you say, to no one in particular but mostly to your current boyfriend. He is here, graciously accompanying you to see dance. Since you weren't dating him while you were a dancer, he is excited to see what dance is all about.

You've described the life of the dance, as you call it, and your body twitched as you spoke, there was life in those old muscles again, and he became very excited about going to the dance with you. It's an entry, for him, into another part of you. A form of intercourse. He enters a very deep hole left from dance, but it is not one he can penetrate or fill. It disgusts you that he might even try.


When I left dance, I finished my undergraduate degree at the Columbia University School of General Studies. When I finished my degree, I moved home to Idaho where I worked in the family stewardship forest, wielding a brush saw and planting tree seedlings. I changed my life entirely.


Still, you say, pointing at lines in the program, "I trained with five of these dancers. Three of them were in my very first Summer Intensive." It seems some kind of claim to fame, but you are disgusted with yourself for even saying it. You are also disgusted to discover there is still a hole inside you, a physical void like a black hole. It might be in your heart. It might be in your gut. It happened when you left dance. You realize it might need filling. Your boyfriend won't ever take the place of dance in your heart, but he can lift you. You like anyone who can lift you. Remember Ian Butler? He could lift you. He lifted you in that duet at The Yard. Then you stood on his sweaty back and fell into his arms. Ian still dances. In Norway. Maybe you should go to Norway.

Before the performance begins, you also discover there's a place inside that is not a hole at all but that is whole. You actually like your life now, and you don't struggle with always feeling inadequate: better turnout, better extension, better abdominal muscles. Every day, there is not something that needs to be fixed: Your leg should go a little higher; your psoas isn't working quite right; you've twisted your ankle on the sidewalk when you weren't watching for cracks that might break your mother's back. You've learned that dance is one kind of movement, and in so many ways you feel freer than you ever have in your life. You're over thirty, and you don't give a damn what anyone thinks of you. You like the cackle lines around your mouth and eyes.

There is a dancer's name listed on the poster board in the lobby, and you didn't even know she got into the Company. Momentarily you feel jealous. Out of touch. Then you realize the absurdity of it all, the automatic button of the feeling, and you stop yourself. You are now an adult. You live an adult life. Your brother has blessed your life with his two sons, nephews. You are a favorite aunt. You keep a steady job. You think in your brain, not in your body, and you walk around upright instead of crawling across dirty dance floors spotted with dried blood and little bits of ripped skin.

In fact, you've flown into the city to see Martha's Company, resurrected after years of legal battles over copyright issues about her dances. You don't know how all these dancers have hung on so long. You think it is admirable: this dedication to Martha that you did not have.

If you are over dance, if you are resolved about dance, you think none of the old resentments would stir inside. That isn't true. The emotional response is so physical you almost can't help yourself. You can stop yourself. You attend other companies and wonder at the movement and the beauty. You watch Mark Morris and feel sad that you never auditioned for that Company. Now it is all past. You must let go, move on; it no longer matters. You are a self-possessed woman who used to dance. You are grateful. You are honestly grateful. You followed your dream. You moved.

The lights dim. Suddenly, you are on the wrong side entirely. You never should have stopped dancing. You are nothing. A horse put out to pasture. A pig that places last at the fair. A cow with no milk.

But wait, you think, you have lost a lover—dance was your lover. That is all. One has panics such as this about ex-lovers. This is the same. This panic attack right now is simply about having taken one road or the other and never knowing whether you took the road that was right.

Except, I know. You know.

The lights dim, and I am here. I am here with my boyfriend, whom I call my fiancé, although he hasn't proposed. He takes my hand. I want to be left alone.

After this performance, by a length of two months, your excited boyfriend—the same one who thought he could reach inside you through the dance—dumps you. Maybe it was mutual; you aren't sure. He observes that anything difficult that occurs in your life makes you feel fat. As if this is news.

In the Graham performance, you see the way Blakeley White-McGuire leaps, and you gasp. Blakely White-McGuire is now famous as the Martha Graham Google Doodle model. Her body looks like one wild piece of animal in the air, a flying development of woman, now out of the sea and now on land, now woman in the air above land, reaching the heavens, reaching for heart.

"Extraordinary," you say out loud in the dark theatre. "How does she do that?"