No Dancers, This is 40(s)
Gloria Steinham was on the cover of the Times Sunday Review section with the byline, “This is what 80 Looks Like.” And I, now in my 40th - wait, 41st - year, could barely suppress a chuckle as these song lyrics from Ryan Adams (also born in 1974) popped uninvited into mind, “And I am in the twilight of my youth, not that I’m going to remember. Have you seen the moon tonight, is it blue?”
I have been a professional dancer in this city for almost 20 years, having hitched a ride here with a now forgotten boyfriend moments after graduation. And I cringe every time I hear the comfy adage about dancers dying twice. Because it presumes a romanticism about dancing that belies the work and craft of the profession. And because it is pejorative. And because, as countless dancers of a certain age will no doubt agree, I am dancing better now than I did in my 20s. That is not to say that I am correct, but I have arrived at the place where I can’t make a wrong move. I also can’t do the splits all day long, nor do I want to, and despite the strangely splayed leg images constantly spewed forth on the Dancers Over 40 Facebook page. (Really dancers Over 40? What antiquated value system are you espousing over there? Haven’t any of you learned how to be virtuosic without putting your foot behind your ear? Really? You got all the memos! Hell it was probably one of your inane posts that reminded me of the whole syrupy notion of dancers dying twice.)
Because I got the memo, and still chose dancing as a profession. So I have a close personal relationship with my mortality, in dance and otherwise. Even during the years of youthful drug experimentation and promiscuity, (Sorry mom, it’s true) I was engaged in constant dialogue with that old friend. “Well, yes, Death, I will be taking this risk. Else how will I really know the stuff of which I am made…of what I am capable…of how I cope?” And so, as the song goes, “I ended up the kind of kid who goes down chutes too narrow.” Don’t all dancers?
Dancing is an irrational profession. It’s as if we are all running around with under developed pre-frontal cortexes. We are creatures of the ephemeral fleeting moment - as our profession demands. When we are working we do not think about futures; we think about nows. We are like my 5 year old daughter who is seemingly incapable of putting on pants in the morning because she is otherwise engaged with some fascinating thing like a broken shell that fits together almost perfectly so it should probably become a magic trick that will be repeated for every child and adult she will encounter in the next hour. If we ever get to school. We are never early. We - dancers, I mean - will labor at this thing despite the minuscule odds of success, financial or otherwise, because…I don’t know why. Because we like to walk around saying things like, “head-tail” and “ephemerality of the fleeting performative moment”. The chutes are too narrow.
Anyway, I am a 40 - wait, 41 - year old dancer. A journeywoman. I’m no Wendy Whelan, or Gloria Steinham, for that matter; and I have never been on the cover of Dance Magazine. But I have been in this business since I upstaged the boy playing Michael Jackson as self-appointed lead ghoul in our dance studio recital version of Thriller. So I know a thing or two about a thing or two. I know that dancers who say things like, “I am only truly myself when I am dancing,” and “Dancing is my only passion,” are going to crash and burn - if not now, than certainly at 40. This is a profession, people, not a fairy tale. Well, maybe Grimm, but certainly not Disney. This is work (of course, we are fortunate that our workplaces aren’t cubicles), but this is still work. And just as older senior partners at law firms become honorary at a certain point, the reckoning will come to all of us. As it is upon me. Dancer emeritus.
I’ve been preparing for this reckoning (not first death - ugh) for as long as I can remember. Always watching older dancers and taking cues from the most realistic and graceful among them (read: not the tunic wearers at Steps. Although, they are strangely beautiful, in a Miss Havisham sort of way). Thankfully I now find myself less interested in competing against younger dancers than in mentoring them. And frankly, I will not miss the endless days and late nights of full-time performing. I have been interpreting other people’s creative visions for lo these many years, and it’s that, more than my body, that is getting old. So I am enjoying being choosy about my projects and my collaborators and making my own dances. I am anticipating taking an active role in educating new generations of dancer citizens. And here is what I will tell them: Read books. Read newspapers. Listen to loud music. Get your rocks off. Be political. Don’t separate your dancing body from your intelligent mind. Do be intelligent. Do not be romantic about your work, for it, much like New York City, will never be romantic about you.
Because here’s the thing: if you measure your value by a narrowly focused idea of virtuosity (who decided the splits are virtuous anyway?), turning 40 will be pretty durn depressing. But, if you apply yourself to this profession with a purposeful sense of broad minded inquiry, you will arrive at 40 with excitement and brio. The future is once again wide open, and you ain’t dead yet. So get a life dancers. Because I’ve seen the moon, and, hell, it’s not really all that blue.