May 25, 2016

Learning to know and control my self

This heartfelt piece is by a friend who is a dancer, health care professional, community organizer, rights activist and writer with whom I coauthored a letter to Buddhadharma. She frequently comments as Liriel.

I started dance late. I was nearly 13 years old and definitely not Misty Copeland. I had rhythm but not a particularly good pointe. I had flexibility but not particularly good balance. I still can’t do a back walkover to save my life. But I had a dance teacher who taught me to know my self, to care for my community, to understand my limitations, but not to quit until I’ve tested them, to love the dance, and to let it go.

I have so many memories of 羅老師. When she allowed me to perform so soon after my promotion to the advanced class that I didn’t know all the steps to the Ami dance. (She wasn’t worried about me embarrassing her; I showed up, so I was going on.) When she hired a Laker girl to teach us a very different style of dance. (She loved all types of dance and wanted us to have as broad an education as possible.) When she choreographed the perfect commencement dance for me upon my graduation from high school. (She then gifted that choreography to me – just in case I ever need it.) But the memory that returns to me most often is one of a fairly unremarkable class on a Sunday morning.

We had spent the class on the basics, focusing on form, doing across the floor exercises for the majority of the time. And I had had difficulty keeping up. My weight was balanced wrong; my fingers, droopy; my turnout, nonexistent. This last defect had 羅老師 coming up to me when I was in passé, taking hold of my leg, and guiding it to the left as I protested that I couldn’t move that way.

“See? You can move that way. You just weren’t trying.”

After class, as we were changing our shoes, 羅老師 came to talk to me.

“Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body. It might sound stupid. You might think, ‘I know how to control my body, I use it everyday;’ but it’s actually very hard. Most people cannot. But in this class, you need to try.”

This was the quiet, understated wisdom of 羅老師. As a full-time county welfare worker, a Saturday Chinese school principal, and a Sunday dance teacher. Dance never paid the bills for her, and she knew that none of us would ever go on to dance professionally. But she understood each of us and what we could learn from her dance class to carry with us through the storms of adolescence into the uncharted waters of adulthood.

I never thanked her for this, and now it’s too late. 羅老師 passed away last Friday, and I am grieving. But in my heart, 羅老師 left a handful of mustard seeds: “Prajña, dance is the art of knowing and controlling your own body.”

Mindfulness is the practice of knowing and controlling my own mind. But meditation has always been difficult for me. I always feel like a fraud. I always feel so alone. But today I will sit with the memory of 羅老師, tomorrow I will dance in her honor, and I will not be alone, and I will not be a fraud. Because it is hard, and I am trying.

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