Abigail Rasminsky | Longreads | January 2018 | 20 minutes (4,983 words)
We converged on New York City from every corner of the globe: from college dance departments in Ohio and Michigan and Minnesota, and conservatories in Florida and California and North Carolina; from Athens and Stockholm and Tel Aviv, and tiny towns in Brazil and Ecuador and Italy, all of us sweeping into Manhattan, that sliver of an island, from the outer boroughs for morning class. In our bags: cut-off sweatpants and bottles of water, tape to bandage split and bleeding toes, matches to soften the tape, apples and bags of tamari almonds from the Park Slope Food Coop, sports bras and tubes of mascara, gum, cigarettes, wallets full of cash from late nights working in bars and restaurants, paperbacks and copies of New York Magazine, and iPods for long subway rides. The bags weighed 10, 15 pounds.
Our lives were organized around class. We needed jobs that wouldn’t interfere with our real reason for being here. We heard rumors of people who had gotten Real Jobs — as temps, as school teachers, jobs with insurance and benefits and holidays off — who swore they’d keep dancing. There are plenty of classes after work! they’d say. This was technically true, but we knew that they’d get talked into going out for that one post-work drink, or be lulled by the security and predictability of it all, the paycheck and the summer Fridays, the day-in, day-out schedule; a full-time modern dancer’s life too eccentric, too chancy, too ridiculous. We knew that once that happened, it was hard to let go and dive back in. This was the time: you had to do it early; this career couldn’t wait until 28 or 30, couldn’t wait for you to get properly settled in the city, to hook up your safety net. There would always be a stronger, younger dancer on your heels. The time was now, only now.
On any given morning in Manhattan, there are hundreds of dance classes occurring simultaneously, ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip-hop, release technique, West African, salsa, ballroom, Afro-Caribbean. Many of them take place side-by-side in bustling studios, music from one mingling with the other, the sounds of Bach and Beyoncé meeting through thin walls and wafting into the hallway. The smell of feet and body odor and deodorant are omnipresent.
I arrived at 22 and had very little idea about how to start. I had very little idea about anything, really, least of all life in New York at the turn of the millennium.
The only thing on my schedule that first Tuesday — or for the foreseeable future, really, since I didn’t yet have a job and wasn’t sure how to go about finding one — was a two-hour modern dance class in the East Village. I only knew about it because the mother of my best friend from college taught it. I had settled on Tamar’s class for that reason alone. Maya and I had graduated in May, and venturing any further out beyond the semi-familiarity of her mother seemed terrifying. This was 2000. We didn’t have a computer in our apartment; Google would take over in the future but was at that point far from entering our everyday lexicon. How did anyone find those other classes?
The previous summer, right before senior year, Maya and I had driven to New York the day exams ended. We’d spend the summer dancing. Sponging off my uncle in his fifth-story walkup in Morningside Heights, I trekked downtown every morning on the 1 train in $1.99 flip-flops from Duane Reade my mother was sure would cause me to step on a needle and contract AIDS. It was over a hundred degrees every day, so I sweat through my clothes in technique class, stuffed them to the bottom of my knapsack, and ran across town to my afternoon filing-and-phone gig at a small dance organization. My mother came to visit, observing a particularly acrobatic class one morning. It involved lots of partnering work that resulted in people propelling themselves into each others’ arms and onto each others’ backs, and more than occasionally crashing to the floor.
“You came this close to breaking your neck!” she screeched as we walked out onto Second Avenue. “I had to look away!”
My mother was relieved when the summer ended and I returned to more sedate modern classes in college, or at least to classes that were now squarely out of her view.
But this, now, was different. This was real. There was no returning to college. There was no backup plan.
This is not unusual for dancers. At least it wasn’t when we were starting out. We believed in the bodies we had been training since childhood, and thought little about what would happen if, not when, they stopped working.
