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Missed Steps

So many steps! So many turns! A leap. A landing. And done. The other dancers had no trouble remembering the steps. I had trouble.

Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

The choreographers Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Erick Hawkins, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Yvonne Rainer, José Limón, and Don Redlich, on the terrace of Graham’s Manhattan home, New York City, 1968

Next to a brushy, ghostly portrait of Strindberg called “Ande August” (“Spirit of August”), the Swedish artist Cecilia Edefalk presents a video in which words spelled out in green letters transcribe brief conversations between her and Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, who died a century ago. The dialogues sound as if they had been conducted via Ouija Board. One reads:
“Forlorn”
“Why”
“Wasted”
“What should you have done”
“Danced”

The New York Times, July 8, 2011         

During the summer of 1972, I was a student at the American Dance Festival, at Connecticut College in New London. At night, I read Augustine’s Confessions; I was seventeen. Fragmented memories of that summer come back to me now, prompted by those green-letter words from the Ouija Board. The forlorn dorm I slept in was named for Edith Hamilton, the classicist known for her compilations of Greek myths.

One evening, in the dining hall, a teacher rumored to have been disappointed in love danced impromptu with her cat. With her black hair cut short and her long, long legs, the teacher danced on pointe. She was not wearing toe shoes. Why, we wondered. Why? As she executed pirouettes and pas de chat (“cat steps,” an inside joke), the cat, its tail twitching, eyed her warily. Would her unprotected feet leave a faint trail of blood across the dining-room floor for the cat to lap up with its clean, pink tongue? When the dance was over, the teacher, looking gaunt and wasted, held the cat in her arms and bowed, shoulders slumped. We clapped nervously. That night, I lay sleepless in my narrow bed in Edith Hamilton Hall trying to read Augustine of Hippo. What should you have done, I asked myself. What should you have done?

I had taken my first dance classes at a hippie boarding school in Vermont. There were four students in my composition class. One was Carlos Buhler, who went on to have a big career as a high-altitude mountain climber (perilous ascents, no supplemental oxygen). One Saturday afternoon, our teacher, Marya, packed us into a VW van and drove us to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There, we watched a performance of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. One of the dances, shocking to me, was “Greek Dreams, with Flute,” which featured, according to an online description, “topless nymphs in sheer, pale-blue pleated Grecian tunics and nearly naked satyrs and athletes.” Inspired, I soon choreographed a dance, very lyrical and sweeping in the Hawkins mode, to a movement from a Bach lute suite. Marya loved it. When I told her that I wanted to be a dancer, she said the American Dance Festival, part boot camp and part audition, was where serious students, some three hundred in all, went in the summer.  

I was raised on Indiana basketball. People joke that basketball is a religion in Indiana. It’s no joke. I played varsity basketball from the fifth grade on, with basketball camp every summer. The coaches were exacting and unforgiving. “You missed a layup!” Mr. Moore would shout. “Maybe if you got a haircut you could see the basket!” Or Mr. Busby: “The name is Busby. Coach Busby. But don’t you ever call me Busby. You call me Mister Busby. Or Coach Busby.” Later, there would be so many hours with my shrink. So many hours talking about basketball coaches… and remote professors, and exigent editors. But at the American Dance Festival, I sought out the disciplinarians. Graham technique (“Contract! Release!”). Ballet. Alfredo Corvino, scrutinizing our barre exercises. “A beautiful back,” he said, as I held a shaky arabesque. He gently drew his hand down my spine, as though counting the vertebrae. “Beautiful.”

I tried to concentrate on the instructor’s commands, but I was distracted by the accompanists. Human metronomes, they laid down a perfect rhythm at their grand pianos. But how they played! Some were very young; some seemed impossibly old to my seventeen-year-old eyes. The instructor would call for a waltz, snapping her fingers in three-quarter time. The pianist would play some Chopin or Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby” or the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” I paused to listen, watching their fingers. But the instructor was already walking through a combination, counting out loud. So many steps! So many turns! A leap. A landing. And done. The other dancers had no trouble remembering the steps. I had trouble.

Ancient and regal, Martha Graham glided into the Art Deco Palmer Auditorium, her wheelchair a throne. Her hands, arthritic and beautiful, gestured imperiously, as though she was still directing her dancers. Hadn’t she essentially invented modern dance? Hawkins, José Limón, Merce Cunningham—hadn’t they all danced with her? I tried to get Graham technique right. But my hips were unyielding. No turnout. No give. I went to extra classes in the evenings, sitting on the floor, pushing down my knees as far as they would go. One night, the teacher, taking pity on me, chided the women in the class for not trying hard enough. “Look at him,” she said, pointing at me. “His hips are so tight, but look how hard he’s trying.” 

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Shelley Washington! I had never seen anyone anywhere dance like her. Her perfect technique. Her flair. Her incredible poise. And she was exactly my age, a kid. She was the only black dancer in the Graham class; I was the only boy. She learned the combinations like that. Danced them as though they’d been choreographed just for her. Suddenly, or so it seemed, she was dancing for Twyla Tharp. And then, just as suddenly, there she was in the movie Hair. A couple of years later, Tharp’s company came to my sleepy Quaker college, where I wrote reviews for the student paper. Backstage, I talked with Shelley, who pretended to remember me. I could have been in one of Edith Hamilton’s myths, encountering a precocious nymph.

Rudy Perez and Don McDonagh invited me to join them for a walk in the Connecticut College arboretum. I was in Perez’s choreography class; he specialized in ordinary, everyday movement. McDonough had written the standard history of modern dance. They asked me a lot of questions.

“Chris, you should be a dance critic,” McDonagh said, as we walked back to campus. “There aren’t many good dance critics. You could be a good dance critic.” I was determined to choreograph a dance to impress Perez, to prove them wrong. It was a martial concept I came up with, like something for a drill team. The dancers, randomly arrayed, would march ten steps forward, make a right angle, march nine steps, make another right angle, then eight steps. Everyone lost count very quickly. It was utter chaos, dancers bumping into each other. One dancer—the only other boy in the class—stood perfectly still amid the disarray. “Brilliant,” Perez said, pointing to him. “Did you see what he did? Brilliant.” He said nothing else about my dance.

I went to the Quaker college that fall, in the same forlorn backwater in Indiana where I had grown up. I hadn’t graduated from high school, but the college didn’t seem to mind. Why was I in such a hurry to finish my so-called education? It was 1972: the country was coming apart; I had a lottery number for the draft; Nixon was running, God help us, for re-election. No one I knew had any plans for the future. I felt as though I was in that James Wright poem: “I have wasted my life.” I danced for a couple of semesters with a teacher who had trained with Viola Farber, a founding member of Merce Cunningham’s company. It was my introduction to his technique: parallel (no turn-out!), fast, like an aerobics class, or like running down the basketball court. It better suited my body than the torments of Graham and ballet. But something had gone out of the whole thing for me.

McDonagh was right. I was a words-man, after all. Dancing dragged on for me as my last miserable months of Indiana basketball had done, going through the motions before I escaped to my Vermont high school. And here I was, back in Indiana. What should you have done, I asked myself. What should you have done?

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