Leaving What You Love: Body of a Dancer by Renee E. D’Aoust

A dancer is more than a performer.  A dancer lives and breathes movement with the knowledge that one day, their body will no longer let them dance.  But they do it anyway.

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A few weeks ago I finished reading Renée E. D’Aoust’s memoir, Body of a Dancer.  I won the book from Etruscan Press at an event at the AWP conference back in March/April, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it since then.  I picked this particular book as my prize because I identified with the description of D’Aoust as a former dancer.

For ten years of my early life, I considered myself a dancer.  I took ballet from the time I was three until I was thirteen and tap from age nine through thirteen.  I danced on pointe for about four years.  At the peak of my time dancing, I was taking dance classes four times a week: ballet on Monday and Wednesday and tap on Thursdays after school, and ballet with all ages on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  I sweated it out during my classes and tried to perform the perfect tour jeté in ballet or wing in tap.  Every Christmas, my dance studio performed the Nutcracker, and I worked my way through the age groups: first in Chinese, then as Clara (though I was more of an understudy because I was too afraid to do a solo), as a flower, a toy soldier, and finally in reeds, while also learning the choreography to Spanish.  Every spring we performed a themed recital; I performed as Doc in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the duck in Peter and the Wolf, and the wicked stepmother in Cinderella.  As a company, my dance friends and I performed to Canon in D at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.

The dance studio was a place I could go when I was tired of the work and girl drama of school.  It was a place I could work hard at something and get better.  It was a place where my friends thought I was funny.  But in the end, it was a hobby for me, and not my entire life.  I knew when I went to high school that I was going to be involved with musical theatre, and from witnessing my older brother’s rigorous rehearsal schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t have time for dance anymore.  I knew that I had to leave the dance studio that I had performed with for six years.  And it was very, very hard to leave.

Since then, I’ve also had to leave musical theatre behind when I went to college.  Leaving an activity you love–and the people you performed with–is one of the hardest and most disheartening things I’ve had to do.  Looking back on memories of silly dances we did in ballet classes and inside jokes at rehearsals for musicals helps ease the pain, but there’s always going to be a part of me, a little chunk of my heart that says, “But why aren’t I singing?  Why aren’t I dancing?”

This is what drew me to D’Aoust’s memoir.  Though she went much farther than I did with dance– she was trained as a professional modern dancer at the Martha Graham Center and danced with many professional companies–I knew that we had something in common.  D’Aoust also had to leave dance behind and find other pursuits that fulfilled her as much as dance did.  I think that no matter how long you danced, all former dancers are haunted by “what could have been.”

Each essay that D’Aoust writes combines people with performance.  She shares stories of dance teachers and choreographers: some harsh and unimpressed, their studio floors covered with spots of blood from the dancers’ bare feet; and others kind and down-to-earth, their dancers filled with life rather than the probability of an early death.  She recounts tales of dancers who “couldn’t take it,” who quit, committed suicide, or jumped out of a window because they wanted to feel like a bird.  She describes fellow dancers who are flawed and yet dance flawlessly, who have spunk and grace.

D’Aoust ultimately leaves dance after an injury, but it is a long time coming.  A sense of numbness overwhelms her life as she is constantly working her body–and mind– to its breaking point.  In the world of dance, there is constant rejection, a feeling of never being good enough, especially for dancers like D’Aoust who never become household names, yet still dedicate their whole lives to dance.

The numbness she feels in her body flows into her relationships, including one with a longtime boyfriend.  She frames her relationships with stories of weddings, one at which she was a caterer for extra money (another struggle of living a life dedicated to dance), and one of a former fellow dancer.  She describes the strictly physical relationships of some of her fellow dancers and the odd combination of insensitivity and ferocity that bleeds from the dancers’ bodies into their minds and emotional lives.  This is one major theme in D’Aoust’s memoir: the body is inextricably linked to the mind.  Anymore, I find this to be a hard lesson for me to learn, especially in a culture that often forces people to choose between perfect bodies and a sense of mental well-being.

I also identified with D’Aoust’s final chapters in which she describes going to see dance performances and seeing old dance friends at a wedding.  The going back is often just as hard–if not harder– than the leaving.  When you go back and see people you used to dance with perform, there is often an overwhelming sense that life–dance– has gone on without you, that you were not necessarily an integral part of that world.  Though the memories are strong, the yearning to go back can be stronger.  But where you want to go back to no longer exists because it was a time, not a place.  Places–people– change.  Memories do not.

The light in this realization is that there are so many people who face the same struggle of leaving behind places, people, and activities that they love.  Though the reasons vary from education to family, from relationships to religion, so many people have felt the pain of leaving something.  And that is something that can bring people together: the stories that, once shared, help other people rather than hurt ourselves.  Leaving is a unifying aspect of human nature, something we can all understand.

I enjoyed Body of a Dancer mostly due to my personal connections with the subject matter.  Sometimes it could be difficult to follow, especially considering I am not familiar with the popular modern dance choreographers of New York City in the 1990s.  The essays were sometimes organized poorly so that I didn’t know in what time frame the story was taking place and couldn’t always follow the development of the “I” character.  Still, I think that Body of a Dancer is an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional modern dance and a message to all those who have left something they love to do: that you are not alone.

Have you read Body of a Dancer?  What did you think of it?  What other memoirs have you identified with? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

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