I should say that there is no reason a relatively sane person subjects herself to this kind of physical and emotional pain, or the humiliation and instability of this life, other than for deep, and often unrequited love. In modern dance at least, as opposed to in ballet or on Broadway, there is very little resembling fame or money at the end of the rainbow. There is no pension and no bank that will offer you a mortgage on your dream house (or, in New York, a decidedly un-dream-like, barely affordable shoebox). There is hardly such a thing as a stable job. Most companies are small and function on a pick-up basis, offering dancers work for a few months at a time, if that. Almost all still have side jobs teaching yoga or pilates or preschool, frothing milk or mixing cocktails. Pain is so deeply woven into the culture that half of all dancers retire, whether at 25 or 40, with long-term injuries that plague them for the rest of their lives.
I can assure you I never thought about any of this.
This was the time: you had to do it early; a career in dance couldn’t wait until 28 or 30, couldn’t wait for you to get properly settled in the city, to hook up your safety net. There would always be a stronger, younger dancer on your heels.
The volatility of the career worried my parents, but they tried never to voice it. My mother’s mother, Miriam Blecher, born and bred on the Lower East Side of Manhattan above her father’s tailor shop, had been among the early American modern dancers, part of a revolutionary company called the New Dance Group, which was founded in 1932. The mostly Jewish young women were dark-haired and thick-browed, hard-working and idealistic. They choreographed dances about poverty, the class struggle, and the Hungarian and Russian shtletls of their parents.
Many of them, including my grandmother, went on to dance with Martha Graham, one of the early pioneers of modern dance. Miriam died of a brain tumor when I was 2, but I brought a photograph of her with me to Brooklyn, triple wrapped in old issues of The Oberlin Review. When I crawled out of bed that first August morning before leaving for class — practically doing a handstand to extricate myself from the tiny space — I stared at her on the wall.
Photos of dancers rarely capture the kinetic force behind the movement — the desire to tear through space, to ride it, to rest in it — but this photo, taken in 1934 Manhattan, does. 22-year-old Miriam is wearing a short-sleeved black dress that reaches her knees, and a peasant scarf holds her long hair out of her eyes. Her arms, legs and feet are loose and bare, reaching away from her torso like lithe tentacles, one leg kicking forward. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyebrows suspended in half moons of exhilaration. Only the glass of the frame tamps her down.
The night before, I had hung the lone frame on my bedroom wall the way other people might affix a cross over the bed, or a mezuzah in the arch of the door: as both a protector and a guide. Her body, wild and free and vulnerable, was all I wanted mine to be.
P.S. 122 was deserted. It had once been a public school, but when artists took over the abandoned building in 1980, the P.S. conveniently shifted from “Public School” into “Performance Space.” Nonetheless, it had the slightly creepy feel of a long-forgotten battleship.
In the dark performance space, I found four people in various states of undress. I backed out, assuming they were about to start a rehearsal, and circled the joint again. I tried one door. It was locked. Then another, and another, and another. It was a long hallway of denial.
Until. “Is this,” I started, after returning to the original doorway. My voice was just above a whisper. “Are you here for Tamar?”
“We won’t bite,” a voice called out.
Already set for class in fuchsia bell-bottomed dance pants and a black tank top, I slipped into a nearby seat, let my eyes wander around the space as the others slipped off shorts and bras and stood around bare-bodied before pulling on sweats and ripped T-shirts. I scoured my bag for something to at least give the illusion that I was occupied, but there was barely anything in it: no cell phone, no change of clothing, no water bottle, no book, no magazine, not even a wallet. I had forgotten mine on the grass in Prospect Park over the weekend, and when I’d returned an hour later, it was gone. All I had with me were some loose bills borrowed from my roommate, a Metrocard, the keys to my new apartment, and a scrap of paper on which I’d scribbled my address and phone number so I could find my way to a place I didn’t dare call home.
“You came!” Tamar said, bursting into the space. A tiny leather backpack, a relic of the 1990s, hung off her spine, and she lugged around a boom box. She wore loose black cotton pants and an even looser black T-shirt, the sort of modern dance gear that can be indistinguishable from pajamas. Her presence offered some reassurance, but I hardly knew her.
