02/23/2012 07:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dancing Offstage

February. Here in this northern city it's cold. Onstage you can still see dancers running barefoot in silky rags that flutter, revealing midriff, shapely shoulder mass, acres of straining thighs. They stretch arms open, generous, vulnerable, grasping at air; they spend their fire as if they might find something in the singed wick. They live in a world of romantic gestures. They hurl themselves at each other and are caught; they fly.

Go out the door of the theater and all is otherwise. People hunch along Hennepin in thick coats; their mittened hands hang long from their arms. At a distance you can't tell gender. At street corners, waiting for the light, pedestrians stand like pigeons, bulky bodies teetering, faintly dirty by this point in the long winter, and silent. The only sign of life is the breath -- gray vapor whips and puffs released unwillingly, lost in seconds.

I'm talking with Diane. Diane is a dancer of a certain age: sixty. You wouldn't pick her out as a dancer, maybe. She doesn't have the ramrod straightness of the aging ballerina; she's sitting still, her shoulders sloped. For me, there's a tell-tale vacancy about the midbody. I don't mean she's thin or in motion, more that she has an indistinct look from chest to hips, as if emptied out, ready. But mostly she's ordinary. It's the end of a workday and she looks her age, tired. Her bright red hair is the flag of an energy currently indoors.

We're trying to get to the bottom of something. On the way, she tells me about her life in dance. Why her parents started her in dance classes: "I was boxed up in my thoughts and very pigeon-toed." What her ballet teacher told her in college: "You're nineteen -- it's not going to happen. If you're any good in America you're snapped up at fifteen." How working with choreographers is like serial monogamy: "You totally fall in love with this one person for a little while -- and then you go with someone else." Her thinking about her career in dance: "I just figured it wouldn't last. Nothing does." On stepping out of dance to have and raise her son: "I didn't feel like I was leaving dance or giving up, I just wasn't doing it anymore." On returning: "I had to dance to make sense of things again."

I met Diane a few years ago, when we were doing a modern, actually postmodern performance, a jerky puppet-dance of dislocated gestures. Diane was giving away her pointe shoes -- her last box of 24 Freeds from her years as a ballet dancer at a small company in Germany, in the 1970s. Freeds are the Cadillac of pointe shoes, made by hand by individual cobblers; dancers request their favorites, who sometimes have long waiting lists. (A possibly apocryphal tale: Gelsey Kirkland pleaded with her favorite maker to come out of retirement. He made shoes for her for one more year, then died.) Shaped to the foot, shining satin pleated under the toes, they are things of beauty; and then what they let you do--that near-holy elevation and ease of turning to meet your partner, eye-to-eye -- no wonder Diane kept the shoes all those years. . . though when I met her that brief ballet life was long over. Diane's had a various life in dance, including a good span most would call post-dance -- years as a mother, teacher, administrator. But she still calls herself a dancer. And we're trying to think through that: how you can be a dancer when you're not on stage or even in motion.

Diane on her dance: "It's an edgy kind of way to be in the world. It's that need to move. There's a motor inside my body. Things make sense through movement." Her eyes flick around. "But the overall cultural moment now is to have things be kind of still and to have this illusion that you're actually controlling your body, life, and all this other stuff -- and you're not, you're not, you're not!"

Instead of this model of total physical control, Diane imagines the dancer as "being able to use your mind and body like a flight simulator... You get a little slip on the floor and you have to adjust for the next thing while you're trying to convey this really sublime message. Or you realize that someone's about one foot over from where they need to be, and that's going to change things -- not now, but in two seconds" -- and this responsiveness doesn't end when you leave the stage, or when you give away your last pair of dancing shoes.

Downtown again. I'm watching guys walk. The guys who wear their pants low have a one-two, one-two mince: the leading foot steps out but the stride's brought short by the low crotch of the pants, and then the following foot catches up. One hand holds up the pants, so the upper half is asymmetrical as well. This elaborate lurch pantomimes a masculinity that is at once massive and precious. An alternative young man walk is the penguin shuffle: with the pelvis leading, feet kick out duck-wise at each step, making minimal forward progress; shoulders stay low, the head and chin forward; hands are invisible, pulled up inside the sleeves of puffy jackets. These guys suggest fragile stick figures inside their ample clothing. I wonder how this serves them. Another guy walk is the cowboy: legs stay wide, necessitating a side-to-side rock, the rest of the body jazzily following. These guys look like they've just gotten down from a week on horseback. They take up acres on the sidewalk.

