I have a black-and-white photo of me my father took during a childhood ballet class. Dad was an artist and an electrical engineer, a self-actualized man who encouraged artistic and academic expression. A man of few words, he was and is the beacon for my creative path that claims the world as my home.
In ballet class, I was learning that the body could become a source of wisdom and strength. No one could take these moments away from me or ask me to do less. Dance class was the place where I could conjure something from within and expose my vulnerabilities without fear or trepidation. There I was in pink tights, a black leotard, and pink ballet slippers I could never keep clean. My tights were always smeared with rosin or dust from the floor, and my hair was in ponytails, not a bun. Nonetheless, I felt pretty and correct and usually unconcerned with anything, except the dancing and the music.
My teacher, Jean, emphasized how our gaze and the angle of the head accompanied everything. We were involved in our image in the mirror, but we knew there was a world around us. The studio was small, but it housed a galaxy of imagined gardens, waterfalls, forests, skylines, deserts, and seas. I imagined myself as part of a landscape that never ended. My arm moved through the wind and encapsulated a field of tulips. We jumped over puddles and logs, propelling our bodies higher and higher into the heavens. I belonged to myself, and I belonged to the world. Unleashing body wisdom, wielding it like a sword and a shield, dance training is like internal fencing, although the resulting image is ethereal, ephemeral, and abstract.
Sisonne is part of the canon of jumps in elementary ballet. The rules: Take off from two feet, land on one. But pushing from two feet with force and landing on the correct foot is like a mental-physical tongue twister that has to resolve itself in the split second before you return to Earth.
I never liked being singled out for special help in ballet class. I preferred to problem-solve on my own, watch and see how it was done, or play the movement like a film in my head, knowing the image would transfer into action. But this sisonne thing was eluding me. I could not do it. It began to be a mental exercise more than a physical one. After several attempts of telling my body to do something and feeling it revolt, scisonne also became an emotional exercise full of anxiety and a new sensation—personal defeat.
Still, I could face the anxiety and defeat time and time again because I was convinced I was going somewhere important. I knew my body was resisting because it was confused. Even with demonstrations and explanations of the correct technique, I was not making the motor connections and weight shifts. It was like confusing a layup with a jump shot at the moment of takeoff. It was obvious to everyone else, but I was at the mercy of an internal body-versus-mind struggle. Nothing would be accomplished as long as the two were at odds.
When the jump finally happened, I was in the studio next to the record player and across from the large picture window that allowed us to blend into the avenue traffic, trolley cars, and people below. Jean cheered my breakthrough. The true satisfaction was in the release. I had managed to let go of dynamic energy and to coordinate and sculpt it into something sharp and specific. In that moment, I learned that my thoughts and actions were intrinsically linked and not separate from the world around me.
After more than forty years, dance has shaped my worldview and become so much more to me. My work is filled with images of social issues and history. I use it to affirm beauty and change despite injustices that might harden me. I cannot work in the studio and not be aware of hostility directed at the African-American community and the human family at large. I look deeper at the micro lesson to extract the larger applicable life lesson that holds so much meaning in this moment.
Through dance, I learned perseverance in the face of resistance. I insist on change, not in the abstract, but directed and purposeful change. I hold on to the belief that a split second of directed thought and action can make our destiny leap toward being less hostile and more human.
Woods Valdés is an associate professor of dance. She performs, choreographs, and teaches folklore through contemporary dance.