10/19/2012 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dance and Love (Part 1 of 3)

When I was fourteen I read a review of Twyla Tharp's memoir Push Comes to Shove which included this excerpt about herself and Baryshnikov after a performance:

The party was much too crowded. We became restless. Outside, the evening was clear, the air warm; the moon lit the winding streets that pitched steeply down from the palazzo to our hotel. Soon we were running barefoot down the town's ancient sidewalks, laughing at the pleasure of moving together. When we arrived at the hotel we paused. We were both winded, speaking different languages; it seemed ridiculous even to ask. In my room, I found that the famous muscles I had only seen tensed in performance possessed an extraordinary softness. As we explored each other's bodies, the confidence we had as dancers let us invent transitions that flowed as smoothly as well-drafted duets. Afterward he fell asleep and I watched his body shake, throwing off the remaining tension from his incredible dance efforts. It was dawn before I closed my eyes and when I woke he was gone.

I was transfixed; I've remembered it for years. Why? It was hardly the first description of sex I'd come across; anyway, my interest wasn't prurient, I didn't feel that heart-beating-in-the-wrong-place thrill. I think now that what held me was how this passage linked dance, which I knew and loved, with sex, which as a good little girl, I feared. It proposed passion as a natural outgrowth of dance; it linked the ecstasy I knew with the one I didn't. It was a sign -- for a long time, one of a very few -- that I would cross with pleasure into my adult body.

Dance and lust and love and sex. Let's think about it. First, from the audience's point of view: in the darkened house, you sit there, not obliged to speak, move, take your eyes away, or act like a normal person. You're free to fall in love or lust with this one and that one, regardless of age, race, gender, anything that would normally constrain you -- anything including fidelity: you can wander from one form to another. If you brought a date, well who cares, he or she is doing the same thing beside you.

And what's wrong with watching this way, to treat the dancers as your private peep show? That's a narrow way to see, but to let their approach to air, themselves, each other, lift you into a state of -- let's call it aesthetic desire... Well, that's something else altogether.

"I go because it's a release to lose yourself in this world." Henry is a dancegoer. He watches whoever catches his eye, male or female (he's straight), whoever "has some sort of energy." He enjoys the beautiful bodies revealed; when I pressed him to identify a similar experience, he thought of the hour he spent walking around Michelangelo's David. But the dancers are real, alive, and he marvels at their abilities as well as their forms, how though they're made the same way he is, but they can do so much more. "I wish my body could do that," he says -- and in the dark he doesn't have to remember that he can't, doesn't have to separate himself from what he sees.

And it's more than ability that dancers show their audience. In the real world, every now and then you might see someone do something beyond the pedestrian, "run for a bus or brush their hair," Henry says, but dancers are constantly sharing their sensual lives -- "burying or exposing themselves," he says, in what they do. What Henry loves is how dancers let us see who they are. "Who puts themselves out there like that? That's phenomenal. Most of us just hide."

Watching dancers, Henry imagines what it would be like to live a richer physical life: being able to live in your body like that. He asks, "How do you not enjoy other aspects of your life more? How do you not have better sex than most of the population?"

Sex: there it is again. Well, why not? We can say the sensual, we can make metaphors, but we're hardwired to seek sex. What dance or dancer would neglect this basic need? I know of at least two dancers whose husbands first saw them on stage, fell in love with them in motion, and had to meet them. What did their dance promise? A grande dame of bharatanatyam told me she would leave the stage when she could no longer appear. . . I don't think she actually used the word nubile, but that was the implication; when she could no longer show a supple waist, when the look she shot from the corner of her eye began to look as practiced as it was, it was time to go. And this from a dancer in a form which has worked to distance itself from associations with natch girls, from the old idea that dancers are available.

Are they? Put the question in its crudest form: are dancers wild? Plenty of people think so. If you don't know any better than to tell guys in bars you're a dancer, you'll learn quickly enough: on the meat market, dancer (even when it's understood you don't mean the exotic kind) equals loose.

Another story from my teenage years. I'll call her Beth: only a few years older than the rest of us, she was decidedly a woman. Her figure curved in three dimensions -- teardrop, apple -- instead of everyone else's ironing board. She danced like a woman, too, using her weight to hang a balance, feeling and showing her pleasure in motion. And she had evidence: a child whose father was the company strongman, the guy you couldn't partner without coming away reeking of him.

One night she told us how she got pregnant. She and her guy were working on a new bit of choreography, a promenade in which the man turned the woman by her standing leg instead of her waist. To do this, the man has to lie or squat, looking up into the woman's crotch; to get the woman close to her center of balance, he'd wind up sliding his hands higher and higher up her thigh. The move's probably impossible -- as partnering, anyway. As foreplay, it was a success.

Circled around Beth, the rest of us heard this story with -- what? Clearly it didn't apply to us: we weren't going to get pregnant, we were college-bound, we weren't about to cave in to our bodies. So far as I know, only one of us, despite how seriously we trained then, went on to be a dancer. It doesn't seem a coincidence. The rest of us weren't willing to give the sensual a say in our lives.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't mean to say that to be a good dancer, you need to be defrosted (as it's said the young Margot Fonteyn did) a la Black Swan. I know a dancer who ravishes the audience with her sensual style -- back so open she almost takes flight, every line a bow's curve about to launch. Given that she's danced like this at least since I first saw her at sixteen or so, and given that she's been training at the professional level for years, I doubt she's had time for the sort of affair that alters your walk; I think she comes by her appeal naturally.

So I'm after something subtler than sex in tights. Watching dancers, Henry sometimes thinks, "I wonder what they're like" -- which I might rephrase as What is it like for them? That's the question I'm following.

dance and sex