None of these walks gets you anywhere in a hurry; in cold weather, they're a luxury. I wonder how much these guys are aware of the movement choice they've made, whether they ever lapse into an ordinary walk just to get somewhere a little faster.

Women don't have such a range. Female walks look involuntary, generated by heel height, hyperextension, hip width. Late at night you can see the tottering of freezing girls in minidresses and five-inch heels; at midday, the businesswoman's stride. Occasionally you see the rolling walk of a wide-hipped woman in flat shoes.

A guy is on the verge of missing his bus. He tips himself all the way forward and runs after himself, runs to keep from falling over. It's ungainly but fast. Everyone's looking at him.

All these movements suggest necessity: I move this way because I'm made or dressed this way. But I suspect it's really the other way around: the movement is invented to indicate a desired and desirable self. Even the people who scurry quickly, heads down, no extra motion, are constraining a tendency to motion in order to project an orderly being, to telegraph their support for public restraint. All of this means to be seen and understood.

When you look at them more closely, pedestrians are anything but pedestrian.

I don't want to get too far into what some "society" "thinks" of dance, but:

Dance is defined as a physical motion. So You Think You Can Dance is a challenge answerable only with a big leap or a triple pirouette -- not with a sensibility or a gesture or a motion consciousness like a bird's knowledge of wind. But it is logically impossible that the dancer who has just exited the stage door and now hurries to catch a late bus is not a dancer. And how much can it matter when you left the stage door -- five minutes, twenty days, ten years ago?

Sitting with Diane again. She looks different today, younger. Her green or hazel eyes are alive in afternoon light; her stillness appears more poised, an outline waiting to be shaken. When she gestures, I see an afterimage, an etched shape; her motion cuts that clearly, fits the moment that closely. Behind us the baristas do their dance, spinning on their heels to whip the refrigerator door shut with a hip or elbow as the opposite hand sets the milk gently on the counter. When they wash dishes, they all angle their hands down from the wrist like so many Cinderellas waiting to be discovered. One of them has the gift of making everyone around her happier -- coworkers, customers -- and I wonder whether she knows this, given that she never sees the world without herself in it.

Diane and I talk about dance, age, and so on, but I can't draw her into any despairing statement about older dancers and the public taste for pyrotechnics. She doesn't mind if she's mostly invisible, if dance is something she does inside herself. She loves to watch motion, fifth-grade girls or animals, whose "patterns haven't been warped by civilization and backpacks." She has a gecko; she imitates him now, twisting one side forward, then the other. She has a teenage son who's into martial arts, paintball, fight choreography; she watches him dance, watches him think in dance.

But why do others quit -- quit dancing, quit saying they are dancers? Diane suggests it's less that they want to be done than that they have no way to be partly dancers: "It's so hard to be a dancer. It's such a god-awful hard thing to do and become -- and keep in mind that most of society doesn't really want you to become a dancer. So once you let it go, it tends to go." But she's persisted because she "was willing to adjust dance from being a big thing in my life to being a much smaller piece, at least from what people see on the surface." In a culture with one definition of dance and dancer, the dance offstage, the dance inside, these are nothing unless we will them, invisible unless we look.

Diane tells me about a friend of hers, a man who "quit dancing decades ago, but when people ask him, he sometimes still says he's a dancer." Why? He works in special education, in which he uses his dance-honed sense of contact and space: "He talks about 'dancing with the kids' in terms of knowing how and when to be close, when to settle your weight back so the kids have to lean in -- subtle dancerly stuff."

Diane still dances, too, a modern class here or there, and, for the last five years, tango. When she starts talking tango, everything about her wakes up. Tango is a new body for her, a new way of being in the world, as any dance technique is, and Diane is deep in the wonder of being a beginner, of just seeing how things connect. She gets up to demonstrate the tango walk to me. It's nothing: four steps to the bus bin, four steps back. But her deliberation -- how one foot glides around the other, the smooth shift of weight, her head steady and light on her spine like a flower on a stem -- stops the coffee shop traffic, refocuses everything around. I'm not sure whether she's a spot of clarity or a blur or both, neither, but with that conscious walk, she makes everyone think in motion.