As a child growing up with Cerebral Palsy, dance was not something on my radar. I loved being active. I envied my brothers and sister, who all played team sports. I loved running around in my reverse posture walker. At 13, when my parents turned up the living room stereo and danced with each other, I busted an awkward move with my Canadian crutches - standing with one, pointing with the other.
It wasn't until I was 18 that I really began to notice dance. At the church I'd started attending, dancing and singing were synonymous. It was not uncommon for churchgoers to move around the floor in the sanctuary, as the music led them. It was beautiful. I loved singing and I longed for the ability to move freely - for my body to be able to express the joy I was feeling inside. One Wednesday, when I was early to youth group, this longing overcame me. It was late afternoon, and sunlight was streaming through the church windows. It was completely empty but for my sister and our best friend, practicing in order to lead the youth worship team in a few hours.
I don't feel this longing very often, but as I sit here in the sanctuary, I just want to run and dance and jump! I don't miss it very much, but right now I do and I am! I want this so much! I can't even tell you how I want to just throw these crutches aside and go running across this wide open empty floor... I wrote, to try and deal with the sudden rush of feeling. I battled anger and frustration. I fought feeling trapped in a body that physically could not do what I wanted more than anything to do.
The next week, I wasn't crazy about returning to youth group and having the sunshine and openness there like something so unattainable. I remember ducking out, probably to get away from all the people dancing. It hurt too much. To put off returning, I stopped at the water fountain on my way back to the sanctuary. When I glanced up, honest to God, there was this tiny toddler standing there. A baby girl, maybe a year old. She was exceedingly common, but what she did will stay with me forever. She was completely taken by my metallic blue and black crutches. She kept touching them. Running her hands up and down them so gently, and just staring at me, smiling. Today, the girl is probably a teenager. She has no idea what a gift she gave me by accepting about me what I could not accept about myself.
From that moment, a week earlier, dance was inside me. In a way, I don't think it has ever left. Over the next ten years, dance became a more obvious part of our culture, thanks, in large part, to television shows like So You Think You Can Dance. Thanks to that show, and its subsequent tour, I met contemporary dancer, Jaimie Goodwin. When she moved, it moved me. We stayed in touch over the coming years, and I even connected with her sister, Cara.
One morning, in late July, 2010, I woke from a dream so vivid I wasn't sure it was a dream at all. I was in a gymnasium and it was very dark. I felt heavy with grief. In my dream, I was without crutches, without a wheelchair. I was crawling out onto the main floor where a young woman was dancing. There were crowds of people along the sides, and music playing. For some reason, I grabbed onto the dancing girl. Suddenly, we were doing improvisational dance. Somehow, my weak legs were able to hold onto her, and I arched my back, stretching toward the floor, while she spun us in a circle. The floor was gentle, like an old friend, not rough, like I feared it might be. On and on we went like that, until I woke up wanting more than anything to reclaim the feeling I'd had. Not of being fixed, but of being that free.
I wrote to Cara and told her I'd had a dream that I could dance. I told her how freeing it felt and asked her how it felt when she danced. Days later, I saw this:
Dancing is amazing, but it's not the most amazing thing in life.
And you've got soooooooo much of that. You are more blessed than most!!!!
It was moments like these that prepared me to observe a dance workshop, taught by Jaimie in June of 2011. For the first time in years, I could watch the gym full of kids stretch and dance and feel grateful that they had the ability to create something so awesome. For the first time, I was able to watch them without jealousy. I witnessed my cousin, Jake, being picked out by his peers as someone who brought something special to the contemporary choreography, despite this being his first dance class ever, and I was so proud.
More than that, though, I was able to realize something else. Everyone might not able to dance the same...but everyone can dance. My body might not be able to dance, but my words can. My little brother, Tanner, "hates writing with a burning passion" but he is a phenomenal athlete. Everybody might not possess everything they want, but I firmly believe that everyone has what they need for this life.
These are a few lessons that I took away from the dance workshop:
Fingers, Feet, Focus:
To be a writer, your fingers have to move, at least figuratively. In order to start writing, you just have to do it. Do your best to keep your feet on the ground and have a focus for the story you want to tell. It might be broad, but it will matter.
Be your own motivator. Don't be strictly reliant on outside approval for your own feelings of success. Conversely, don't throw in the towel, because your first attempt was not a success. Keep trying and know there is always room for improvement.
The Importance of a Strong Core:
Know who you are and be confident in that. If you are not, then do your best to get to know you. Be willing to share what got you from point A to point B. You never know how your own journey or your own story, may impact someone else.
Hold Your Head Up:
The neck is a very vulnerable part of the body. At the workshop, Jaimie taught the kids that if they held their neck up it really changed the choreography. And that because it's a weaker part of the body, if they were confident enough to show that, it was a great thing. Not everything you share has to be deeply personal, but if you find a way to "show your neck" in anything you write, it has the ability to elevate your writing.
Write Your Name Differently Each Time:
During improv, Jaimie started by having the class write their names with different parts of their bodies, facing different parts of the room. There are only so many ways to say, "Hey, my name is Tonia. This is who I am." But try to keep it fresh, while retaining your own integrity. Maybe look at your life, or the story you are telling from someone else's point of view and start there. Maybe close your eyes, and share the first thing that comes to your mind. Even the most mundane detail about you might be moving to someone else. (Any dancers reading this? Any runners? Anybody play Little League? How does it feel?)
Connect and Do What Comes Naturally:
The most important thing is to connect with the topic at hand. Even if you have to rethink your original plan, and even if it takes a few days to formulate...good things are worth the wait. And we've all heard this time and again, but no one can write your own story like you can. As Jaimie shared with the kids, "If you don't want to pirouette, don't pirouette." Write what's true for you, whether that comes through most clearly in fiction, poetry, humor, nonfiction, angst or whatever. Just trust yourself and move.
Hit that ball out of the park. Pirouette or don't. Dream. Write. Love. Be.
Everybody has their own journey. Don't be afraid to share yours.
Photo: Me, Jake's friend, Jaimie, Tara and Jake.
Dance workshop - 6/11/11