The Discipline of Dance: Where the Words Stop

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

Dancers don’t talk about the blood. When a hyperactive little girl declares herself a ballerina, no real one takes her pointe shoes off to peel back the red-soaked tights and show you what friction does to skin. She won’t show you how she heats a paperclip with a Zippo to melt hole in her toenails and let the pressure off. Ballet is beautiful, but it isn’t pretty. Dancers look ethereal by being strong. And by not eating. Not eating is a big part of it.

I started dancing when it got too cold to run laps around the house. My parents, gentle, thoughtful academics who had bodies for the purpose of carrying their brains between educational places, were baffled by their kinetic chatterbox, and turned the the YWCA. If it had offered a similar expedient to wear out my talking, they would have enrolled me twice, but alas. I joined Saturday morning interpretive dance—“You’re popcorn, You’re a tree! Feel the music!” I thought I’d found god. I was a tree. I felt the music! I’m sure I talked about it the whole way home.

When I exhausted the Y’s dance options, or its teachers, anyway, I wanted more. I thought I’d outgrown trees. I wanted ballet.

Mom found me a beginner class in an old church, its bricks painted pink, its pews stacked in the basement. Little girls danced in the emptied-out sanctuary in stained glass stained light. I was in heaven.

Once a week become three times, then five. Ballet wasn’t something I did, it was who I was. I auditioned for the North Carolina School for the Arts’ summer program, and left for three weeks of four-a-day classes. I came home early with my god in my hands, dead and bleeding. In my home studio, I’d been the best dancer, easily. In North Carolina’s mirrored ones, nothing was easy. I saw what I was—an undisciplined, untalented hobbyist with more passion than ability, an existential failure—a dancer who couldn’t dance.

My mother, bless her rational heart, sought a second opinion at our town’s only other, almost cinematically different, dance studio. Mom took me down the dead-end alley, to a black-painted cinderblock warehouse, and up a dubious flight of stairs to Irma Millard. A Russian woman whose age and skill at not eating had rendered her down to a witch’s nose, a screech and a sawed off broom stick, she watched me dance and confirmed my diagnosis. “Your thighs are too thick. You have no real gift. You love it very much.”

I nodded.

“You will work very hard?”

I’m not sure I nodded, but I didn’t argue.

“Good. I will make you a dancer. “

And she did.

Irma Millard taught me about the blood: from the feet that never really stop, to the periods that do because you’ve finally gotten thin enough—or nearly, maybe another five pounds—bruises from the correcting broomstick, a broken nose in pas de deux class. Madam Millard also taught me silence. Dancers don’t talk. I once had an audition where the ballet mistress never spoke. She clapped her hands, used them to demonstrate what our feet should do, and clapped again for the pianist. Dance—the correct steps, and well—or be dismissed by a pointed index finger and a jerked thumb. I made that audition. Madam had taught me well.

I learned not to talk, not even to myself. Watch the mirror for flaws, see how they look, feel what corrects them, and eventually the commands your brain gives your body stop using words. You listen for alignment, feel correct technique, and obey the music. The words stop. Then something even weirder happens. Dance accepts you. When you’ve honed your instrument to the point that it’s worthy, Dance takes over. It feels like transcendence, or demonic possession. It feels like finding God. A blood-thirsty silent, jealous one.

I started missing words. It was a sin, but I looked forward to the one day a week my performing arts high school held academic classes. My legs were fatless muscle, and my discipline mostly covered my lack of talent, but my brain felt flabby, and was starting to rebel. I wasn’t a dancer. Not really. Not all of me. Or I had been, and outgrew it. I wanted to quit, but it was who I was, and I didn’t have the words. I broke my knee. I put on sixty pounds. I went to college.

In college, I reclaimed words. I rediscovered books. I read, and talked, and rolled around in language and the abstractions it sometimes captures. I got a sense of Story waiting beyond words like Dance had beyond training. I wanted to be worthy. I wanted more. It took me another twenty years, after college and kids and advertising, but I started writing. Then I started meeting writers.

Writers, bless them, talk about the blood. They tell you right up front, “Writing is easy, you just open a vein.” It’s metaphorical, mostly, although I’ve heard Neil Gaiman has signed books until his thumbnail came off. Writers say, “Kill your darlings.” It’s metaphorical, but metaphors are like god.

Writers talk—in paper and in bars, at conferences and on the internet—it’s a kind of generosity I never saw in dance. I ate it up. Eating, it turns out, is a big part of it. Again, mostly metaphorically.

And writers name things. Our existential failure is called writer’s block. Our discipline even has an acronym—BIC, for Butt In Chair. God, I loved these people.

Writers also edit. Add the word “professionally” at the end of the sentence “You can’t have a healthy relationship with food and dance,” and you can keep eating and start dancing again. And I did. I still do. At least twice a week, I get my butt off my chair, have something to eat, and go to what I stubbornly refer to as “dance class,” although everyone else says “Zumba” or “Jazzercise.” My technique is haphazard, but there aren’t any mirrors, and for that one hour, there are also no words. The sixteen year old me is so embarrassed. The five year old is thrilled. It feels like being a tree. Maybe we never outgrow what we love, or stop being who we are. We just learn to edit. I’m no longer a Dancer, and not yet a Writer, but I dance and I write. And sometimes, on very good days, the words dance, but it’s mostly metaphorical.

Top image: Black Swan (2010)

skill-thumbnailSkyler White is the author of two solo novels, and Falling, Fly and In Dreams Begin, and two co-written with Steven Brust, The Skill of Our Hands and The Incrementalists, which Booklist called “genius at work.” This rather pleased her as she’s been chasing after genius all her life —first the sweaty kind that could turn a word-nerd suburban chick into a swan. Then, because ballet left out language, into advertising, through the founding of a dogma-free prayer candle company, and onto reality TV. Along the way, she picked up two degrees (BA and MA), two children (Kaki and Egan), and two writing-related apps still in progress (TheNarrowShed and aMuseBoot). The Skill of Our Hands comes out this month from Tor. The chase continues.

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