If you caught my October 2, 2019 blog, An Unexpected Gift of Grace, you know I broke my wrist shortly after returning to dance. I’m back now taking private lessons with Jen, owner of Allegro Dance Academy, to build up my repertoire before returning to a class. Today we did ballet and I told her I’d send her one of my favorite stories about dance—actually, one that’s much more than just about dance—one that offered a life–changing lesson for me. Curious? Here’s the story I first told in An Ordinary Life Transformed: Lessons for Everyone from the Bhagavad Gita, followed by an addendum story I’ve not shared publicly. You’ll see the connection. Enjoy!
Dance was always my first love but after an auto accident at sixteen I had to stop. Then in my mid–twenties, I discovered an adult beginning ballet class just up the street from where I worked in Honolulu, Hawaii. My teacher’s name was Jack Clause and he definitely did not look like a ballet teacher. He was rather short and stocky and had very little hair, but, his face—oh, that face with those glowing eyes—held me fast. I always knew something special was about to happen when he walked in the room. No chitchat allowed. No coming in late. Nothing less than our full attention was accepted. Later I learned he was quite accomplished and had been brought in from the mainland to work with the Honolulu Ballet Company.
As we worked at the barre, he’d come around to each of us and say, “Up . . . up!” and stand there until we were lifted and shining. But most importantly, he told us to be beautiful as we moved across the floor. Now, most adult beginning ballet students look anything but beautiful moving across the floor! Still, he would bellow, “Be beautiful! There are many technicians but very few dancers! Be a dancer!” After class, it was all I could do to remember it was not appropriate to grande jette down the sidewalk on my way to catch the last bus home!
After just over a year, we left Hawaii to spend a year in Japan. It was during that time I realized the true gift of his teaching—the true gift of allowing myself, daring myself to be a dancer—not just a technician—in many parts of my life! And it felt very important to say thank you. I anxiously waited for the day we’d return home as I knew there’d be a layover in Honolulu. I would tell him then.
Finally, the day came when I found myself on the familiar sidewalk outside the old building. As I was about eight months pregnant, I hobbled up the stairs and, breathlessly, asked the girl at the desk how I might find Jack. She stared at me with a kind of awkward look and said, “You don’t know?”
“Know what?” I asked.
“Jack died a few months ago,” she said. “He had a heart ailment. He knew he could die at any time. You didn’t know? Most people knew.” All I could do was shake my head and make my way back down the stairs, stunned and sad.
But the blessed gift he gave me has remained and has continued to serve me all the days of my life. Thank you, Jack.
Fast forward a few years. I’m living in Pensacola, Florida and have just heard that Mikhail Baryshnikov himself is coming to Birmingham, Alabama! Though I was pregnant again with our second child and about due, I was determined there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity! My husband at the time wasn’t able to go so I reserved a single seat, front and center, in the very first row of the mezzanine. My dear friend lent me a gown I could wear in my current condition which happened to be very low–cut and crimson red. “Perfect!” And, off I went.
Okay, I confess I did enjoy some of the puzzled to slightly–taken–aback to clearly disagreeable looks I got as I joined the others seated around me, distinguished gentlemen with their ladies, all decked out in their furs with dangled purses. Given the times and context, I did feel a bit like Hester in the Scarlet Letter, but I just kept telling myself, “No matter! I’m going to see Baryshnikov!”
But, as usual, I was to receive what I didn’t see coming.
A few days earlier there’d been some buzz that Baryshnikov had been ill and some question as to whether he’d dance. But, gratefully, last minute, we were told he would. But the first solo performer that night was another well–known dancer of the day, Peter Martins. Now, Martins was clearly at the top of his game. He was, technically, nothing short of brilliant. It was truly amazing to watch.
But, then, finally, it was time for Baryshnikov. Suddenly, as if shot from a cannon, he leaped out from the side into the air, leaping over and over, making a wide circle around the stage. Instantly, we were on our feet clapping and cheering! He went on to dance solo and with partners but, somehow, no matter what he was dancing there was that certain something. Having danced, I could tell, on that night, he wasn’t quite up to Martin’s technical brilliance . . . but it didn’t matter. Even perhaps not feeling well, it was still he who stole the show for it was he who had that certain something.
My beloved teacher, Jack Clause, called that something . . . beauty when he demanded we, “Be beautiful!” Truly, I have always held a soft spot in my heart for Peter Martins when I remember that night because, for all his technical brilliance, he just couldn’t stir the heart, as only that something can, in the way Baryshnikov could.
Whatever our craft, becoming a true dancer requires, in any moment, that we unleash all the skill, technique, we’ve been cultivating so that all our preparation may serve the creation of that something beautiful seeking expression through us. It requires we throw off self–consciousness, faintheartedness, and get out of the way so that this thing of beauty can be revealed—to us and to all. It requires we remember that such a creation of beauty can only soar when our spirit is free.
Sitting here some forty-five years later, I can still see that glowing face and hear that bellowing voice, Be beautiful! There are many technicians but very few dancers! Be a dancer!
It was a seeding in my heart of that . . .something . . . which I have, graciously, come to witness in many forms over the years . . .
A seeding most joyfully and lovingly offered by the voice of one who knew . . . that very day . . . could be his last.
The ultimate gift of beauty from him . . . to us…
Finally, I thought you might enjoy seeing a couple of pictures of me dancing all those years ago…