"Through dance, I reclaimed my body, discovered the dance that didn’t require anything more than exactly what I had to give in any moment, and finally found a way to stop grieving what I had supposedly lost." Today marks the second official day of my nine-week tenure with AXIS Dance Company as this seasons’ Spring Production Intern. Climbing the echo-ey staircase of the Malonga Arts Center in Downtown Oakland to the AXIS office this morning, I had to simultaneously keep myself from pinching my arm and whooping out loud. The truth is, even six months ago, I could never have imagined that today I would be sitting in the office of one of the most exciting contemporary dance companies and important advocacy centers for arts accessibility in the United States, and I was invited to be here! I have to take a deep breath as I start assembling the itinerary for AXIS’ upcoming tour to St. Paul, Minnesota just to keep myself from bouncing up and down in my chair.
If I don’t pay close attention, looking back to how I got here can seem a blur – it’s only with close attention that the strands start to coalesce. Go back before the echo-ey staircase of the Malonga Arts Center, the whir of the BART that zipped me across town before that. Before the cover letter and the interview, I was someone who had only recently discovered dance and couldn’t believe I’d ever lived without it.
Two years ago today, I lay as still as I possibly could, back pressed against the grey linen sheets of my poorly-sprung bed in a dorm of Yunnan University in Kunming, China, my eyes tracing the luminous outline of the window on the ceiling. Up, over, down, over. Were I to move, my back would erupt in a searing firework of pain, my head clog in a concussed daze. So I traced the sunlit rectangle again and again, until I soaked in to it and escaped the horizontal prison of my pain.
Two weeks before, my greatest concern had been a sore knee, an over-use injury caused by my recent love affair with long-distance running and a lifetime of physically-demanding Chinese acrobatics before that. But after an ill-fated visit to a Chinese chiropractor and an ensuing stream of unfortunate events, I found myself within the course of just two weeks going from solidly vertical and often airborne, to undeniably horizontal. I withdrew from my study abroad program in China and returned home to California to begin a regime of physical therapy, acupuncture, and countless other bodywork modalities.
In the process of healing, I discovered that in many ways “recovery” was an even more problematic paradox than my injuries. I approached the process with the same commitment I had previously made to cultivating strength and power. But the more committedly I sought to heal my injury, the more undeniably my body became a problem – an object that had failed and stubbornly refused to be fixed. I simultaneously hated it and grieved for it, nursed a red-hot alienation from it, and a growing certainty that I couldn’t do anything.
A year passed of intensive physical therapy and never enough progress. Yes, I could walk again. But no, I couldn’t run. I inscribed my body with an ever-expanding list of invisible “can’t’s”. I broke down.
Sometimes when you care enough, deciding not to care feels like the only option. Sometimes deciding not to care and having nothing to lose is the only thing that can set you free. In the zero-sum game that my body had become, giving up was the first step towards reclaiming it.
It was around this point that I discovered dance. I had enrolled in a dance class at my college a couple months before, when “fixing” my injury was still my most passionate project. By the time the semester rolled around I was too apathetic to drop out, so I entered class that first day with no expectations except that I “couldn’t”, too bitter to save myself the pain of discovering once again that I was deficient.
If this sounds melodramatic, it’s only because it was. But I urge you to take a moment to put it into context of the dance that you’ve seen. I imagine that if you’re reading this, you’ve been impressed by the visceral expressivity of our bodies, the un-shrouded honesty that tends to shine through even unintentionally, and in companies as good at what they do as AXIS, comes through like a prophetic blaze. The body is sacred, profane – dance absolutely fundamental. So imagine that expression internalized, embodied, lived out. My despair was utterly illogical, over-blown, and undeniably real.
It is true that over the course of the past year, dance has helped me to rediscover much of the mobility in my spine – I’m on my way to running again and maybe one day acrobatics as well. But that’s surface. The true work of dance was a recognition of the inherent power of everyone’s body to communicate importantly. Through dance, I reclaimed my body, discovered the dance that didn’t require anything more than exactly what I had to give in any moment, and finally found a way to stop grieving what I had supposedly lost. Dance gave me a doorway to celebrate what I had, and in a funny way, as soon as I was able to release my own body from expectations around what was right or good, I found a freedom I had never experienced even in my most dexterous and physically fit of times.
All of which is a long way of saying that when I found out about AXIS’ Spring Production Internship, I was ecstatic. During my short foray into the dance world, I haven’t encountered many dance companies that so honestly embody the principles of their organization in their work and so fearlessly plunge into collaboration and creation with just a cursory regard for what is “possible,” so-called. I’d like to think that even without my injury I’d have found my way into this position, but I have to admit, I’m not sure that without it I would have had the bravery to take dance seriously enough to be interested in pursuing a career in arts administration.
As I finish writing this post, my co-workers assemble for a midday check-in. Today we begin with a short breathing exercise. I breathe in for five, breathe out for five, grateful for the chance it gives me to actually arrive. High as I am on my excitement of being here, my body remains blissfully grounded here, in this room. I can’t wait to see what comes to meet me.