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Turning Off Center

Today, I am ruthlessly killing segments of my novel in this, the final revision of my thesis. Time is closing in on me, and I can no longer fudge around trying to save those precious intellectual lectures that I slipped into the story. They were didactic, preachy and dragged the story down. This does not mean I didn’t work like the devil to fit them in, like a square peg into a round hole. 

I wrote them first, you see, as a free writing exercise in a seminar. I was told the pieces were good, so I used one in the submission that led to acceptance into my master’s program. I included it in the material for my first term critique workshop and was encouraged by the professor and students to expand it into a bigger story. This seduced me into considering dance as the subject for my ongoing thesis project.  The actual story of my novel was invented like filler, an idea wrapping around the essays. This made the novel somewhat contrived, rather than being inspired by a plot which is how I usually write.   

At first, I tried to pass the essays off as mental meanderings – as if my frustrated character was thinking all this philosophical stuff about dance. That didn’t work.
Next, I turned the essays into diary entries – as if my main character was writing formal essays to get her thoughts about her former career off her chest. I even invented a therapist, Marilyn, for her to discuss the entries with, to provide a bigger forum for intellectual debate. That didn’t work either. Had to kill Marilyn after my second term.
My teachers said, “The essays are very well-written. Some are the best writing you’ve done. But nevertheless, No one writes that formally in a diary, and no one cares about dance in this way. Stick to the story. It’s more interesting. “
The problem was, I didn’t believe no one cared. I happened to care about dance in that way, and I found the discussions interesting. Obviously, I had things to say and I wanted to use this book to say them. And people said things like they were “compelling” or “opened my eyes” and this made me think that if I could find a way, I should keep them.

But what I eventually learned was, I should be writing a story about a person and her journey as a retired dancer, thus letting readers come to their own conclusions about dance, but I was writing a story about dance, hitting readers over the head with it’s many issues just in case they didn’t “get it” instead.  And a story about dance (philosophically) lacks the human interest pull that keeps a reader involved.

So, realizing this, I invented a pedicurist – a Vietnamese girl who listens to Dana (my leading character) vent as she fixes her sore feet (a metaphor for how painful dance had become for her), and I tried to change the essays and turn them into less formal conversations. This still didn’t work totally (although this new character, Tu, remained and added a great deal to the story.) Some glimmers of the formal essays made it in, but most had to go.

Each revision, the story got more defined and better. But still, it has a way to go.
So, this week, at long last, I’m killing the essays. It’s time.  Heck, It’s past time. As each one hits the dust, I cringe and mope.
Mark said, “Maybe you need to write another book – some kind of nonfiction social commentary on dance.”
I really have no interest in that. But thanks for giving my heated opinion validation by suggesting it.

One professor told me that my writing the essays was important even though they are not going to be a part of the book, because they solidify my character and help give her more depth. I think he is right. You can’t bemoan the work you do that doesn’t make it into the book, because it is a bit like those scenes that end on the cutting room floor when they edit a movie. What’s lost isn’t as important as what is gained by creating a story that is well paced and organized. You can spend hours on a passage but that doesn’t mean it has intrinsic value.

In the end, I’ve accepted that I wrote these dang things for me. After a lifetime of feeling passionate about the art, I had to give my feelings a voice. That voice doesn’t need to be heard (read) to have served a purpose.

Anyway, no more preaching essays about dance in my book (now entitled “Turning off Center”.)
And just to prove to you how wrong these essays were for a fictional novel (which believe it or not has a great deal of humor and fun in it too) I thought I would share one of the more pompous ones that just cropped up as I hit page 143 of my current revision. I killed the dang thing just now. This one is about how critical dancers are of each other, self righteous about their particular path rather than embracing the art in it’s many fascinating forms.

Here it goes.
Read it and weep. Or snore, as the case may be.  Ha. See how I contrive a way to get someone to read them in the end even when I profess that it isn’t important.

      Dance is more like a religion than a vocation or special interest to those of us involved. Its congregation is made up of devout followers unified by one core ideology. Having joined the order, dancers engage in daily rituals, warm-ups, classes, auditions, choreography, all part of an ongoing quest to manifest purpose and seek validation for our devotion to the craft. The studio is our church, the stage our pulpit.

