Strictly Seattle is a three-week series of classes for dancers of varying backgrounds, taught by notable Seattle choreographers. It ends with a performance that will happen this weekend. Our dance critic Melody Datz, once a semi-professional ballet dancer, decided to put her hair up in a bun again and take some classes. (Tonight’s performance is sold out but you can buy tickets for tomorrow's matinee and evening performances.) —Eds.
The last time I owned a pair of pointe shoes, I had two good ankles, small boobs, and some serious substance habits. Thirteen years later, I have one ankle made of metal, an additional 50 pounds on my frame, and a set of ample breasts. My addictions are limited to kale recipes and World War II history. I gave up dance—and a lot of other things—to get here, but I fucking miss it. I recently recognized that I was writing about dance only as an observer, that I had completely forgotten what it felt like to move this way. I needed to know what it felt like to dance with this body and from this perspective. So I went back to ballet class.
I am not in bad shape. I biked from the University District to class at Velocity Dance Center's Capitol Hill studio without barfing and was happy to find myself in a room filled with all ages, body types, and levels of dance experience. The teacher, Ellie Sandstrom, is a comfortable, sometimes foul-mouthed creature who made an intermediate ballet class feel as casual as a crowded pub at happy hour. My mind knew what to do and my body complied, mostly, and where it could not obey it compensated in smaller movements. My arabesque, the popular ballet pose where one leg is raised high in back with the arms extended forward or to the side, did not extend upward of 90 degrees like back in the day—there was an ass in the way now. (That's fine, it's a good ass.) I made adjustments and kept moving. Pirouettes, a turn on one foot with the other pointed to the knee (think tree pose with a pointed foot) was simply not going to happen on the right side—my newish right ankle, which I shattered in an accident a few years ago, would not accept responsibility for all my body weight, and I respected that.
I took a few other classes over the next few weeks, some through Velocity's Strictly Seattle summer workshop series and some in my living room to Billy Joel records.
I am, like so many of the dancers I see in Strictly Seattle rehearsals for this weekend's finale performance, just enjoying the freedom of movement. There's an unspoken directive here to feel good in one's own body, to move and feel and appreciate the simple ability to dance. This ability isn't to be taken lightly; I almost wasn't able to do this—destroying my ankle could have meant a lot more than a few metal plates and screws—and years of bad body image and eating disorder bullshit could have scared me out of the studio for an eternity. But it didn't. There just wasn't time during class to think about being afraid.
Sandstrom's classes bring her students out of the silent ballet student role, forcing them to be present and aware of everything going on around them. At the beginning of the Strictly Seattle program, Sandstrom prompted her students to think about concepts of dance through the invocation of single words written on slips of paper. (I asked her what they were and she said they were pretty random—water, green, etc.) What do these words invoke in movement? What words do specific movements bring to mind? What is the one thing that you want to do on stage? Have sex? Shave your head? Thinking about these things while dancing, rather than thinking about the size of one's thighs, or whether a leg is high enough or arms are acceptably graceful, is remarkably empowering. Techinque and body control can be taught, inspiration cannot. This is the way to take ballet class.
Strictly Seattle's workshop culminates this weekend with six pieces performed by the students and choreographed by local artists. I'm not performing—gotta gird up the ovaries a little more to make that jump. Sandstrom's piece, Isolated folds was created for (and partly by) her class of students. She described Isolated folds as a result of two things: the word-induced movements produced by her students and the recent procurement of an old, broken organ. The swelling sounds of organ music is translated into a pattern of movements—the organ itself made it into the soundtrack—and Isolated folds is an easy, loving piece to watch, a complicated lullaby of weaving movements.
Mark Haim's piece, …In Pieces, is a fun character study of couples enacting a variety of moods and emotions through a set of steps that are performed twice: once to a recording of spoken conversation and once to Etta James's "At Last." The dramatic choreography elicits very different moods when set to these vastly different soundtracks. On the flip side, the music used in Marlo Martin's Missing Pieces and KT Niehoff's Tipping Point are very similar—but the dancing and the moods evoked by the pieces are very different. Martin's piece uses five couples who frequently change direction and partners, bouncing their body weight off each others' arms, heads, backs, and the backstage wall. Niehoff's piece, reworked from a 2007 production for Cleveland's Groundworks Dance Theater, almost triples the original cast of five. Fourteen dancers sit on the floor for nearly the entire piece, legs splayed out in front of them and move their arms and heads with dramatic snaps and pops, then suddenly and smoothly transition to softer legs extensions, rising off the floor and sinking down. These movements are what I like best about Niehoff's stuff, movements that are beautiful but drawn tight, sometimes comfortingly soft and sometimes almost violent, never boring and nearly always a little disturbing.
There is no "I" in Bride by Ricki Mason (one half of Cherdonna and Lou, the performance duo that recently went on hiatus) is sweet and fun, set to Elvis Costello's "Pump it Up" and maybe, just maybe, inspired by the upcoming nuptials of this delicious and super-talented artist. zoe | juniper's eight will be performed by the advanced Strictly Seattle class. I didn't get to see the rehearsal for this one—I was too busy shaking my own booty in some other Velocity studio.