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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


My grandpa called the other night to say goodbye. After 98 years he is ready to go. What does this have to do with dance? Everything…

As far back as I can remember in my life as a dancer Grandpa has always been respectful and inquisitive about the fact that I danced. I would sit in the backseat of my grandparent’s car and answer question after question about the specifics of my after school life: how many hours, how many pointe shoes, why I did it at all. I could tell he was attempting to make it concrete for himself. It was the furthest thing from his experience. Maybe that’s why he took it and me seriously: he had no preconceived negative notions.

When I started choreographing he really perked up. Though he had always been proud of me, somehow the fact that I was making my own dances made even more concrete sense to him. I suspect he finally felt as though I had a future beyond my dancing years; he could stop worrying. (Little did he know how choreographers rely on “soft money” and the funding whims of the grant bestowing community!)

At 5’ 2 1/4” tall I have always wondered why I am not taller. My mother is 5’6” and my father is about 6’ tall. Grandpa was 6’2” or something close to that. I guess I got my height from Grandma who also was 5’2”. Grandpa was sort of massive in a slim kind of way, akin to Jimmy Stewart and in more ways than one. He always maintained a sense of humor about himself and life in general. Even during last week’s phone call he cracked a joke, something about us expecting him to live another 100 years. Indeed, no. Let him continue to live in our collective memories and in this reflection.

So he was this tall man against my short womanhood. His last plane trip was to attend my wedding in the summer of 2000. Slightly shrunken, he still maintained a sense of his former magnitude. It was not long after that that he lost the first of his legs. He handled the entire enterprise with strength and grace. I’m sure he had been proud of his stature; it must have played a part in how he self-identified. Within two years he lost his other leg and officially became “shorter” than me.

My mom was broken up about this. Initially I think she thought he thought he was but a shadow of his former self. Perhaps this is true. He never let on though. He maintained his erect posture and worked up the strength to sling his body from bed to wheelchair and back again. This is the constitution I’ve inherited.

Around the time that he lost his second leg I was commissioned by James Sewell Ballet to choreograph a new work that became “Witness”. Inspired by Grandpa I made a solo that evolves into a duet that lies at the heart of the piece. There is a red chair center stage and a woman (initially Peggy Seipp-Roy and later, me) draped across it on her knees. For the duration of that section she never is upright. All of her movements and posturing are floor-bound, on or around the chair, in relationship to it in some way. It is her support, her point of reference, her security blanket. At the end of the section her partner takes the chair away and the image we are left with is the woman balancing on her knees.

Grandpa saw this piece on video. I didn’t tell him that he inspired that particular section. Maybe he got it, maybe not. The point is that I shared it with him at all. Even though, as I imagine, my creating and performing life remained somewhat of a mystery to him (even after all the questions), he valued my work unconditionally. That he “got” it will never be the point.

I think this issue will ring true for a lot of dancers. Most of us probably feel like the black sheep of our families. It is depressing and exhausting to perpetually feel misunderstood about what to us is vital and elementary. So it’s all the more special that I never felt put upon by answering Grandpa’s questions. They were so sincerely asked and reflected upon that I began to see that it was my duty to my form to share as specifically and generously as I could. Dance needs to welcome the outside in.

As I age, I negotiate my ever-changing body and it’s daily inconsistencies. What’s going on with my lower back and do I need an MRI? I am 35 after all and wonder for the first time about my body’s ability to keep on keeping on. At this moment, after having several good-back days in a row I choose to put my energy and faith into Grandpa’s example. I will remain erect and graceful about whatever the situation reveals. I will determinedly do the necessary work to stay on top this insinuating physical insult.

I carry in my head and in my heart the words he expressed to me last week. I am keeping them to myself but here’s what I can share: as he spoke I felt buoyed by his words, knowing that he was speaking truth. I know with a greater degree of assuredness that I am on the right path for my life and that I will always identify as a dancer in some way. I read between the lines of his words and determine that I will continue to choreograph, to educate and now, to write. By strengthening these others I will protect and support the practicing dancer in me.

Grandpa is still with us but I may never speak with him again. I am so glad for the fact that, as gracefully as ever, he has come to terms with his own death. The rest of us are given this window of time in which to come to terms with it too. Soon the red chair will be taken away and he will be safely balancing, solo. Blackout: new section begins.


Blogger Paul Schmelzer said...

Moving story, Penny. Nice that you got to say goodbye. For me, having just buried the family dog (as you know) and with my grandpa in his last days, it really hit home. Thanks for writing it.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, hard to fathom that since my last comment, my grandpa died. It didn't realize it was truly one of his last days. But your writing makes even more sense: I remember how my grandpa--the owner of non-ferrous metal foundry in Chicago--strove to understand my world of contemporary art. We'd talk about the metallic properties of sculptures, the engineering of the cantilevered portion of the Walker, etc. Now, I really appeciate it that he made that effort, trying to find a common bridge between two very different worlds.


3:00 PM  
Anonymous Mary said...

You are such a bold, honest person, Penny. This is a great story to share, and you do so with such fluid forthrightness.

7:53 PM  

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