     Like religion, the basic premise of our ideology is beautiful. Dance can fill your soul with joy. Art teaches us about life and love. It makes our world a better place. But, as with any religion, theory and practice are two different issues.

     Any gathering of like-minded souls feeding each other’s monstrous ideals can become a mob casting stones at everyone who doesn’t share similar artistic values. The average worshiper is a good-natured soul who attends a weekly service and has a healthy connection to their faith. But dancers are more like the religious zealot, obsessing about their art, dismissing all those who dare follow a separate path.

     As dancers, we begin with one core ideology. But swayed by personality, physical traits, upbringing, and the social environment, dancers divide into sects of Ballet, Modern, and contemporary dance styles,(jazz).  Once a dancer is fully embraced in one of these communities, the dancers who chose to walk alternate paths become “others”.  If there is one thing seemingly universal about religion,  it would be that in order for us to be “right”, “others” must be wrong.

    Ballet advocates approach dance with a purist mentality, putting stock in literal translations of what is and is not correct.   With ballet their doctrine, they’re not unlike born again Christians or Catholics, literal in their interpretation of “the word” as they interpret it. Proud of the stringent sacrifices they make to master their art, ballet dancers are righteous in their movement philosophy.  Their saints are Balanchine, Pavlova and Baryshnikov. They worship at the church of Vaganova, Checetti or Royal ballet. Steeped in history and the sacrifices of their past saints, they believe all those who have not chosen “ballet” as the path to heaven are lost souls.

     Meanwhile, modern dancers are a little like Hara Krishna’s or some other cult, a religion just outside of society’s norm. Dancers with bohemian and/or rebellious natures are attracted to this sect, forever striving to cut a new path into movement wilderness. Modern dancers defy the rules of physical grace associated with beauty. They embrace contorted, ugly, halting or awkward movement, claiming life is not always pretty. This, they believe, is moving with truth.

         These modern dancers divide into defined orders too, becoming disciples of the masters they admire, Graham, Limon, Cunningham, or Parsons. For them, contact improvisation is taking communion. For lent, they give up pointing their feet.  The modern dancer’s confessional is the stage, a place they display dances about the human condition. There’s nothing entertaining about grief, mental stress, or personal torment, yet they tackle these themes in performance vigorously, venting their truths with impassioned fire and brimstone sermons.

    Meanwhile the outside dance world looks on, amused, hiding expressions of chagrin over the modern dancer’s adolescent and agnst. Yet, at the same time, the, modern dancers cannot resist making fun of those involved in other disciplines. They insist ballerina’s are just stiff “bun heads” who continue to reinvent the wheel. Jazz dancers have sold out to commercial enterprise.

     At least ballet and modern dancers share a common intellectual understanding of movement and their training processes are similar enough that they offer each other a degree of respect. These classical dancers, on occasion, even cross over from one discipline to the other. The ballet dancer trains in modern to add depth to his or her movement. The modern dancer takes ballet class to find his or her center. Privately, they dish one another, but publicly, they behave with respect and professional curtsy for their sister art. They do have one thing in common. Neither holds much regard for the jazz or theater dance advocate.     

     Jazz dance is defined as “dance of the people, movement that changes and evolves in response to influences of our culture.” In other words, its “common”, and dance sophisticates have little patience for what they perceive as a simplistic parody of the art. Jazz dancers, intimidated by how the profession discredits their core knowledge, avoid delving into areas that make them feel inadequate. So they learn just enough classical technique to serve as a foundation for movement, dwelling in popular cultural styles and trendy movement instead.

     Jazz has subdivisions within its ranks too; hip-hop, lyrical, vintage jazz, and theater dance just to name a few. If Jazz was a faith, it would be a Unitarian parish, liberal by nature. Jazz dancers don’t feel as if they’re guilty sinners, because they don’t adapt the idea that severe sacrifice is required to get into dance heaven. Their faith is somewhat dependant upon instant gratification. Jazz is the dance religion of the masses, thanks to exposure on MTV, Broadway, movie musicals. There is strength (validation) in numbers.   