In the hundreds of dance classes I’d been to in my life, we usually began facing a mirror, in carefully spaced-out rows, set up for pliés or sit-ups, sun salutations or roll-downs. It was a familiar ritual no matter what room we gathered in. Now I found myself standing in a wide circle in the small black box theatre. Near the edges of the room, thick, velvet curtains hung in sheets. The other dancers’ eyes were closed, trusting Tamar’s soft voice.
“Bring your fingers together in front of your sternum,” she said, “and make a tiny undulation under your breastbone.”
I had hung the lone frame on my bedroom wall the way other people might affix a cross over the bed, or a mezuzah in the arch of the door: as both a protector and a guide. My grandmother’s body, wild and free and vulnerable, was all I wanted mine to be.
I had heard the instructions but felt uncertain. After peeking, I placed my fingertips together like the others, the ends forming a steeple, my hands almost in a prayer position at my heart. Then I undulated my chest, an S-wave that traveled through my upper spine, sending my chin up then down, my head nodding atop my neck. After a few waves, I thought I might hurl.
“Just here,” Tamar said, her fingers surprising me on the bare skin above the neck of my tank top, quieting the reverb. “Less.” I followed her direction until the movement was a tiny, quiet echo deep under my skin, like a baby caterpillar inching its way up my heart.
We let the undulations progress down our spines until the movement reached our pelvises, exploring the smallest shifts of our tail and pubic bones, those two twin anchors at the bottom of the torso. We added our arms and heads to the equation but kept our feet planted, pinned to the ground, each of us performing small, on-site, upper-body improvisations.
This didn’t seem so much like a dance class as it did a moving anatomy lesson. It was fascinating in its own way. I had never worked so intensely to do so little, had never been so restrained. But I really wanted to move, to show her what I could do. When would that happen?
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Tamar was preoccupied with the tiniest swatches of the body: the right inner elbow; the skin of the forehead; the left thumbnail, areas that, for all my training, had never crossed my mind. How should I “place my attention on my right eyelashes” — and why? How would focusing on my eyelashes make me a better dancer?
After half-an-hour, gliding out of the circle and turning the music up, Tamar said, “Improvise!” We unlocked our feet from the ground and moved about the space. We were to keep these pieces of our bodies as anchors and guides: How does your elbow relate to the skin of the forehead? What’s happening to that thumb?
Afraid of wandering into a person or a wall, and not really understanding what I was supposed to do, I opened my eyes. The others were utterly absorbed in their own private worlds. One older woman in the group, whose toenails were painted a strange orange, skipped around the edges of the room like she was 6 years old; a young man was curving his spine to the right, his left arm traveling over his head in a mountainous, gorgeous arc. None of them cared a lick about what I was doing.
Every choice, I was sure, would be the wrong one. None of Tamar’s directives made any sense. Why couldn’t she tell me what to do? Why had I come? What had she “seen” in me?
For a time, I walked around in a very small circle, way at the back of the room, close to the curtains, willing myself to disappear, to slip offstage, all the while throwing out a leg or an arm, folding myself over and kicking up my legs in a handstand, trying to put “moves” together. Awkward, disjointed, show-offy stuff.
The sense of doom was enormous. Day one and surely I’d already blown it.
But as the minutes ticked by and the music grew louder, as Tamar coaxed me with more clues — don’t forget the left inner knee! — it was also surprisingly rich. Liberating. Unexpected. Emboldening. When I put my attention into my third cervical vertebra, right at the center of my neck, my upper spine curled forward on instinct. When I became aware that my left pinkie finger could instigate movement, my elbow and armpit woke up and sent me, tripping, sideways, like a drunk. New neural pathways, like lights on a grid, all switched on at once, an entire ecosystem, hitherto unknown, there to be discovered and ridden.
