I often joke, but really I mean it, that in another life I would have been a dancer. For me, it is the quintessential art form, to be able to express one’s self freely, beautifully, arms, legs, head, body all in motion, no words needed, just pure physical expression.
I first started to dance while doing musical theater. I was never a great, or even a particularly good, dancer—but I got away with it, an actor who moves well, as the expression goes. And though it took me a while to learn a routine, once I did I was enthusiastic, which as we all know, goes a long way in any endeavor.
Where I really began to learn how to move was in clubs—fuelled by cheap liquor and lifted up by Madonna an Janet Jackson, the deep house music at Jewell’s Catch One in midtown LA—I discovered that I possessed a temporary hall pass to heaven. It may not have been all access, but it got me in and that’s what mattered.
My grandmother was a dancer. Born at the turn of the century, the youngest of six siblings, she followed her eldest sister to New York where she danced in the chorus--late Vaudeville and early Broadway.
I found a picture at the Lincoln Center Performing arts library, a line of chorus girls wearing 1920s chorus girl uniforms, satin shorts with leggings and Mary Janes, flowered caps on their heads, flanking some handsome lug stood at center. In the caption I found her name, “C. Smith,” but wasn’t sure which one she was.
My grandmother was petite, 4’11”—perhaps that informed part of my belief that dance was for smaller people. I’m a big guy, 6’2” and depending on the time, year, moment, weighing over 250 lbs. Of course there are plenty of tall dancers, muscular and meaty dancers—you don’t see many fat ones.
This is why clubs were so liberating—it wasn’t about following set choreography or being able to execute certain steps—it was about liberation, feeling that deep inner pulse rise up from the root at the base of the spine, up and up and up into every part of my body and out.
I am grateful for my ability to express myself with words, and yet. To be able say things so without speaking is an enviable power.
Years ago when I still lived in LA and was doing a lot of theater my friend Tina, who grew up in New York City and is a great lover of dance—took me to see a dance company called Lalala Human Steps, from Montreal…their work had the rigor of ballet and the athleticism of tumblers. They would hurl themselves across the stage and when they stopped they’d be on point. It’s one of the most thrilling performances I’ve ever seen.
Sitting there afterward I understood something for the first time—there are things that can’t be expressed in words. The way life feels, the way bodies meet and fall away from each other—I can scream and I can exclaim but to be able to leap the way Baryshnikov could, many feet into the air, that feeling, how do you say that in words? Rather I should, after giving you that image, then allow for a pause, altogether, so that we could close our eyes and imagine it, him, in the air—my desire to describe it remains: light, aloft, vaulted, spirit—but all of these words fall short.
Several months ago my friend Shelley was visiting New York City, she asked me if I’d like to join her for a Broadway show—“Sure,” I said, I’m always up for a Broadway show.
“What shall we see?” She asked.
I confessed that I had never seen the long-running production of Chicago and I often think of going but no one ever wants to go with me. She got tickets and we went.
The show is brilliant, of course, the great songs, the caustic wit—what I wanted, though--and what I got--were the dances, the long, lithe bodies slithering and sinewy, those sexy Fosse moves snaking through their bodies.
I’ve been thinking of all the kids who just arrived in New York City from Cincinnati or Bangor, Maine; Charleston and Albequerque—having trained for years and years they finally got their first gig, dancing in a Broadway show, rehearsals had already begun and then suddenly, for the first time in over a hundred years, every Broadway theater is closed, shows cancelled, routines not executed.
But nothing goes away, does it? All matter remains, in some form. Water, of which there is always the same amount, changes from rain to drainwater to the river to the ocean then through the process of evaporation, returns to the sky to become clouds which produce rain again.
We’re in the evaporation stage, I guess, everything has dried up. In many cultures throughout history, the rain dance has played a crucial role—enacted by the Ancient Egyptians through to the Native American tribes of the Southwest, these ceremonial dances were enacted to break open the heavens.
Heaven, that same place I found on those dance floors years ago. Could it be that our physical release releases something in the universe, the skies—could it be by moving our bodies, in rhythm, in joy, in celebration and sorrow, we become the divine, able to change the very nature of the world?