Lessons learned from a different kind of DWI

Just last week, I was caught DWI.  But I am happy it happened, because it made me much more creative.

In my world, DWI stands for Dancing While Injured.

At the time, I was grappling with a pulled muscle in my lower left back.  Nothing to see the doctor about, because I knew it would eventually work itself out.  But it made my modern dance look like a garden snail with a shell gradually coiling to the right.  And, I moved as slow as a snail – at least until I warmed up.

When I tried to “work through” my back pain, I came up with static or abrupt-stop motions which would not be as spasmodic if I were dancing with a healthier lower back. Nothing looks as dramatic as a hard stop.

I dare say the injury is what made the movement more dramatic and convincing. You’re probably saying I’m a lunatic for dancing through any pain at all.

For about 10 years, I was the dance writer for a local newspaper.  I was proud that I always tried to describe the choreography, in laymen’s terms, in my dance reviews.  Dance is so freaking ephemeral, so it’s great to get it down on paper for a more lasting result, especially if there is no video of it.  These descriptions were without judgment, even if the review of the entire performance did let readers know whether the concert was worth their time and money. (I am also proud that I never once used the word “lovely” to describe dancers moving through space.)

This isn’t necessarily a column about celebrating disabilities.  There are enough organizations doing that, even in the dance world.  Axis and Infinite Flow, both companies out of California, feature dancers in wheelchairs, as does The Dancing Wheels Company, of Cleveland.  If you ever get a chance to see them, I highly recommend going.

Getting back to what I learned about DWI:

When you come across impassioned movement accidentally, there is a sense that you’ve received a free gift.  It’s kind of like pumpkins suddenly showing up in your garden when, in years past, you’ve failed miserably at planting them with intention.

In a 1985 interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, the famous choreographer Merce Cunningham said, “…I am constantly on the point of discovering something I don’t know about rather than repeating what I do know about.”

Musicians know what I’m talking about.  Just jamming through pain – the pain of love or loss — has probably produced more memorable tunes that we can ever know.  And when a singer can’t hit that high note, well, a slightly off-key tone just might work better. 

And who cannot be moved by Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt”?  Recorded when he was old and facing serious health problems, Cash croons in that gravel-like voice reaching into your heart with the experiences of a broken man who has faced so much loss. He slides slowly up to the high notes. At least once, he even withdraws from the high note, singing it softer in a way that says, “It’s not that great anyway.” He died in 2003, just a couple of months before his “Hurt” won “Single of the Year” from Country Music Awards.

I think “Hurt” is his best lifetime work.

You may have been told that when you’re experiencing stress or pain of any kind – physicial or emotional – you should ask yourself, “Am I learning anything about myself right now?” and “What lessons can I take away from this?”

Pain is good.  It tells us we need to slow down, we need to stretch, we need to take care of ourselves and ask ourselves the right questions. And to a degree, it’s better to feel the pain than to dull it with drugs.  In any artistic form, it reaches out to viewers and listeners; they know the artist is like them. 

I gave up perfection long ago.  Nature isn’t perfect.  Even God has pain and problems.   And the older I get, it’s the imperfect dance, and maybe even the dance of pain, that I want to do.