The Dream Gig: Alvin Ailey at the Kennedy Center
Last month, I lived the dream: I worked with Alvin Ailey.
The Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
At the Kennedy Center.
This is my wildest dream… happening.
I saw the company perform when I was eight years old, and, to date, was one of the most inspiring shows of my life. I never truly understood – or valued – dance before that moment. I left that performance with a sense of possibility and inspiration– that humans could move in a way that was beautiful, powerful, elegant, and effortless. While it took years for me to personally ”find dance”, that moment in the audience was profoundly transformative for me.
And for me, that was the bulk of why I was so damn happy to land this gig. To support artists and dancers, to be a small part of that process, has always been thrilling to me. And to be able to give so much of my time and energy to such a source of inspiration to me, was just… magical.
Every other detail of it was pretty marvelous.
So what were the six coolest things?
1. The company.
(And in this one case, I don’t mean the dancers.)
I felt pure elation to work in the Kennedy Center’s dressing rooms. It’s an incredibly majestic building, and working within it is damn inspiring. I never stifle my sigh of delight when the shuttle drops me off at the Hall of Nations, or my grin when I first peek out the Kennedy Center on the way back to the District. To me, it’s DC’s Statue of Liberty. I get shivers whenever I see it. Elated shivers.
And somehow, things turned out even better than I expected. My work was organized by the troupe’s lead PT, Sheyi Ojofeitimi, and in an fantastic turn of events, we shared a large dressing room with Sheyi and Sarah (another PT with the company). Working alongside physical therapists is ideal. It’s great for creating comprehensive care to recover from injuries and manage pain. When I can act in step with a physical therapist, we can both be more effective. I also loved watching their sessions, and observing the similarities (and profound differences) in our work.
There were two massage therapists for each night which let us support each other gracefully. MTs work well in pairs — the profession is very collaborative, so it was great to share space with other therapists with the same goals. I loved seeing Jennifer and Sally’s styles, and coordinating with them — they were considerate and giving throughout the time. They were also much more experienced therapists than I, and to see how they approached clients was very educational for me.
2. Dancers knew their bodies.
Really, really knew their bodies. Most of my clients are well-educated in regards to the sources of their pain and the methods of treatment, but working with dancers was just… different. Sessions were very directed — right adductor at the muscle belly; right forearm flexors; tension-reduction around the SI joint. There was an increased understanding of where pain was coming from, and how postural misallignments created injury. When your body (and its function) is your bread and butter, it changes one’s approach to health eductation — nutrition, strength, posture, and self-awareness.
As a result of them knowing their bodies (and their pain thresholds), many were comfortable with the deepest work that I can safely offer.
I use deep tissue techniques in 99% of my sessions, with many clients preferring very significant pressure. I’m used to delivering as much force as I can, as gracefully and well-directed as I can muster. For most of the dancers, I was asked to work at my own threshold of pressure… in the hopes of meeting theirs. It was similar to the work I do with weightlifters, in terms of depth of pressure, but with a lot more opportunity to add in stretches. While each session demanded all of my energy — physically and intellectually — I loved every minute of it.
3. The performance.
Watching the troupe perform was a transendental experience. For me, as a non-professional dancer, a performance on this level is the absolute best treat I could ever have. I cried three times during the show. I stood in the back of a sold-out crowd, with the energy high. I loved the first two pieces: Chroma and D-Man In the Waters.
And then, Revelations.
Revelations concludes (and peaks) most Alvin Ailey performances, and to see it, and feel it move me, was incredible. I sung in gospel choirs for about four years, and gospel music has always held meaning for me. And to see Revelations, and see how the piece builds and flows, with each segment celebrating, mourning, and living with independent breath was tremendous. By the end, I felt the music moving through me, and though I could only express is sloppily and without distinction, the piece felt very real to me. It was beautiful, in every way.
4. I loved time well spent.
My work is very guided by my clients, and their goals. Recently, I’ve worked on a number of yoga practitioners, triathletes, weightlifters, moms, dads, and folks in serious stress and pain. I don’t have very few clients who are full-time dancers, so I appreciated the chance to learn as much about how dancers use (and stress) their bodies.
While there are some limits to the 10,000 hour rule (ie. the value of deliberate practice), putting in the raw hours of learning how to work more successfully with professional dancers is invaluable. For me, having the chance to work uninterruptedly on clients expressing similar issues, and with an extraordinary amount of body awareness and a shared taste for deeper pressure, allowed me to really practice. And practice well — to be fully focused and attentive for every second of every minute of every session.
And to improve. While I doubt my first sessions on Thursday were worthless, my work on Sunday was much better informed. I’ve learned so much that I’m excited to share with my clients at Freed.
5. One statement made me really uncomfortable… and that’s good.
One line I heard repeatedly, from my friends, which werided me out was: “You’re so lucky to touch them. They’re so beautiful.
”Woah. This weirded me out for these (slightly opposing) reasons:
a. My sense of beauty when I’m at the table is altered.
b. I see all my clients as beautiful.
c. I am honestly lucky to touch all of my clients.
What does that mean? Well, to be honest, my sense of beauty is confoundedly altered. Overall, I see beauty in most people. In my personal life, I am surrounded by conventionally (and unconventionally) beautiful people. I’m not slow to tell someone when I think they’re gorgeous. I live in a beautiful world.
But when I’m working, that aspect of my vision is muted. Part of preparing for a session is quieting my mental chatter. Imagine that I’m wearing fogged-up sunglasses: everything is warmer, but less… loaded. It’s how you work with naked people without freaking out. And it always works, whether I’m working with a professional dancer or a sedentary person. They are both beautiful to me, but it’s not… salient. There’s no possibility for repulsion or undue excitement. Just acceptance. Just care.
So, yes, the Alvin Ailey troupe are beautiful people, but the instant they become clients, that beauty… shifts. It’s more general. It’s more internal. It’s more understated.
Like all my clients.
… Well, kind of.
The dancers I worked with were truly beautiful people, for the real reasons that people are beautiful: the stuff on the inside. All of the dancers I saw were considerate, open-hearted, and courageous. To work through injury is an incredible effort (and something of which I have a too-clear understanding). To know how much pain and injury the dancers suffered from, and see how much they didn’t allow that pain to impact their performance was astounding. All of the dancers I worked with were supremely dedicated to their craft, and remarkably friendly and kind.
So, yeah, they were beautiful. Fair enough.
6. I felt grateful.
The path I took to the Kennedy Center wasn’t a direct path, and much of it was not in my control. In the last few months, I’ve experienced incredible support from my mentors — Elizabeth Shrader and Frances Reed. They’ve both put in many hours that have helped build me into a capable therapist. Frances lifted me up on their shoulders (in more ways than one); Elizabeth has given me consistent, incredibly astute advice. They have helped me “level up” and work through some difficult moments. I owe them some mega life-debts.
I’ve also had a rough few months. In my personal world, things haven’t been tidy. I’ve made some huge, embarrassing mistakes, and I’ve been difficult to deal with. My friends and family and friend-family have given me incredible support, both in my work at Freed, and outside of it. And when I walked into that dressing room, set to work on those incredibly talented dancers, I felt overjoyed that so many people had given me a hand.
Especially Liz. And John. And Feonix. They’ve been rocks, suns, and stars for me, in the past few months. They are my better halves.And because of them
… it feels like things are turning around.
… Cirque de Solei, you’re damn next.