Alexandra Marshall


Phrases of Movement

Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, 2012

Centuries before Freud's proclamation about anatomy and destiny, Venus and Mars inspired the ♀ and ♂ gender symbols—a hand mirror or a shield and spear—by which we abbreviate female and male reproductive organs with a circle or a line. Acknowledging the oversimplification, we accept the basic characterization of men as linear and women as circular, while noting the obvious contradiction that, despite their cyclical nature, women generally outlive their childbearing years.

Because I repeated Biology One, I discovered—and rediscovered!—a form of reproduction called mitosis, where a mother cell's nucleus divides to form a daughter. In the meantime of course I'd also picked up the basics concerning human reproduction, but I didn't let this more complex knowledge diminish the awesome example of microscopic jade-tinted matter reproducing by forming itself into buds that split off like succulents.

Even to an eight-grader in a pre-feminist era it was the ultimate in self-reliance to possess such a powerful nucleus, and while I knew better than to wish to have been born a single-cell vegetable instead of the white middle class American girl that I was, the concept of such radical independence was alluring. What would it be like to enjoy such solitary creativity? I wondered about this a lot more than anybody knew.

I was in my late 20s before I would officially define myself as a writer, but in having been the precocious proprietor of a secret diary, I'd already claimed the power of reproduction. The little girl who existed only on the page—under lock and key in the experimental cursive of a preteen—was as independent a being as any fictional character I've since created. A far sharper observer than I, she dared to tell people off in all the ways I wasn't allowed to. Not having to suffer the relationship between actions and their consequences, she could hate without having to love at the same time. She could love without fear of rejection. What freedom she enjoyed!

Isn't it the definition of a diary to be both that empty vessel seeking fulfillment and that handheld mirror reflecting back a version of what already is?

Abandoning science (and vice versa), I had meanwhile found my passionate way, on the first try, into the brave new worlds of French and Modern Dance. Team sports were such the focus in my elite all-girls school that the entire population was divided into blue or red—combining to make purple, the school color—with the fortunate option for an artsy minority to satisfy the requirement while wearing the dancer's black uniform of a leotard and barefoot tights. We "expressed ourselves" in that mirrored basement sanctuary, but it counted as gym.

Similarly, in those remaining few years before JFK read The Ugly American and rushed to commission the Peace Corps, the study of a foreign language was more about qualifying for college than any effort to expand horizons. And while I won't pretend that the irregular verbs were any less daunting for me than for every other student of entry-level French, I can still recall the active sensation of escaping the known confines of my native language. Soon, French became an invitation to journey into the exotic other of The Romantic Poets whose work was at once succinct and melodramatic. And it would even prove possible—et voilà!—to choreograph dances inspired by that dark imagery.

It was a short leap to France itself, but except for two summer jobs in Paris during college I cast my lot with the culture that had invented the American form of dance called Modern. Taught in a serious way at my women's college and augmented with studies at a nearby conservatory, I pursued dance like a stalker, giving it my best energies despite a full academic load. When the phrases of movement piled up like paragraphs I convinced other dancers to hear the music that echoes in the silence—the white space, on the page—when the transition is imprecise. With Martha Graham my muse, I explored pagan themes. Rather than by Disney's "Fantasia" creation myth, by way of Graham's anti-ballet interpretation of Le Sacre du Printemps with the ritual sacrifice of a young girl—death by dancing—I too found Stravinsky.

From there my travels brought me to Kyoto for an extended detour, where I was initiated into a formal study of Japanese classical dance and introduced to the language I would further struggle to learn, back home. While diverging, I was conscious of the natural way these new interests formed an overlapping circle with my first two loves. But since I'd meanwhile married, it seemed more practical to return to French for a graduate program that included teacher certification.

Perhaps this linear lapse prepared me for the far less considered leap I made one year later when I took up writing, although at the time I understood my sudden shift as the logical substitution of fiction writing for my proven devotion to dance and French. It even pleased me to think that with this new pursuit I was blending the other two—red and blue into purple—as if all along I'd been seeking the simplicity of unification. The more urgently compelling truth was that, at a literal crossroads after my 28 year-old husband's suicide while we were on assignment with Operation Crossroads Africa, my life had been simultaneously thrown wide open and clamped shut.

So I was "moving on" by not persisting with the disciplines I'd been trained in, and while it seemed like a coherent maneuver to reinvent myself as a writer by recycling my skills as a choreographer and a linguist, wasn't I also depriving myself of the very positive reinforcement by which I'd been sustained? Having identified dance and French as the life preservers I'd clung to in order to stay afloat during adolescence, why throw myself into deeper waters?

I did it anyway. Joining the daily grind of voluntary self-employment while living on modest savings and a minimal life insurance settlement, I wrote three practice novels in five years. Making everything up as I went along, I found my way onto slush piles and eventually into the actual hands—the grip—of publishing. Within a mere seven years of downward mobility and a fourth "first" novel under contract, I'd finally arrived, at the start.

The gift that came with this changed way of life was the immense solitude that proved to be a consolation while I "lived with" death. A quieter life with a single goal suited me, I found, and it's possible that I regained my balance in part by reconnecting with that brash preteen girl who kept journals. With my first publication I felt not only validated but recovered—retrieved—and while I consciously regretted losing my fluency in language and dance, I gradually resumed a more inclusive life with a happy remarriage and the births of my children.

