I’ve recently taken up hip hop classes in lieu of intensive workouts at my gym.
Yeah, I never thought I’d write that sentence. But it’s true. Me, who cannot follow a lick of choreography, in a hip hop class … One day, I will film the class so that you can get a sense of how inadequate I am. Another post will likely delve into this experience.
Believe it or not, Dance and I have a long history.
In my senior year of college, I wanted to take a course that would fulfill my visual and performing elective and also allow me to have fun. I realized that my course load was too focused on writing; I needed to take a break somehow. So, I enrolled in Modern and Contemporary Dance. Cue the initial stages of awkwardness, as I recalled early childhood memories of dance classes (tap, jazz, and hip hop) with Miss Beverley, courtesy of Waterbury Park and Recreation: the horror of doing solos, the feeling of utter failure as my clumsy body tried to mirror my teachers’ lithe movements, and oh god, the glittery dance costumes and corny photos . . .
How did I last ten years? (I have the trophy to prove it.) I still don’t have the answer.
I was surprised by Brad Roth’s class at the Pepsico Theater. He was always so chill that I wondered if he smoked a few before our class. He wanted us to sync our inside self with our outside self, wanted our emotions to fuel our movements. He taught us the Alexander technique to reduce the tension that comes from everyday activities like sitting in a slouched position in front of a computer. (I had to correct my posture after writing this sentence).
As much as I pretended to dislike this class—laughing and rolling my eyes at certain things that Brad did—I honestly treasured these afternoons. We once had a dancer from Stomp! guest-teach our class. We also did yoga (and I didn’t fall asleep!). My most memorable moment, however, was toward the end of semester when our class decided to do a flash mob outside. Well, not a mob, as it was a class of maybe twelve . . . and it wasn’t planned very well. I just remember us jumping and prancing around the traffic circle near the campus center. People definitely stopped to watch us, but after awhile, it didn’t seem like our class cared. We were too busy dancing 🙂
Our final project was to create a piece of work that incorporated what we had learned throughout the class. The thought of choreographing anything terrified me, so I decided to play it safe: I wrote a story. I ended up reading it in class, the first time in a long time in which I’d shared my work out loud.
I thought it’d be fun to post it here, unedited, as it’s almost two years old. I didn’t imagine it as more than what’s pasted below. Sometimes that happens with writing. Below, I also pasted my analysis of the movements that were mentioned in the piece.
by Loan Le
December 13, 2013
The pale and bare branches of dying trees swayed violently, battling each other in the winter wind. A maroon Prius, with its windows shivering, drove over crushed ice and slush and entered an asphalt yard boxed in by gray and icy chain-link fencing. Lily emerged from the front seat and gazed up at the cemented boxes and rectangles that kept her father inside. She wanted to get back in the car and turn around. She wanted go back to her house and sit near the warmth of her fireplace. But he had called her. For some reason, he decided to reach out to her—even though she never wanted to hear from him again.
Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her wool jacket and tucking her chin underneath a scarf, she battled the winds, walking to the entrance. In her nightmares—the ones that emerge even after a peaceful day—she would explore the prison’s halls, and strange men with scars, tattoos and rotten teeth would always jump out around the corners. She’d wake up screaming and her boyfriend Tom would have to hold her until she regained her breath.
Now inside, Lily said her name to the guard, who, after jerking his head to the right, buzzed her in. Large and small hands did a preliminary search of her body. She kept shifting her feet, which made the guards suspicious, but once they realized she didn’t want to be there, they let her go. She followed their directions, proceeding down a long hallway with double doors at the very end. Her feet moved automatically in a straight line. In the same nightmares she had appeared in a similarly placed corridor, only as she traveled further and further, the walls closed in on her. Trapped behind the blindingly white walls were grotesquely distorted faces and hands clawing their way out. They screamed at her.
She kept her body tight, crossing her arms to fight away a bout of claustrophobia. In the distance she heard men throw curse words at each other, chairs and tables scuffling, and keys jangling as someone presumably jogged to secure the scene.
One tall guard stood outside of the visiting room, his face stoic, and arms behind his back. His stance was fit for a soldier prepared for an attack.
“Hands out,” he said.
She glanced up at him, confused. How in the world could she sneak something in hands between the first checkpoint and this area? Yet, Lily removed them from her pockets. Satisfied, he listed out the general etiquette for visitors. Keep it to a half hour. Hands where they can be easily seen. Use the phone to talk to the prisoner.
