Egypt has handed me many things over the past couple weeks.
- Phone numbers for grocery home delivery, with a sense that life here is possible despite the instability masked in military crackdown.
- Flyer for something in a language I can slowly read but not yet comprehend, with a sense that I am an outsider amongst friends. But then an older Egyptian woman came up to me today and asked for directions to the Metro station. And not only did I understand her, I could answer her well in Arabic and share a friendly moment.
- A sunburn, with a reminder that, “Yes Shawn, don’t forget you are in Egypt.”
- Successful job interviews for jobs that don’t pay.
- A 4-year-old dance student’s gift to me, a drawing of colorful squares, with a reminder about originality and vision. For me, this is the best student drawing I have ever received, in any country. I am a dance teacher and get loads of child sketches of ballerinas. One student even gave me a charcoal masterpiece that I immediately framed. But these simple colored blocks speak to me. Especially because with her class I am trying to teach them this month the concepts of standing still and of improvisation.
- A mugging where I lost my passport and iPhone amongst other things. And because of having to rely on old photos, I wrote Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? Lots has happened since writing that and over 150000 people reading it online. One thing is that I have been receiving emails from people around the world. Some are former Broadway performers, an Iraqi war veteran and dancer, elite musicians, and high school/undergraduate/graduate students who now have my blog post as required reading in their courses this Fall. The oldest person to respond was 78. The youngest was 12. And she’s who I am writing about today.
Her name is Maurissa and she is a dancer. She is a ballerina writing a book entitled Feels Like Flying celebrating dance in order to benefit the scholarship fund at her ballet school, The School of Madison Ballet (which her mother describes as “a serious ballet school, that does have jazz and artistry and dance therapy too, but by Maurissa’s age if you are not eventually going to dance on pointe there are other places you would go).
Maurissa started this project in 2010 when economics started affecting her ballet school. She has benefitted from the scholarship fund since she started classes there 7 years ago and she worried that other kids like her could not dance if there was no money available. She is not yet to the point when she can really publicize the project, as she is still trying to secure funding for photography and website, publishing etc.
Maurissa is interviewing dancers; and after she and her mom read my blog post, they decided to include me as one of the interviewees. A deep honor. Her mother explained, “Because of who she is as a young person and a dancer, she is focusing on everything positive she can find, especially diversity in race, body-type, gender, etc., people who use dance to help others, skills that ballet gives people that helps them in other areas of life, and the careers that dancers find after their training/performance career is over.”
She sent a long set questions. As I was reading them, one question stood out, hidden amongst others, “Is dance the love of your life?”
I stopped. I asked my boyfriend out loud, without context or introduction. “Ummm…Is dance the love of my life?”
“Yes.” He responded back without hesitation. “Yes, it is.”
Well, I will get back to that. But first, here are Maurissa’s questions and a few of my answers. I will save the rest for the release of Feels Like Flying.
How did you find ballet? Who discovered or most nurtured your amazing talent? Were your parents/family supportive of a ballet career? What is your best dancing memory? Is dance the love of your life?
I am biracial and I read there is only something like 1-2% black dancers in major companies, do you see this ever changing? Do you feel that minorities (performers or audience members) are just not that into ballet? Do you think economics keeps minorities out of ballet? Something else?
I’m OBSESSED with my pointe shoes! Do you remember how it felt to get your first pair? How old were you? How did you deal with the pain? Did you ever feel discouraged, specifically with pointe training, and if so what helped you to keep trying?
I was excited for the physical challenge of pointe shoes and remember my pretty immediate disappointment watching all my friends excel in them. My poor arches and (sadly and incorrectly self-labeled) fat thighs could not keep up. I became jealous and worked my tail off just to have enough technique for a spot in the back.
After years of this, when I was 16, my ballet teacher Linden Martin saw right into my heart. She gave me permission to take off my pointe shoes. And instead of continuing with pointe, I could use the time in class to take space in the corner of the studio and choreograph a contemporary solo. My teacher was amazing. That was exactly what I needed. She brought me videos of Twyla Tharp, told me I was a Lil Twyla, and supported me to think about finding my creative voice.
In college, I was introduced to modern and other styles. I was able to explore participatory and pedestrian choreography. Jazz and ballet were still a strong part of my life. But I never pointe shoes on my feet again.
***Note her mother’s response to this theme was so poignant; I had to share it. “[Maurissa wrestled with pointe] so hard last year I think at times she wanted to quit and she considered joining a competition sort of school instead. Summer Intensive gave her fresh perspective and suddenly pointe started to get easier and less painful. She has wide, hard-to-fit feet and is neither built nor colored like a traditional ballerina, these are facts. But she is realizing she does have an arch, and her body is lengthening and thinning naturally with growth and the hard work she puts in. Maurissa has…beautiful long arms and people tell me she draws their eye no matter who else is onstage.”
Do you think the major ballet companies will start to hire more dancers who do not have the “perfect ballet body”?
What was it like to dance professionally?
My Artistic Director once said, If “ballet” was not in the title of the show (he was talking about Dracula – A Rock Ballet) we would sell a lot more tickets. What do you think it would take to make ballet “cool” to more people?
Sometimes I don’t even use the word dance. Sometimes the word ballet is a draw. It depends. I believe deeply that you have to meet people where they at, learn from them, before discovering the relevance of the performance or dance experience in their lives. I think about the events I don’t go to because of the title (banking, engineering, corporate strategy) and then think about what it would take to get me there. What is the relevance?
What advice do you have for a young dancer like me who has big hopes and dreams? What do you think is the best way for me to prepare for a career involving ballet that combines helping others?
Water the seeds of those dreams every day, but let them grow and morph. As for the hopes, find at least one every day.
The best words of advice I ever got were, “Apply to everything.” Once I started doing that, I realized I had to start defining and applying myself in this world in different ways. I found friends and inspiration outside of dance and that has made a big difference.
A dear student of mine who passed away from cancer at age 4 taught me many lessons. Her name was Donna (find out more at Donna’s Good Things). One of those lessons came when her treatment was making her really wobbly. She said, “If I fall, I can either get up or ask the teacher for help.” Brilliant. Go out and try things. And if you fall, you have two choices: get yourself up or ask someone for help.
What are you working on now?
I am working to build a Community Arts Posse here in Cairo, Egypt. This will be a group of Egyptian artists who meet monthly and then volunteer to bring performances, classes and experiences into hospitals, refugee centers, schools, street events, etc. In addition, I am teaching ballet and American jazz dance.
Maurissa’s questions wowwed me. What an amazing young dancer and entrepreneur. I hope that someone out there reading this can help fund her project.
I have yet to answer her on the question, “Is dance the love of your life?” The answer is not simple. But I would ultimately say no. Dance is not the love of my life: it is the way I can love my life. Through dance, I can love others. By dancing, I can connect to another person during their lifetime, despite cancer or language barriers or war or misunderstandings. As a dancer, I can comprehend and feel things. As a dancer, I can actually feel this moment my friends and I recently had on the Nile.