     With a fair claim on the majority of employed dancers in the world, jazz dancers can’t help but poke fun at the other, more stringent dance forms. For all the snobbery the classical dancers cling to, they receive a poor return for their training investment. Jazz dancers are streetwise, smug in their commercial success. . . and their higher paychecks.

     Thus fuels the ongoing dance religion wars. 

     What is my place in this trilogy of animosity?  I’ve spent time in each of the dance denominations. I’ve studied ballet, modern and theater dance, and worked a bit in each.  Perhaps I’m too much the idealist, for I never found satisfaction in any form alone. I never felt I belonged to one church of movement. In the end, I think I lost faith all together. 

     So now, I guess I’m a dance atheist.

    No, an agnostic.

     It’s not that I don’t believe in pure spirituality in dance. It’s just that I’m still looking for proof that it exists.

Now, you may ask, what did I write instead? Well, I invented a short scene, which I will share – even though out of context it may not have much impact. At this stage of the book, my heroine has taken a group of downs syndrome students to a dance competition and she has strong negative feelings about the event (although the students were treated well and won a nice trophy). A chapter describing the event and all that happens, showing dance in a different light, has just occured. This is the end (taking the place of the above essay.)  

Driving home, her mind circled the competition dance arena and how young people today were being taught to view her beloved art. It seemed nowadays, dance was all about immediate satisfaction and showing off for instant rewards. Perhaps she was just getting old, resistant to a new way of thinking, like those grumbling old men who claim they walked ten miles to school in the snow. Uphill both ways. But honestly, she still believed dancers worked harder, for less tangible rewards, in her day.
     She couldn’t stop thinking about Max and the influence he’d have on his gifted son. As far as she was concerned, the boy represented tomorrow’s dancers. The idea that such a nice kid was being brainwashed to approach the art with arrogant superiority and a forgone assumption about what forms of dance are good and what aren’t, caused her stomach to churn. How could something as simple as dance become such a complex war of emotional and egotistical importance? And why hadn’t she ever noticed this before? More importantly, why did she care, considering she was stepping out the back door, leaving the party for good?
         She looked in the rearview mirror at the cheep plastic trophy in the backseat. 1st place overall. What did  that monstrosity symbolize. 
     That she was joining the ranks of dancers today who embrace lower standards for the art?
     That those involved in dance are, deep down, good souls who care more about people than craft? 
    Or was this “win” proof that all the effort to pursue perfection is, in reality, fruitless, because what defines great dance has nothing to do with formal technique?
    Then again, maybe it just means a hundred bucks today can buy anybody, even blundering retarded kids, a trophy that says they can dance.

*    *    *
   “The man was a real snob. He had this attitude that ballet is the kind of dance that deserves respect, and jazz doesn’t count,” she said to Shelly on her cell phone while driving home. She’d promised to call her mother first to report the results, but for some reason, she wanted to talk to her best friend instead.
     “That’s no surprise. All dancers are grossly critical of others.”
    “I beg your pardon. Not me.”
    Shelly chuckled, but didn’t say anything more.
    “Oh God. Am I like that?”
    “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re far worse.”
    “But I know what I’m talking about when the subject is dance. I’m right.”
    “My guru says we all have our own version of truth. Nothing is true, and everything is true.”
     “That’s true,” Dana said.
     “I just didn’t know there was a right and wrong in art. I thought it was like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Isn’t that what you mean when you profess that your downs syndrome kids are good dancers? If they were being judged only on skill, well, technically, they have some problems, right? I’m glad they won, but I bet there were some dancers in the room that thought their being recognized just because they were handicapped was, while lovely on one level, not exactly fair. The fact is, other dancers have worked for years on perfecting their skills and they came to that competition paying fees just to be recognized for it.”     
      Dana was quiet.  “No doubt.”
      “Point made.”
     “Point taken. Still, I think I’m right about dance. Not that guy.”
     “Of course you do.”

About Ginny East Shaddock

Ginny is the owner of Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga therapist, RCYT & Ayurveda Counselor who loves nature, gardening, and creative arts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University, and a BA in Business Administration from Eckerd College. She teaches writing and is the creator of the memoir writing program, "Yoga on the Page" combining the teaching of yoga to writing personal stories with integrity, intention, and heart.

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