It took her a few beats to realize the guard had stopped speaking. He had opened the door for her.
As if sensing her hesitation, he added, “We have two guards inside who will watch the door.” Lily let her eyes wander over his deep mahogany face—which aside from residual acne scars and what looked like a crooked nose—appeared kind. She wondered if he was a father. If he was, she wanted to tell him her whole story. That it was her father who wanted to see her, not the other way around. That he could never receive her forgiveness no matter how many times he tried.
She took off her jacket, feeling her body heat up. She hugged it as she stepped into the next room. The walls looked more gray than white. A row was sectioned like cubicles to allow visitors to speak with prisoners in semi-privacy. A redheaded woman joked with a scrawny, nervous looking man whose gray jumpsuit made his own red hair more pronounced. Another man sat with a little blonde girl, probably five or six, since she carried a doll with her. The female prisoner behind the glass divider, her hair cut short and uneven, gazed fondly at the girl, who was more preoccupied with her toy. These family gatherings would have looked normal—sentimental even—if only there weren’t glass dividers, jumpsuits, handcuffs, and guards.
She then look to the front and, with a slight jolt, saw her father staring straight at her; he waited for the moment she walked through that door. Her boots clicked against the linoleum tiles, echoing over the hushed conversations. Once taking a seat she didn’t tuck in her chair like she would at a dinner table. Even with the divider up, she didn’t trust herself enough to get close.
He had aged since the last time she’d seen him at his sentencing. White hair dominated light brown strands and wrinkles were carved into his skin. Black bags under his eyes resembled bruises. He sat up, loosening his right hand, which had been curled into a fist. He leaned forward, shoulders hunched, digging his elbows into the table.
Her father mouthed something at her and then pointed at the handset that was to his left—her right. She reached for hers—was her hand shaking?—and pressed the cold chromium plastic to her ear.
“Hi, Lily,” the man whispered. And in that instant, she was six years old, in bed, falling asleep to the sound of him reading Peter Pan to her.
“Hi.” The word “Dad” could no longer be used.
“How was your exam?” he asked.
“I passed.” Bradley must have told him. For some reason Lily kept in touch with her father’s lawyer. He relayed her father’s request, asking cautiously engaging her in a pretentious conversation about her life. Like others, Bradley felt sympathy for her father; they were actually good friends. During the trial people said that he had snapped—that was all. He wasn’t a bad man. She was surprised to receive more mail from sympathizers than from angry and sometimes incomprehensible people. Some said they understood why he’d kill someone. Some said they would do the same if they had experienced the same betrayal as he did.
Regardless of people’s opinions about her father’s innocence, she knew nothing could bring her mother back.
Her father smiled. “That’s great. You always wanted to be a nurse. Nursing school is the first step.”
“I remember you used to like playing with those—what were they called? Cabbage Patch Girls I think. You’d take care of them like they were your babies.” He laughed briefly, more to himself. “How’s everything else? Work treating you well? You look a bit thin since the last—”
“It’s been eight years, Dad,” Lily answered. She bit her tongue; how naturally that word could flow out of her mouth. She hated how this seemed to strengthen him, because he gazed at her, long and hard, seeing something that she could not.
“You look so much like her.”
She gripped her handset tighter.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like that. I didn’t think.”
Lily locked eyes with her father. She couldn’t believe him his nerve. The disgust abated, and was replaced by familiar numbness. She followed where his eyes landed and saw her sleeves had rolled up to reveal the gashes on her wrists. They still hurt. Quickly, she pulled her hands away and put them on her lap, intertwining her fingers so tightly that they turned white.
“So you called? I didn’t expect to get a call from here.” Appear interested, her psychiatrist told her a few weeks ago. Don’t let yourself feel scared; be in control.
“I have something to tell you. And I couldn’t wait for you to call me—because that would take forever.” The lightness in his voice wrung her heart, and she tried inconspicuously to breathe deeply through her nose. She sensed his father wanted to talk more about what he’d just seen, but she should never reveal anything to him. It would be futile. She watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed.
“What is it?”
“Oh?” was all she could say.
Lily, without knowing why, started laughing. Her mind seemed to overload then, thoughts and thoughts piled on top each other but one word that kept repeating was “Why?”
“I didn’t think you’d find it funny,” her father said, almost looking hurt.