Within minutes, the young man sidled up to me and we began to play off each other, eyebrows and skin and nails awake. We weren’t touching or even making eye contact, but that is the beauty of dancing with another person in an improvisation class. This is the joy I had misunderstood in college. You respond to the others’ movements without visual or verbal cues, like teammates on a soccer field or members of a band onstage. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you find yourself dancing with another person and, as with bad sex, everything is off and awkward and you do your best to make it end, but this was a perfect fit. Our partnership, and our chemistry, pushed me to move my limbs and spine in ways I never had, to experiment and surprise myself, to lean and hop and duck before making a calculated decision to do so, my mind utterly at rest, present but clear. This is when improvisation gets exciting: when even you don’t know what you’ll do next, when what you want to make happen isn’t as exciting as what does.
We unlocked our feet from the ground and moved about the space. We were to keep these pieces of our bodies as anchors and guides: How does your elbow relate to the skin of the forehead? What’s happening to that thumb?
Sweating and hungry for air, I prayed that Tamar would turn the music up, louder and louder, and leave it on for hours, for days, so we could play here forever, in a place where my limbs and spine felt like both liquid and fire — indestructible and agile and wholly malleable, capable of anything, of great sparks and subtle quiet, of things I didn’t yet know existed, but believed I would experience one day, if I trusted the grid, the ecosystem, my body, if I listened to her and to myself. If I stayed in New York, chose this room, this company, as my starting place, showed up, again and again, finding my place on the floor, in the city, in this strange, magical life. I knew that our steps could never be retraced or recreated; it was all too unpredictable, a whirlwind of pauses and extensions and leaps, both of us disappearing into the movement, at its joyful mercy. The rest of the room faded away, leaving just the two of us in a dance of our own second-by-second making.
Over the next few years, I built a career, one gig at a time, dancing professionally for Tamar, and many others, all over town. I taught yoga, I flipped myself upside down and inside out with relative ease, helped others do the same, ran up and down endless subway stairs, I trusted myself — my body — completely. It was what I had to offer.
By the time I found myself in a sea of other bodies in a studio in SoHo, I’d been at it for almost four years since that first fateful class with Tamar. Enough time to finally, finally, have developed a rhythm and forged a community; to say, with some assuredness — on dates, to friends from high school, to the agents at border patrol as I crossed from the U.S. into Montreal, where I’d grown up — I’m a professional modern dancer in New York City.
Is it too much to say that this is all I’d ever wanted?
It wasn’t, of course. By then, I wanted a boyfriend, and maybe, eventually, a family, and, more urgently, perhaps an apartment whose front door locked and whose buzzer actually made a sound, and maybe a way to pay the rent that didn’t involve bills stashed in a shoebox under the bed, and maybe a day off once in a while — but all that had been shoved aside to make way for this singular, pressing need. A need I’d had since I could move.
It was a freezing cold evening in January. The steamed-up windows over lower Broadway showed the sky to have long gone dark. Few rehearsal spaces were well maintained. Single bulbs hung from the ceiling. The floors were haphazardly swept and rarely washed. Almost all the buildings were ancient, the off-white paint peeling, the cracks never repaired, the floorboards just a little uneven.
We stood before the mirror, sweat pooling into the smalls of our backs and staining the rims of our tank tops. I readjusted my sweatpants, tightening the loop around my waist, and pulled my hair, gone akimbo from the previous two athletic hours, back against my skull. We were thirty sets of lungs breathing, thirty hearts battering hard under our shirts.
The choreographer leading the class — a woman who would soon hit it big by creating a solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov — was rumored to be hiring one new dancer soon and like everyone else in the room, I wanted the job. Like everyone else in the room, I probably wouldn’t get it. But I might.
We’d been practicing the final combination for a while, long enough to do more than just execute the steps. We had digested it and could dig our teeth in, feel ourselves get swept away, make it our own. This is why we’d come, why dancers never really stray from the souls they were at age four, bounding joyfully across the living room floor: we’d come to play.
