Monday, March 21, 2011

Margaret Stephens on "Living from the Core"

The Wild Reed series The Dancer and the Dance continues with an excerpt from an inspiring National Catholic Reporter article by novelist and playwright Margaret Stephens, who at age 50 took up ballet. Her piece is entitled "Living from the Core."


I’ve . . . learned that we may think of dance as an art form, but it is equally an athletic event, a fact Gatorade recognized last summer when they featured “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Lauren Froderman on their first dancer-athlete bottle. Dance takes as much strength and stamina as any other sport. “More,” I argue regularly with my varsity swimmer son. “Look at a professional dancer’s leg muscles. Rock solid.” Ditto arms, ditto abs. “No wonder those ancient Spartans” (my son is a military history buff) “included dance as part of their battle training.”

But the dancer has the extra burden of making it look like it all just kind of happens, with no apparent effort. A dancer must have amazing muscles, but they aren’t allowed to bulge. A dancer must maintain the illusion of ease, of airiness even. In ballet, no one sweats or grimaces or pants: Indeed, because of the incredible strength and discipline of their core muscles, dancers scarcely seem to breathe. Ballet seems all grace and flow.

Which it can do because a dancer works from her core, those powerful center muscles of the body that the rest of us mostly just let hang out. With such a strong center, a dancer’s arms and legs can appear to float through the air.

I will never come close to that kind of dancing. For me, it was an achievement when I managed to stay on demi-pointe in retiree (translation: balanced on one bent toe with the other leg bent and its pointed toe resting above the knee of the standing leg). I’d even let go of the barre to arch my arms in that ballerina half-circle overhead. Exultant. Until my teacher yelled, “Margaret! It’s not your arms’ job to hold you up!” and proceeded to use me as an example of how not to balance. That is, with gritted teeth, tensed shoulders, held breath, and arms locked in place as though gripping the air.

“You have to find your core,” she said, poking my middle. “Use those muscles. That’s where the power is. That’s what holds you up.”

And for a split second, I could feel those muscles, work them. My neck and shoulders relaxed. Freed from doing what they weren’t meant to do, my arms felt like they could float. I breathed. For that wonderful moment, I got it: Dancers appear ethereal because they hold themselves from their core. I felt the meaning behind the words. Port de bras. Carriage of the arms.

For that moment, I sensed what grace might feel like. Physical grace, I mean.

But it’s surely the same with God’s grace. Always within us, but not always felt, unless we learn to live from our spiritual core, true powerhouse of our being. Unless we train ourselves to rely on the strength of God instead of our tensed muscles, clenched teeth, I-can-do-it-myself determination.

We fling the words around: God’s grace. But do we live like we feel it? I think more often we forget what it feels like to let God hold us up. Which leaves my life, at any rate, ever more frenzied, stressful, outwardly graceless, as I metaphorically strain and clutch and claw to stay upright.

I think that if I can train myself to seek the strength of my true core, discipline myself to quit gripping with the wrong muscles, my life might feel, if only for a few precious moments, as effortless as that ballerina wafting across the stage. I might feel the grace I already have.

– Margaret Stephens
"Living from the Core"
National Catholic Reporter
March 14, 2011

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)
Istanbul (Part 4)
Scaling the Heights
Dark Matters
Oh! What’s This, Then?
Whimsical and Edgy
Love, Equality and the Rumba
An Evening with the Yuval Ron Ensemble
Oh, Yeah!
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
The Potential of Art & the Limits of Rigid Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred

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