I was on the treadmill at my women-only gym, noticing with relief that the TV wasn’t turned to another real estate show. Instead, a calypso beat filled my headphones as soon as I plugged them in, rhythmically pattering alongside my feet on the track.
On the screen was a film documenting the story of a Cuban choreographer and her all-female company staging an original production -- a fusion of flamenco, contemporary ballet and Afro-Cuban influences (somewhat predictably named “Vida!”). The women were writing, practicing, recording – and taking their creation on the road to Toronto.
As I ran in place, flanked by other women running in place, staring at screens, I became absorbed in the story of the dance. It wasn’t terribly original, but it was undeniably moving. An older woman looks back on her life story, her loves, her struggles and triumphs, moving towards the final moment when she turns to her grand-daughter and bestows on her an amulet of sorts, which the choreographer called, “the gift of life.”
There were twenty-five women and girls in the company, and many of the shots scanned across a stage filled with all of them: shoes slamming into the wood, heads held up proudly, hips and skirts moving in time to a wave of music. Twenty-five strong, beautiful faces staring out at the Toronto audience with fire in their eyes as they stepped and stomped and swayed in unison, pausing only now and then to allow a single woman to let loose a firestorm of solo passion.
I ran without noticing my feet hitting the treadmill, wishing the interviews would hurry up so I could get back to the darkened stage.
In the final scene, a little girl crouches at the center of a lonely beam of light, holding a staff much bigger than she is. Slowly, with determination, she brings it down with both hands onto the boards: once, twice, a third time...calling.
You can hear the dancers before you see them, the lines of women tapping a strong, measured flamenco from the shadows like an emerging heartbeat. They surround her slowly, each holding a staff in front, each holding herself erect – back straight, shoulders thrown back.
As the group of women dance, moving their staffs with the drums – up into the air, behind them, low to the ground and in front of them again – the character of the grandmother beckons to the girl, places her stick in her hands, and slowly, patiently, shows her the steps. To the side. No, like this.
I was choking up at the gym. I can safely say this never happens to me, and it led me to wonder how the women around me would react if they saw tears dropping onto the treadmill, rolling down the “number of calories burned” display.
As I watched the young dancer mimic the older one, shifting her much smaller feet in time with the music, I began putting other faces on the women falling into rank with her. My own mother, my five sisters, my close female friends now spread around the world, my wise mentors, and my own two grandmothers. The list rolled and rolled with the sound of the dancers’ footsteps.
“Like this, you see...”
This is how you knead bread, stage a play, ride a bike.
“Like this, watch...”
This is how you be a friend, try again, mend a broken heart.
“Like this, follow...”
This is how you learn to learn, begin to write, take a risk.
“Like this, let me...”
This is how you accept wisdom, lean on another, create a life.
Step forward, back up, twirl, tilt, shuffle, and...one thunderous collective stomp as the company comes to a stop, staffs raised...stand.