“Oh, it’s hilarious. What—” She stopped, fighting down another laugh that bubbled in her throat. Cancer in this case must be a sympathetic disease, though her father didn’t deserve any mercy. “So what does this mean?”
He tilted his head, genuinely confused. “I’ll be moved to a hospice. I’ve chosen one near home.”
The word “home” had not registered in her mind for a long time. She wasn’t able to save hers. “How sweet,” Lily spat. “But no one lives there anymore, remember? I ended up in foster care.” The memories came back to her; her psychiatrist kept telling her to move on, but they kept her back: her “parents” who had already too many kids to care for and her “siblings” who’d goad her about her real father who was all over the news until someone else killed another person.
“I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t want anything to happen to you,” her father kept saying.
“It’s too late to say things like that.”
“I needed to see you. Because the doctor said the cancer’s spreading fast. He doesn’t think I—”
“It’s been four years—”
“—the meds aren’t working—”
“You can go fuck yourself for all I—”
“—Damn it, Lily!” He banged a fist onto the table, the mere action sucking all other conversations out of the room. Lily instinctively pushed herself away, and had nearly pulled out the telephone’s cord. Her father forced his hand open and then dragged it through his hair. He slowed his breathing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He was saying this to the guard who had stood a few feet away from them.
“You okay?” the guard asked gruffly, placing a hand on Lily’s shoulder. She nodded.
With the other man back in his original place, her father started speaking again. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. Not right away.”
“Not ever. I wouldn’t have cared if you died.” She instantly knew that was a lie. She did care, still, even it was just a little. Her therapist knew as well, which was why she encouraged her to come today. Lily felt the tears behind her ears.
Her father swallowed again. He pressed a hand against the glass divider. She could see the faint reflection of herself, and was surprised to find her expression emotionless—cold like the weather she would soon meet again.
As a kid Lily thought it was so fascinating how much larger his hands were. She used to rest her own hand against his, as if he was her reflection. Lily compared the difference in texture: hers baby soft, his calloused with grooves and small hills, hers clean, his stained with residual oil grease, as if he had the color black permanently tattooed on it. She remembered wanting her hands to be like that—so grown up. She wanted to be him, not her mother—the woman who keep Lysol cleaning wipes in her bag, who would cringe at her dad’s touch and never allowed him a small kiss, even when he did shower after work. One time, while her mother cooked dinner, he snuck up behind her, quickly wrapping his arms around her waist. She wriggle out of his embrace, telling him he was bothering her. Her father spoke with his arms—outstretched arms meant he couldn’t contain his words and feelings. Her mother spoke with frowns and disapproving eyes. Lily never understood her—sometimes she even hated her. She was only a little surprised when her mother had sought comfort elsewhere.
Now staring at her father, Lily felt her arm inching forward on its own accord. In her mind, she saw that hand, outstretched, waiting for hers as she balanced—left foot, right foot, left foot, right food, don’t fall—along a narrow cemented wall in a nearby park. Her father would walk steadily besides her, watching for a fall, but she never took up his offer. If she could just remember how she felt in those moments, maybe—
But she couldn’t stop her mind from going back to two years ago, when she came home late from volunteering at the hospital . . .
When the police were already there.
Blood pounding in her ears, she moved through the rooms: the living room, where she was measured every year; the kitchen, where her mother seemed to live; the stairs that Lily used to slide down as a carefree child. She thought of her father; he must be hurt. The police wouldn’t tell her anything, but she eventually found out when she saw her mother’s body in the master bedroom. She pushed past the officers with strength she didn’t know she possessed. The medical examiner didn’t have time to cover up her mother, her bruised neck, and her naked body, when Lily made it to the room.
A slash of blood coated the walls like a Pollock painting Lily once saw at the Met. Next to her mother lay the naked body of a John Doe, his chest sliced open, and on the floor a bloodied letter opener.
His hand against the glass reminded her of the same hands that prosecutors said wrung her mother’s neck until her larynx caved in.
“We’re family,” his dad said to her, bringing her back.
Finally Lily pushed her chair back, metal screeching across the floor. She nodded at the nearby security guard who stepped aside and opened the door for her. She gave her dad one last look. His hand still rested against the glass divider, but he let his phone dangle beside him. He gave her a pleading look, the kind that would have made her six-year-old self rush into his arms and bury her nose into his shirt to smell the gasoline in the summer. But she wasn’t six anymore.
