Last evening I attended the Ruth Page Center for the Arts production of The Nutcracker. My niece Victoria Cudworth is already an accomplished dancer that has studied in Cuba.
Recently Victoria and my brother contacted me about the appropriate running shoes for her to wear. That’s a tough question as you can go any number of directions these days. But there was another concern as well. Dancers do not want to develop their calves too much. The physical lines of a dancer are important to maintain. I simply recommended shorter, mid-intensity runs. Raise the heart rate but don’t turn it into a slog.
I have written for a variety of publications about dancers in ballet, jazz and modern dance and hip-hop. My take was mostly about the energy and artfulness of the performance. I can’t claim to know the fundamentals of dance in any form.
That does not mean I can’t like it. The same goes for classical music, where my sister-in-law is a violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. My own children play cello and violin, and their musical careers carried us through many joyous performances.
All that work always comes down to performance im the end. In that regard, there is a keen similarity between running, riding and swimming. The work that goes into them resembles the practice of the performance arts, dance and music. There is a physical component to both, for sure. Dancers obviously put great stress on their bodies. Yet great musicians use their entire bodies in their playing as well. Why else would oboe players be susceptible to hemorrhoids, or drummers or guitarists blister and bleed from their fingers? It’s tough work.
Form counts on all fronts. The elegance of ballet is found in the small things. The position of the hands above the head. The delicacy of movement in the feet. I knew a massage therapist that worked exclusively on dancers. It was her job to keep them on the stage. Their feet were brutalized. Muscles and bones strained to the limits. Compared to dancers, working on runners was easy.
Then there are the glitches to deal with. At one point last night a dancer had a costume issue with a long skirt whose hem was running a few inches too low. Her forward steps were catching the edge of the skirt, yet she maintained her position and timing during the dance despite the distraction. I watched her the entire sequence and she managed to deal with the bothersome skirt with panache. One can only imagine the conversations backstage. Or perhaps, it teenage fashion, she merely wrote it off with a contemporary cliche. “Whoa, that sucked.”
Form counts not just for style, but for mental acuity. While running the New York City Marathon years ago, four-time winner Bill Rodgers took special effort to do it right. He commented that during one of his victories he became obsessed with doing everything right in his running form. The position of his hands. How his feet were landing. This is the mark of a true artist at work.
Perhaps you’ve had moments like these in your own career, where the grace of running strikes you. Or, you feel one with the bike. Swimming is a horizontal ballet in water.
All these disciplines require work to master. There are no shortcuts to good form and clarity in your purpose. When you’ve put in the work there usually are moments of grace. Sometimes these are fleeting moments in our lives, yet they sustain us, in the same way the arts restore our spirit.
Yet like all disciplines, it is also wonderful to find a release from all that work. Like many excitable distance runners, I was one that loved to dance. With all that fitness behind me, dancing all night was no problem. I was a dancing fool just like the fellow in the Frank Zappa song:
Don’t know much about dancin’
That’s why I got this song
One of my legs is shorter than the other
N’ both my feet’s too long
‘Course now right along with ’em
I got no natural rhythm
But I go dancin’ every night
Hopin’ one day I might get it right
I’m a dancin’ fool, I’m a
I hear that beat; I jump outa my seat,
But I can’t compete, ’cause I’m a
Dancin’ fool, I’m a
Actually I do have rhythm, so that part’s not quite correct. But I was definitely a fool about dancing. I recall walking into a party in the company of a tall blonde in the early 1980s. America was awash in a bath of conservatism at the time, which meant the room was full of newly branded Reaganites in their stupid collared polos tipped up in the fashion of the day. The place reeked of conformity. They were all primly sitting in their places, engaged in some banal discussion of whatever Reagan Youth wanted to discuss. And my companion and I? We started dancing. We were dancing fools.
The looks we got were priceless. To this day, I’ve remained that dancing fool on a number of fronts. Conformity and the stiff posture of the anal retentive are not for me. That’s why I run, ride and swim as well. All require discipline, but not necessarily conformity. That’s why I also flaunt and ignore The Rules on Velominati at times. Who needs that crap when you’re out to have fun and do what you want?
As I sat watching the Nutcracker last night, considering the role of Drosselmeyer and his magic ways, it struck me that the entire ballet is about the non-conformity of Nutcracker Dreams. One description puts it this way: “It is never explained in the ballet where he comes from or why Drosselmeyer has magical powers, but one of them, apparently, is the ability to bring toys to life.”
What a wonderfully impractical skill! And yet how important it is to our understanding of human nature to study the passion and persona of Dancing Fools as presented in The Nutcracker. It releases us from normality to occupy the space of dreams and fantasy. But there’s more.
As I watched the various cultural memes of Russian and Asian and Arabic dance forms, it struck me that the Nutcracker is an eminently impractical celebration of human spirit. You can parse the world as it is now through any form of ideology, but it all comes down to human passions and cultures. Of course, some get warped by destruction and terror, while others can only imagine themselves through the barrel of a gun. These are the dances of self-loathing, the chronically fearful, and the already dead. Christian terrorists are just as manic and dangerous as Muslim terrorists. The Crusades long ago proved that, and we seem not to have learned the lesson to this day.
Instead, we need to be like Clara and her companion, calm in our study of the Nutcracker dreams we face each and every day. There is no need to panic or rush into the clash like a bunch of manic gray mice and toy soldiers trying to prove ourselves.
Sport plays an important role in this dance of the world. It shows us that our differences are what make us so much alike. Those of us who run, ride and swim know this at heart. The varied abilities and goals of each competitor make every event unique. We derive inspiration from the plodder coming in at the last minute of an Ironman just as we do from the triumphant stride of the winner hours earlier.
So many stages. The Olympics. The World Championships. The Nutcracker. It all fits together if we focus on making it work, and don’t let the angry mice and manic tin soldiers run away with the show, or tie it down with fears of dancing in the face of life itself.