The group formed a horseshoe around the edges of the room, covering every inch of wall space, leaving only five of us spotlighted in the center, ready to perform.
Five and six and ready, and —
We rode the movement like a rollercoaster, anticipating each turn, each peak — a bold leap, a quick run across the space, a quiet hand gesture, a tilt of the head. In the silence, we sensed each other’s rhythms, were receptive to sudden shifts in mood and dynamics, to points of physical contact: a flushed cheek brushed up against a sliver of torso, eyes locking in for a moment, long legs extending out in unison. Just as we were becoming bolder with one another, more reckless, high —
It was a small moment — an ordinary moment. Pain. We felt it all the time. But this was more: sharper, crippling — an ax slammed into my lower back. A bone shifted out of place, or maybe two joints crashing together, I didn’t know. It was enough that I gasped and staggered to a corner, got down on my hands and knees. No one batted an eye; this wasn’t abnormal either.
I’d kicked my leg back in an arabesque, a movement I’d done thousands of times in my life, and dozens of times this evening alone.
Now with palms and shins spread against the floor, I wagged my tail this way and that, up, down, in figure-eights, trying to unlock whatever had just clamped shut, the pain limiting my range of motion, tightening my jaw, my shoulders. I was like a mechanic peering under the hood of a car, inspecting the engine, trusty flashlight in hand. I reminded myself that there was still air in the room, that I could take it in.
If this were a real injury, not just a passing ache of the sort dancers experience on a daily basis, my schedule — a ridiculously packed mess of a thing — I knew, would quickly come tumbling down. I tried to stave off panic: What of the 7 a.m. yoga client on the Upper West Side tomorrow? The new 9:30 a.m. group class across the park, the noon corporate gig, the dance rehearsal at 2 p.m. in Williamsburg, the nighttime shift at the restaurant? The upcoming show? What of the rent?
I could usually resolve these hiccups on my own with some ice, a bath, Tiger Balm, a few yoga poses. I was, after all, in the business of understanding my body. But I couldn’t get this pain to dissipate.
At the time, though, I thought little of it. I was a dancer, so I danced on.
I wanted the job.
Pain, like intense pleasure, is one of the few experiences that makes us acutely aware of our bodies. Beginning yoga students often complain of mild discomforts — my wrist, my knee, my back! they moan as they bend and fold and kneel. Some, of course, have genuine injuries, but for many, this is one of the few moments of the day (week, month, year) that their bodies are squarely, singularly in view.
I’m not suggesting that all non-dancers are hopelessly cerebral. When a colicky baby keeps us pacing the apartment, bleary-eyed, until 4 a.m.; during a bout of the stomach flu or a debilitating migraine; after stubbing a toe on a metal table leg; in the midst of an orgasm — these are the moments when our bodies come into stark relief, when they aren’t subsumed by our minds. When all is functioning more or less correctly, our bodies usually disappear: our attention happily turns elsewhere.
It was a small moment — an ordinary moment. Pain. We felt it all the time. But this was more: sharper, crippling — an ax slammed into my lower back.
Anyone who has lived with chronic pain, however, knows how impossible it is to ignore your body. To live in pain is to live with the terrorizing feeling that you cannot get out of your body. That no matter where you go, or what you do, you will never outrun the pain, it will follow you everywhere — to dinner, to the movies, to work, to bed, into all your relationships, into the next day and the next and the next. You can distract yourself with friends or booze or TV, but that only works for a short time, if at all. It is the sensation of not being able to escape that is so unbearable.
To live with chronic pain is to know that every decision you make is not so much your choice, but your body’s. Can I carry these groceries home? Can I sit through dinner? Can I take on that job, go on that trip, have a baby? It is to live with the knowledge that you are inherently fragile. It is to lose control of so much.
I kept dancing. Dancers are wont to do this. How could I stop? This was all I knew.
