Improvising

This week, for the first time in 22 years, I took part in a modern dance class. My last dance class was in graduate school at the University of Montana. We met four times a week, Monday through Thursday, and I loved it—except for one thing. On Thursdays, after warm-ups, the class focused on improvisation, with the goal of each student creating and performing an original solo by the end of the term.

At 26, the thought of improvising was terrifying—my creativity and skill, or lack thereof, would be laid bare for all to see. I was comfortable and competent in learning situations that demanded absorption and regurgitation of knowledge, whether cerebral or kinetic. But improvisation demands an ability to assimilate and apply knowledge, as well as a good dose of comfort within one’s own skin—a quality I hadn’t yet developed. 

So I made up an excuse to miss dance class on Thursdays—my graduate studies were too demanding, and I just couldn’t make it that day.  I spent the term comfortably mimicking my teacher’s graceful movements across the dance floor.

That summer, I moved to rural Vermont, where my husband, Robert, and I built a house and lived for the next 20 years. The closest modern dance class for adults was an hour away. So instead, I gardened and did yoga and wrote and raised chickens and children—wonderful and fulfilling work and play.

Now I live in Flagstaff, Arizona. Two weeks ago, I discovered a dance studio less than a mile from my home that offers an adult modern dance class. I emailed them right away. “I’m 48 years old,” I said. “I haven’t taken a dance class since 1989. I’m in good shape. Is this class appropriate for me?” The reply was an emphatic “Yes!” along with a description of the class as a mix of all skill levels, from beginner to advanced, and a range of ages.

Fifteen minutes before the evening class was to begin, I was still as home, waffling. The demons of lethargy and doubt were in my ear—I’m 48 years old! I can’t leap and spin anymore! I’ve got lower back pain—this is sure to make it worse! I’m tired and just want to sit on the couch and talk with my boys!

Like any good friend would do, my younger son, who is 14 now, said, “Go for it, Mom” at just the right moment, pushing me off the fence and into the car. As I filled out the paperwork at the studio, the teacher said, “I’m glad you’re here.” “Thanks,” I replied. “I think I’m glad I’m here too.”

In the next hour, my body reacquainted itself with some surprisingly familiar positions and kicks and leaps, and tried out new ones. I worked muscles long unworked and felt tender spots growing on my hips as we rolled across the floor. I caught sight of myself in the mirror at times and felt great compassion for this occasionally graceful, occasionally awkward woman who grinned back at me from among the younger faces.

After an hour, the teacher announced that we’d now do some improvisation. She asked us each to give her a word—an action verb or a body part—and she wrote them down as we said them. Hip. Vibrate. Hand. Dab. Arms. Toes. Spiral. Melt. And so on. Then she slowly read the words, and we created our own movements to accompany each word. We did this a few times, each time in the same word order and with the same movements, to create our dance. Then we performed our dances for each other, half the class at a time.

Next, we worked with a partner, with instructions to somehow integrate our dances. My partner was a lovely young woman, tall and graceful and well-practiced as a dancer. We faced one another and smiled and quite effortlessly wove our dances together. We mirrored one another throughout the dance and looked into one another’s eyes whenever we faced one another. We practiced several times, performed our dance for the rest of the class, and high-fived when we were through.

The improvisation reminded me of writing workshops I’ve participated in over the years. We’d give each other writing prompts, follow our imaginations with our pens, then read to each other what we’d written. The dancing improvisation was the same method of prompt/create/share, but the movement part of the creative process was, I realized, something that my heart and body had been longing for. I have not felt such pure joy, such jubilation, in a long time.

As far as I can see, there is no right way to live a life, except to live it fully and passionately and as fearlessly as possible. As a parent, as a writer, as a human being, I’m improvising in every moment. When done with an open heart and mind, it’s a beautiful thing.

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