This post describes an “Intermediate Release” modern dance class that I took with Christine Cali at ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco (www.odcdance.org) back in mid-October, 2014. First time students pay $5. I knew from the first five minutes of class that I had found a home in this space, in this new form of movement. If you find yourself in SF, make a trip to ODC for a class. You won’t regret it.
Starting from the floor up, we move our limbs and joints, one by one, at Christine Cali’s instruction.
“Constant motion!” she calls out over the music. “Don’t stop the flow. Walk around. Look in each other’s eyes. Use the whole of the floor space.”
We shuffle positions to avoid the hierarchy where confident dancers stand in front and everyone else follows. We face different directions. There is no front or back of the room. Only motion.
I grew up a ballerina, taking several classes a week at my local dance studio in CT for the better part of thirteen years. At some point I got fed up with one too many body critical peers and left dance for team sports. Dance led to ice hockey. Ice hockey led to rowing. I rowed for four years in college. On the stretching mats, my teammates always told me I moved like a dancer. It never really left.
This intermediate release class is like flirting with ballet’s older sister. More wild. Free. Unhinged.
Don’t get me wrong––I love ballet. Ballet is where I come from. But for this time in my life, when I have no idea what I’m doing, twenty-two and traveling alone, when I’m winging every day and trying to remind myself to find the joy in all kinds of movement, wherever I may be––the class releases something I didn’t know I had been carrying.
I haven’t felt this grounded in my own body in years, since before I tore my ACL and had it surgically reconstructed in 2012, likely.
The warm-up isn’t so much a preamble as it is an hour-long exercise in the fine art of being alive. Trust. Strangers. Motion. Christine instructs us to grab someone’s hand and sit all the way down, to feel the tension across our backs. Its support, lengthening. A stretch.
“Are we warm?”
The second hour of class is devoted to a sequence of choreography that builds. Routine pointing and flexing of the legs. French words I remember but cannot spell. Tumbleweed arms. A one-legged handstand jump. Circling our bodies around on the floor. Not writhing, but almost. Something more joyful. More absolute.
I never have the right words to describe dance. Every attempt feels contrite. Dance is the emotion that comes before language. I acknowledge the wholeness of my body.
Christine’s choreography isn’t tethered to a specific piece of music. We divide into two groups and cycle through many songs, different rhythmic patterns.
“Don’t freak out at this one, ok?” Christine says, laughing. “Just go with it. It’s faster. Release yourself.”
And we do. We do we do we do.
After class, I wipe the sweat from my forehead and walk over to where Christine Cali packs up her laptop and shoes, meeting her smile with my own.
“That was the first time I’ve done modern,” I exhale, still high on the newness of it all. “And I loved it. Thank you for this gift.” My words tumble into one another. I talk too quickly. “I’m blowing through town this time around, but I would be back in a heartbeat if I could.”
Christine laughs. “I can’t believe it was your first time! You have wonderful, strong legs. Come back for another class when you can.”
I have wonderful, strong legs? I’m glowing. Body insecurity be damned.
I struggle to love my legs, and no one has ever called them wonderful, ever. As if I needed more reasons to love modern, there’s a dose of body positivity to be found here, too? Count me in.
“And you can do it to any kind of music?” I ask Julia, the dancer who brought me here, over lattes.
“Yep,” she says, taking a sip.
Julia and I wander through the Castro after class, pausing to look at window displays of hand-printed notecards with octopi in blue-ink, tentacle arms askew. We take the liberty to step into a chocolate shop where free marshmallows and samples of dark chocolate with unpronounceable names line the walls. I tour the shop’s perimeter, tasting everything. The air is thick with conversation and swirls of cacao, but somehow an old woman’s voice finds me through it all.
“Tell me a story about water? What is that cardboard sign all about?” I can hear the Russian heritage in her voice.
I explain my project. A handful of chocolate shavings melt in my palm. I turn on my audio recorder, making sure to ask if it’s all right before I press record.
The woman takes a sip of her hot chocolate. A man who I take to be her partner nibbles his chocolate croissant, skeptical.
“I teach chemistry. You want a story about water? Here:
everything unique about water can be explained by its shape. Water molecule is bent. Because water molecule has a bent shape, it forms hydrogen bonds with itself. Because of the hydrogen bond, water molecules attach to each other. Because water molecules attach to each other, even with a small mass, water is a liquid. Because water is a liquid, we have life on earth. If water was not bent, water would be linear and it wouldn’t form a hydrogen bond. And because of its small mass, water would be a gas. All ocean would evaporate and we would have no life. We have life because water is bent.”
She looks up, satisfied. I have to regain my footing because I have just fallen headfirst into the rhythm of this woman’s voice.
I’m on a stage, or someone is on a stage. I’m looking down from above. A dancer gives life to her story. The chemistry teacher’s voice is the music.
I barely have time to thank the woman before she winds her scarf around her neck, stands up, and leaves. The shop bell tingles on her way out.
It’s a dream, but I envision a performance piece coming from this project. A modern dancer, or many dancers, given the task of interpreting that story into movement on stage. Water and climate change stories, performed into motion. Modern dance is a perfect medium to achieve this.
Long story short: I need to get back to San Francisco. I’ll bike there from the east coast if I have to.