Two years later I was in yet another class, always another class. I had been hurting for months, for years, but now, I was sick of sitting on the sidelines, I had to move, to hop up and run into the space. I wanted to forget it all — the pain, the worry, the calculations, my ailing body, and maybe I could, if I’d just let myself be absorbed by the movement. So I let my breathing deepen. Two other dancers joined me. We became a jazz trio riffing on a theme — following subtle cues, fingers clasped wrists, weight was given and received — and I lost all sense of caution, as if I’d really been trying for it at all. Oh, the joy of abandon!
But how could I stay lost there? My mind — mostly a quiet hum in the background while dancing — reared its cacophonous voice, which was screaming stop —
STOP FOR FUCK’S SAKE STOP
STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP
My left leg felt as if it had caught fire, the nerve thick and raw and throbbing, bellowing from the inside — more virulent than ever before.
I ducked away from elbows and eyes, made my way to the other edge of the studio and joined the clump of onlookers. I spread out along the floor. The back of my skull, my winged shoulder blades, pelvis and heels settled into the wood like points on a map. The rotating group of improvisers continued to play, but now, with my eyes angled toward the ceiling, they were out of view.
The toes on my left foot were numb, dead weight. I bent my knees and rolled to the side, got up on all fours, stood up slowly like an old man, struggling to unfold.
At home, I downed two bright blue Aleves, pulled a mushy ice pack out of the freezer and took my place on the couch. The cold was so shocking I had to catch my breath before my muscles could loosen up against the chill.
Staring up through a slice of window, I waited for the ice pack to do its job, turning my back and pelvis pink and numb. How many times had I ended the day like this? How many more would it take?
I had recently been to an acupuncturist who had spent weeks gwa sha-ing my spinal muscles with the hope of providing some relief. Gwa sha, an ancient Chinese practice, consists of taking the hard, thin edge of a spoon and raking it across bare skin, as a sculptor would mold drying clay—scooping, digging. The afflicted skin turns a disturbing shade of crimson. The idea is that fresh blood can rush to the area, helping it heal. It did nothing but make people who saw my bare back gasp.
Lying on my couch, I felt as if my insides had been gwa sha-ed: my pumping heart, the gauzy interior of my lungs, the clump at the center of my throat, all of it scooped out.
Anyone who has lived with chronic pain knows how impossible it is to ignore your body. To live in pain is to live with the terrorizing feeling that you cannot get out of your body.
For years I’d been propping myself up on nothing, the fantasy that my body would repair itself without too much intervention, while I continued to run at breakneck speeds. I didn’t have the guts to step off the treadmill, so fearful of the full-speed crash landing I’d make when the ground underneath me stopped moving. So fearful of losing sight of everyone else as they kept on, their supple bodies disappearing in the distance. So fearful about what I’d actually have to admit about the state of my life.
Who was I without dancing?
Who was I without a body that worked as it once had?
What would I do with my life?
What’s hard to come to terms with when your body has been so indelibly changed — by injury, by illness, even by age — is just that: that it has been indelibly changed. That no matter how completely you may recover, it is never the same. Your body isn’t infallible, it never really was. This is just a lucky illusion some of us can live for a period of time. Some of us live with it through childhood and adolescence, some for a few decades — some not nearly that long. The very lucky ones can go most of their lives this way. Dancers, athletes and daredevils play out this illusion to the extreme, defying every imposed physical limit, pretending the very thing they love and lust after won’t also be their ruin.
I stopped dancing. I was 28. Eventually, many, many years later, I would heal. But it would take a long time before I understood that that small moment of injury — that first moment, kicking my leg back — wasn’t a blip at all, but the point at which the plot swerved out of my control. And that the choice I made in the face of it said so much about me and the culture from which I’d emerged: that I believed I was infallible; that my body was resilient and imminently trustworthy; that my career and ambition couldn’t be slowed for anything. And perhaps, most of all, the belief that my relationship with my body, which had always been a joyful one, would never change.
* * *
Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Cut, Marie Claire, O: The Oprah Magazine, Guernica, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.
Editor: Sari Botton