“No, we’re not.”
I’ve learned that dance reflects life. Dance is the outward expression of the emotions that we hold inside; it is an attempt to make emotions tangible. When deciding on this story, I focused first on the emotions, because that is the way I write: I want to make readers feel something. I believe readers can empathize with characters who also show emotions, so when I create my characters, I create them as broken people. Then I try to repair them in my stories.
I usually find inspiration when I hear a one-liner or when my mind focuses on an imagined scene, like watching a movie. For this story specifically, I saw the father’s hand pressed against the glass divider. It is such an open expression; we use the gesture every day. With an open palm, we give friendly high-fives, we wave hello and goodbye, and we place it on our heart when we pledge to the flag or when we just want to remind ourselves that we are alive by feeling our hearts beat. The palm faced outwards says, “I am here.” In this story, I wanted the open hand to mean “I am your father.” Naturally the climax, as you might say, revolves around this one imagery.
My next step was to build a conversation that could be the crux of the story. Dialogue tends to hasten the plot while also revealing a lot about the characters. After that, I had to fill in the blanks, and I did this by using what we learned about the four efforts. When we went over the efforts in class, you provided us with examples and pictures that helped make them more visible to us. This is a bit odd, but when I thought about time and weight, I thought about feelings. What feelings can be associated with sustained time? With light weight? I started asking myself these sorts of questions. Using the open palm and other examples of what an outstretched hand could mean, I built the history of Lily and her father. I wanted the light and slower scenes in the story, mostly in flashbacks, to symbolize a happier time. But then the stronger and quicker descriptions were bad, symbolizing a broken present. I connected the flow element with the concept of freedom and the space element with the concept of relationships.
For example, the closer the space between two people, the closer they are related. Similarly in our dance class, we had a lot of exercises that required us to work close with other classmates. With our visit to the center in Trumbull, we would often strike a pose to connect everyone—people with disabilities and people without disabilities—together. It is clear that dance has the great potential to connect.
But I wanted to show that there is a downside to being so close and so connected to another person. When Lily was little, she didn’t like being away from her father. We all know just how comforting another presence can be. Yet, we must acknowledge an unfortunate reality – a close presence can be poisoning. You can become dependent on it or you can ignored all of its flaws. Lily had not seen the darker side to her father because she was young; she had only seen the product of his anger. But after his jail time, she realizes that she never wants to see his true side. As you can see, she misses the past, but she knows that nothing can make up for the present. And there is no more future with her father. At the end, she walks away, purposely widening the distance, realizing that she does not need to be close anyone, she is independent.
I learned that movement within a story must mean something. Actions are sometimes more important than dialogue. A man might confess his undying love for a woman in a speech, but if the readers reads on and finds out through the writer’s narrative that “he held a knife behind his back,” then readers can realize the truth of his intentions. I realized the power of movement by observing the exercises we have done in class. Good choreography tells a story. So many examples in our dance class have stayed with me. For the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we dedicated a piece to the people who died that cloudless day. I remembered a moment when two of my classmates standing next to each other, modeling the Twin Towers. Taken out of context, it would just mean two people standing side by side. Yet, when I saw this happening, I felt sad, angry, reflective, and comforted all at the same time. Experiencing the power of movement, I wanted my descriptions about Lily and her father’s outward movement to be clear. One main element that I kept in mind was movement that represented resistance.
In one of our partner exercises, we had to have one person lean forward as far as possible, while the other person held back the partner’s arms to balance them. This exercise was based on trust and strength. My partner needed to feel comfortable with how far she could lean forward. But I interpreted this exercise in a different way, too. I imagined my partner leaning away, trying to escape my grasp, even though her efforts were futile. In this story, I portrayed Lily as she tried to escape her father’s grip. In the end she does, but the ending can also be interpreted that her father had finally let her go, because he knew he couldn’t do anything else to win her back.
After writing this story and the end-of-the-month responses, I’ve grown used to writing dance descriptions, which made me pay more attention to writing descriptions in general. Before, when watching dance recitals and performances, I always had a passive experience; I would see so many moves that looked pretty and awe-inspiring, but now I wonder about a choreographer’s choices. I learned a good choreographer doesn’t just put moves in a dance to “wow” the audience; the moves must have weight and must affect the viewer long after the dance is done—not just in that one minuscule second. Much like choreography, descriptions in short stories and novels have to mean something in order to make stories truly come alive.