Forecaster Forum: A dance recital reveals more than ballet cliche

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I was in no mood to go to our daughter Elizabeth’s dance recital at Maine State Ballet in Falmouth.

It was the Saturday after the Tuesday I got my new hip. Before minimally invasive surgery, hip replacement meant days in the hospital, weeks of inactivity and months of painful rehab. I had been out of the hospital in a day, with a pain-free, bionic joint and muscle soreness that receded every day. The mandatory-for-the-first-week walker gave me mobility, and, no brag, I was getting pretty good with it.

So I should have been grateful. And I was – if by “grateful” you mean “feeling sorry for myself.” Did I mention the walker? Old people used walkers. Weak people used walkers. Even my 88-year-old father, bone on bone in both knees since his 40s, only used a cane. Of course, he also passed his Marine Corps physical fitness tests three days after an emergency appendectomy (Greatest Generation? Try Superhuman Generation).

Plus people who liked me asked how I felt, complimented my progress, wished me well – who enjoys that? OK, maybe everybody but me, but I still wanted to run – well, hobble – for the nearest exit.

So I was pretty much pouring water out of my overflowing glass so I could call it half empty when the curtain rose on Elizabeth and the rest of the adaptive dance class.

There is something arresting about dancers at rest. The teacher, graceful and radiant two months after childbirth, flanked by two girls with Down syndrome and three swan-necked Maine State dancers who gave up their Saturday mornings to assist. The volunteers’ faces were largely neutral, almost expressionless. The students’ ranged from concentration to pride to barely concealed ecstasy. The whole tableau was riveting.

Elizabeth, one of two non-Down dancers, was in the second row, next to a delightful girl with a medical history that makes my bad hip look like a nosebleed. Further down was the other non-Down child, also delightful, with a strong personality to match Elizabeth’s, which may explain why our daughter has always had a difficult relationship with her. For whatever reason, Elizabeth has butted heads with her over everything from restaurant seating to speech volume, but at that moment, they coexisted peacefully, their faces were nearly identical masks of concentration.

It took about a nanosecond to forget about my sore leg as the class performed a warm-up. The teacher explained that besides stretching cold muscles, the exercises got the dancers listening and moving to the music. Each girl has physical and developmental challenges that impact her coordination, but when the African-sounding drum track began, each found the part of the beat that spoke to her and responded as she heard it and felt it. They didn’t move together or even complement each other, but between them, they seemed to express every beat of the rhythm in a complex, well, ballet. I wanted to concentrate only on my own child, but I couldn’t. Everybody else was too interesting.

Make no mistake. Elizabeth and her classmates will probably never interpret “Giselle” at the American Ballet Theater (on the other hand, at ABT you probably won’t see one of the ballerinas’ heads pop out of the bottom of the curtain and check out the house – a moment I would put up against, say, Fonteyn’s dying swan, for pure entertainment value). Still, they were dancers. In one number, they crossed the stage one at a time, personifying in dance different animals. If dance is self-expression through movement, each trip across the floor was pure dance.

As each girl showed us exactly who she was, how she perceived the world, and what was necessary to communicate that perception, I wondered how many times I had missed the point at a recital or concert or play, so concerned about whether the performers were “doing it right” that I completely missed that for them, they were doing it perfectly.

Even on the “doing it right” scale, there was real art, those priceless times when you lose sight of yourself and just experience the moment. It is amazing to see anyone, much less a special needs teenager, capture the erratic rhythm of a butterfly in flight, moving to contemplate the enormous achievement of 10 girls with a variety of physical and mental challenges all doing the same tap routine.

Maybe it was just these dancers. Maybe my weakened state broke down some barrier. All I know is, I found myself experiencing the recital, not just watching it, and now, sitting in judgment at a performance seems beside the point.

For a glimpse of what the human spirit is really capable of, I recommend a recital of the Maine State Ballet’s adaptive dance class.

Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine.

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