“Dancer Within”

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera

I picked up the book I had sitting on my coffee table for over a month now, “Dancer Within” by Rose Eichenbaum. That book caught my eye on the library shelf earlier this summer when I was eager to begin searching for a “way in” to the dance world again. What seemed to have been a coincidence is not one at all.  This book is a physical example of combining writing with a love for dance and the dancers.

What is so intriguing to me about this author is that although her desire to dance and perform was never filled, she found away back, to revive her passion, even at age of fourty-four. Her story reminds me of another artist, a courageous and fiery ambitious woman- my mom, who, after marriage and children,  is finding her way back to her passion: painting. Both these women are multi-talented and have many accomplishments, including artistic skill, but not their art. The artist within them will not be silenced. It is how God made them.

I know for my mom, she is completely content to be by herself for hours painting or sketching either outdoors or in her studio in silence or listening to classical music pulsing out of that old 1980’s radio-cassette player. My Mom is an artist in all true sense, that is where I got it from, but during the 20 plus years of raising kids she had to lay her career laid aside. She found many other avenues to use her skills, from teaching history, ceramics, drawing, leather craft and gen ed to both home school kids and in public schools, in addition to being producer of our ballet company, lighting designer, sewing costumes and painting stage sets, but those were all side roads from what she was created to do best – paint.

That is why, with so much angst and sacrifice, my mom did all she could to enable me to follow my passion; my brother and sister also, but I am the one who knew what I wanted to do all along. My parents did all they could, considering they didn’t know much about the world of dance and the financial cost attributed with 6 or 7-day a week training, then gone every summer.  They were constantly questioning it themselves, whether this was something they should let their daughter pursue at expense of social interaction, friends, family vacations, a college education. But there was no stopping me. I fought every last grain of dust that identified my family as a rural conservative Christian family. I remember driving to ballet in a snow-topped truck in wintertime, loaded up with hay in the summertime. I am sure we were the only people to ever pull a horse trailer into the ballet studio’s parking lot. My brother and sister went more for the 4-H and rodeo life, and the occasional sports teams. my sister is actually a very talented dancer also, but I am glad for her sake she has no desire to pursue it as I did for a career.  At the time I was extremely embarrassed of my family. Looking back, I know how indebted I am to them for their sacrifices.

A lot of pressure was placed on me inadvertently to prove that dance was not a waste of time and that I myself  was worthy of it.  Of course I blame myself for letting down people who had high expectations and hopes for me by letting my dream crumble, although it was really circumstantial. Christmas Joy is what finally changed my Dad’s mind about dance. Karen Alwin would fly Lynn in from California every August to set new piece on us girls (and Jason), a pre-professional troupe about 40 more or less, each year. It was an exciting time! When other students were returning from summer vacation, those of us who were serious were returning from summer intensives and beginning rehearsals even before  classes started. The highlight of our year was revealing the cast list, preparing us for disappointments in the “real world”.  By age 13, when I began to win competitions, I began to get  noticed.  I caught Lynn’s eye, then Karen’s and was cast in many roles. Lynn’s choreography poured out of her heart, and every movement, no matter how stylized or repetitive, managed to express emotion deeper than words. I try to remember only the good, and not all the drama and jealousy it caused among the girls, and more so betwixt the parents. The show in itself told the gospel story, from birth of Christ to its celebratory finale “Worship the King”. It was the most powerful ministry of dancing I have had the privilege to be involved in.

What a wonderful foundation I have from my high school days to be reminded that dance can be Christ-honoring! My experiences with Boston Ballet  were magnificent and illuminating, but not heart-wrenching or soul-searching.  Pittsburgh Ballet was too transparent-all the problems were exposed.  Columbia City Ballet was the farthest from anything I wanted to be doing with my dance career., and it ended there,before I had really begun…People will tell me since I obviously won’t be dancing professionally again that I should take up choreography, after all it used to be natural for me. Dad used to suggest I create a work centering around the Easter message. If that is something I am suppose to do, my heart has a lot of growing before I get to that point.

Right now I am drawn to writing about dance: my experiences with and questions about that elusive world.  It may be only for my gratification, to work through where I am in my life right now. I am too rational. I want to explain everything, have  a reason, a purpose, a plan, yet the artist within cries to be “free”! The rules and plans sometimes  hold me back, and I am afraid that too much freedom will destroy what I have just barely holding together with glue. Perhaps through words I can come to understand myself in terms to better relate to others and see this conquest of a dancers spirit come to fruition. Although I respect her work, I would like to move beyond living through other artists, as Rose did through her writing.That is not the way I want to fulfill that longing. That piece of my heart that longs to dance and be “free” cannot ever be explained utterly in words. Neither can every stroke of the brush on the canvas be given a word to describe the painting.

Donna McKechnie, the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway star, is quoted to have said:

“Dance is something that you do – not something you talk about. It’s abstract and emotional. Art comes from a private, hidden, never fully understood place…To talk about it is to trespass in a restricted zone.”

Rose Echenbaum interviews famous and not-so-famous dancers and choreographers in her book “Dancer Within”. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the essays and confessional interviews of the artists and reading some more of Rose’s books. google book:Dancer Within

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions pays tribute to Eichenbaum’s works: Smithsonian Institute:The Dancer Within

online gallery of some of her photos displayed in the SI: Exhibit Images