Setting my gaze on the straightaway, I could afford to ignore the rearview mirror for a change as I continued to quietly write my quiet novels. I taught on the side and threw in my opinion with a range of essays, gradually realizing a mid-level of vocational fulfillment that I had the wisdom and the grace not to take for granted. Yet whenever I was asked to speak at a school or a college, I'd urge students to take note of their current interests and talents and look for ways to intersect these skills. As if the purpose of an education is to recombine it. As if the point of a life is to learn to make lemonade.

Any series of reflections on aging will naturally include among its themes the losses endured, including perhaps a lamentable accumulation of them as we move beyond our middle years. In my own case, as I age, I've become increasingly alert to what I suffered young, with the abrupt loss of my husband quickly followed by the illness and death of my mother. This is why I return to the puzzle of how it was that in a state of crisis I fled the familiar, when the risk in further undermining my fragile sense of self was to intensify the grief that already defined me. It's entirely possible that a natural function of loss is the generation of more loss, but I still wonder why I would give up my cherished fluency in dance and French to "start over" as if I were just starting out.

The simplest answer is that the horrible story compelled me to tell it. Indeed, the first thing I wrote was called Child Widow, a surreal version of the trauma that I would persist in imagining and re-imagining, never quite aligning my narrative with the whole truth. Not even a 30th anniversary return to Africa prompted a successful novel, and though I relentlessly sought publication for these alternate scenarios, I finally collapsed all that unrequited energy into the writing of a short story, my first, which I also called "Child Widow" with the firm intent to close that chapter at last. Its appearance in Ploughshares earned a mention among "100 Other Distinguished Stories" in that year's Best American Short Stories to further encourage me—The End—to abandon further efforts to fictionalize those events. As I have.

Meanwhile, a perpendicular shift was set in motion when, more than a decade ago, I renewed contact with a close friend from college whose double commitment to dance and French, unlike mine, had remained as such. That is, with her French major she too had gone on to grad school, but while keeping her French alive she'd also pursued the more disciplined and rigorous training that would allow her to claim dance for her profession. Soon making her home at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, new at the time, she would spend the entirety of her career as The Ailey School's renowned and beloved director, preparing generations of dancers that include nearly 90% of the present Company. With Denise Jefferson's death occurring exactly a year ago, I am all the more grateful for the impulse I had to tell her story.

It was my first visit to the Ailey headquarters then located in a warehouse building west of Lincoln Center, and I made my way down the linoleum corridor to the director's office by sidestepping a herringbone pattern of the extended legs of her students warming up for class. My observation of Denise's workday began with the next ninety minutes reminding me, in my bones, of the way it was once possible for me too to move from one combination to the next, organically building the elements of a familiar technique into a linked chain of steps. A drummer kept the pulse she set, and as the dancers exerted themselves under her instruction, the wall-to-wall windows gradually steamed up to become opaque.

Observantly coaxing her students to get the results she wanted, Denise set the example with a dancer's body I recognized from decades before, when she was a college freshman encountering Modern for the first time after years as an ambitiously focused student of Classical Ballet. Her connection with the rigorous technique of Martha Graham was solidified with her discovery that, in this distinctly American dance form, race wasn't the barrier she'd been up against in that older, Eurocentric tradition. Here there were role models with footsteps to follow in. And with Denise's experience of Alvin Ailey's genius as a choreographer, she too had a showcase.

As I accompanied her that day from class to class and meeting to meeting, I was as absorbed in the details of her work as if it were my own. With a colleague on the Ailey faculty she was commissioning a new academic program in conjunction with Fordham University, a BFA to provide Ailey dancers with a back-up plan for the notoriously demanding profession they'd chosen. Once again setting the example, this time in how to balance more than one pursuit, every one of the students she selected for the program would succeed in realizing their first dreams.

And what else was she up to? Well, in addition to serving on too many boards and committees, she had a pet project on the island of Guadeloupe that she'd been involved in from the start, an annual Semaine de la Danse culminating in a competition for young dancers from around the Caribbean Basin, whose winners would advance to compete at the national level, in Paris.

My profile of Denise Jefferson appeared as the cover story in The Boston Globe Magazine but, in having followed her to Guadeloupe to observe her at work in that alternative setting, the lasting impact of my tagging along was that it initiated my own commitment to making an annual visit with her for La Semaine de la Danse.

How it made us laugh to find ourselves speaking French again—to each other!—nearly a half-century after we sat together at the seminar tables where it always felt slightly ridiculous for pairs of Americans to pretend to be at the Sorbonne when we were so obviously in Massachusetts. Though she and I had clearly both lost something of the facility, with the advantage of age it mattered less and less whether the vocabulary was intact, and more and more not to have lost it altogether. Not even I had relinquished it, despite having willfully left it behind in the mistaken belief that less could be more. In fact, I regained it so efficiently, and so naturally, that it was as if it had never been absent from me.

Back in college, where the academic was kept separate from the extracurricular, there was no chance to combine the two, but with these hundreds of little Francophone dancers in Guadeloupe there wasn't a choice. In their diligent company I knew better than to think my own long-gone identity as a dancer was even remotely salvageable, and yet—abstractly—it somehow felt like it was.

It was at least a partial recovery of the girl I'd been and the young woman I'd lost along the way—in my conscious attempt not to lose her—as well as a healing, welcome act of circling back, however belatedly. But because I was to find that dance and French mattered as much as ever, I also had a new question to ask myself. How on earth could I ever have imagined I wouldn't miss them? ▣