There is something irrevocably magical about dancing. Whether viewing or doing, we are transported to another plane of awareness and involvement that is both mind-bendingly surreal yet viciously corporeal. Even now I struggle to describe with words the influence dancing has had on my life. As a writer, this is honestly embarrassing; but as a dancer, I know that I can overcome the moment and keep moving forward. Dance has taught me a number of lessons and has helped me in discovering an inner strength I never thought I had. Dance is a universal tongue, spoken globally and influencing the future by rejuvenating the past.
For as long as homo sapiens have traveled this world, dance has been used as a means of self-expression and for building communities. The history of dancing wends its way from Eastern and Western court dances to theatrical displays and finally to the genuine fusion of modern times. Dance is a sacred practice that brings humanity closer to the celestial. At the same time, dance is a grounding experience that teaches one to fall and recover. Dance transforms the mover into the wind then converts them into stone. Each step brings the dancer closer to another, whether that is the audience or their partner, while simultaneously connecting them to a liminal state.
But in spite of what humanity knows dance to be, for me it is those moments when I have lived completely.
There was a time when I did not dance. It was not for a lack of interest in the performing arts but rather a depressing absence of self-confidence and health that barred me from the attempt. I indulged in dance parties from the safety of my bedroom, never dreaming that one day I would be where I am now. Yet, were it not for dance, that younger me may have never survived the journey to becoming who I am today.
Dance requires those who do it to have a surplus of grit. Love and determination are the key ingredients that keep a dancer returning to their place before the studio mirror, where every flaw on their bodies is visible, where every weakness in their technique is reflected back into their steady gaze. Most people in today’s world cannot tolerate two minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, but a dancer might spend hours analyzing their bare frame in order to reeducate their movement patterns. The attention to detail is what creates those laser-like lines in arms and legs. Having full awareness of themselves—expression, appendages, aura, and breath—is what allows a dancer to invigorate the spaces in which they move. Anybody, regardless of age, race, gender, or handicap is capable of that.
I have taken influence from famous names and from instructors who should have their names twinkling in Broadway lights. What is mind-blowing is that those who have left a mark on me span centuries. Men and women I have never meant chiseled their messages into my brain with not only their movements and choreography but with how they lived and danced. Their very lives are then reanimated by those who study their technique. Ohno Kazuo, one of the founders of butoh, a contemporary Japanese dance genre, once told his students, “When I dance, I carry all the dead with me.” Dance, in that sense, is reincarnation.
Medieval court dances were brought back to life in Italy with ballet, and Russia has long given life to the fairy tales with their opera houses. Modern introduced an athleticism seen around the world ranging from eurhythmics, African tribal dances, temple dances, and other various aesthetics. Ruth St. Denis blended ballet with Indian moves. Isadora Duncan freed women from the corset, and we saw Martha Graham tear into world with her sharp contractions. In the 1940s, Michio Ito, a dancer from Japan, took Kabuki, Tango, and Modern elements from Hanya Holm. From those influences, Lester Horton rose alongside names like Merce Cunningham. Then there is the introduction of different genres like Jazz, Tap, Swing, and Hip Hop, all garnering something from another. The multi-dimensional history of dance is merely one way to show how immersed humanity is in it.
No matter where you do around the world, there is dance. My first dance class was in Tokyo, Japan. On that day, not having any experience, surrounded by a room of talented young women and a breathtaking instructor, I learned choreography to “Sparkling Diamonds” sang by Nicole Kidman from Moulin Rouge. My second class was Hip Hop, where our warm-up playlist featured Timbaland and Janet Jackson. The choreography was to a Japanese pop song by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. When I returned from Japan in 2012, I decided that I could not live without dance and enrolled in an adult ballet class. People of every experience level, body shape, and ethnicity were at the barre.
I have taken auditions instructed in German in New York City; learned from Russians, Africans and Indians at Dance Masters of America workshops; have shaken hands with celebrities like Finis Jhung and Meredith Rainey; listened to teachers speak of touring in China as prima ballerinas or training under Balanchine; and improvised with professional dancers from companies like Gallim Dance (based in Brooklyn, New York) during college residencies. I have shared weight with people half my height, been lifted by people smaller than me, and have rolled around on the floor with people I knew very little about.
Now I am in Japan. I left an American university with a wonderful dance program to attend Tokyo Dance and Actors Vocational College with hopes of giving Japan back the passion for dance that it instilled within me 4 years ago. On March 29th, 2016, I took a class with Apollo Levine. His translator was Japanese but had lived in America for a time, dancing in modern companies around Atlantic City, NJ and Manhattan. Imagine their surprise to see me, an American, in a crowd of Asians. It was amazing to see Apollo teach a class of people when 99 percent of them did not understand his English instructions. Yet, with just movement, energy and performance quality, he had everyone dancing to his choreography with such zeal that the room was practically on fire. At the end of the lesson, I approached this remarkable man to shake his hand.
“When I saw you standing there,” he said as I introduced myself, “I had to stop my counts and look again.”
I confessed that I get that a lot. Aside from Koreans, not many foreigners attend dance classes Japan. There are plenty of foreign teachers and choreographers, sure, but these people were taught overseas. When he asked me about my dance goals, Apollo thanked me for attending and said, “You keep doing your thing, girl.” At that moment, I heard everyone who had ever cheered me on once I set my sights on dancing. I saw the notes my first Japanese instructors used to leave me after class: “I’m rooting for you” and “Keep going.” The voices of my influences echoed in my ears, motivating me with, “Keep pushing yourself. Don’t give up. You’re doing great.”
No matter the language or the location, dancers connect and become a part of one another’s lives forever. You may not remember the name of that person in front of you during the master class, but you will remember every amazing thing they did. Our bonds are made in those moments where the music and our bodies meld together. Energies combine, allowing us to express our deepest emotions to those willing to see. In the words of the great Martha Graham, “The body says what words cannot.”