I Remember the Dirt the Most

BY TANYA WINTERS; PHOTOS BY PAT BARRETT

Tanya Winters is a dancer based in Austin, TX, who took part in a residency this past January alongside collaborator Silva Laukkanen at Keshet Center for the Arts in Albuquerque, NM. Keshet is an inclusive arts organization with a focus on dance and disability integration. Tanya, who dances from her wheelchair or using sticks, describes her experience delving into site specific work as part of the residency.

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After a week filled with unpacking, grocery shopping and studio time, we were finally ready to explore our home away from home – Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the first day of our site specific work. For the not-yet dancers out there, site specific means dancing in public spaces. Thanks to Siri, we were finding our way around town pretty well, and we were lucky our photographer was a gracious tour guide.

We pulled into the parking lot around 2 p.m. “This is a strange entrance to a state park,” I thought, as I took note of the busy overpass humming over my shoulder. It was a gloomy and chilly 45 degrees as we made a single file line through the park entrance. The recent rain helped the tiny red-orange pebbles cut brilliantly through the gray stillness of the Rio Grande Valley State Park, revealing the path to our dance floor – the Paseo Del Bosque Trail.

I quickly realized my chair was not the best companion for this adventure, so stood up. Dampness settled into my joints as my sticks macheted their way through the beautiful decay of winter trees. The air was crisp. Wet burnt-orange and brown leaves blanketed the ground. “Just a little farther,” said the photographer as we came to a fork in the path. I veered left to follow him. Before I knew it, we’d arrived.

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The pebbled path disappeared into a clearing. A great calm filled my soul as my eyes took in the sites. I remember the dirt the most. I can still feel it in my hands: loose, cold and barely damp. It felt light against my fingertips, like placing my hand on a screen door in the summer. A thrill pressed up from my belly. I continued to explore. Not too far from where I stood, another path appeared. This one was much wider, and was covered in well-trampled leaves and mud. Majestically bare gray cottonwood trees lined both sides of the path. It was as if I had stepped into an Ansel Adams photo.

I continued to mull around in the leaves, swinging my stick back and forth, back and forth, followed by a switch of my hips and a roll of my head. Suddenly I stopped. I pulled the stick from my forearm and watched it fall to the ground. My fingers gave against my body weight as they slid down the smooth metal of my remaining stick. My knee kissed the dirt. It was as if someone had placed a pillow underneath me as I pressed against the earth.

I don’t really remember what happened next. There was an incredible sense of peace in the pit of my stomach. I felt tall and mighty like the cottonwood trees that surrounded me. My senses were dull and floating. Only certain sensations were recognizable: the bending of my knees; the twist of my pelvis as I rolled to my back; the soft prickle of my jagged fingernails as they grazed the palm of my clenched fist; the weight of my stick extended into the air; the heavenly release of my facial muscles giving into the sweet caress of my dirt-filled hands.

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Just as my taste buds agreed that dirt is definitely an acquired taste, I realized the photographer was staring at me like a deer in headlights. In fact, our entire entourage was stopped in their tracks. As a dancer, a reaction like this is a double-edged sword: one edge gleams with a priceless compliment while the other is stained with expectation. As the applause began, I flashed a smile. For better or worse, my personal performance bar was officially set. I just hope I don’t drive myself crazy trying to achieve it again.

My dirt dance was exhilarating! It set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Before we knew it, we were covered in dirt. Cameras flashed and video rolled. Electricity filled the air as we walked back to the cars. I thought we were done for the day when Silva said, “We need to finish the choreography on this. I love it!” Gleefully, I followed her toward a massive granddaddy tree trunk. Its smooth gray bark was peeling to reveal patches of tan wood. One end was jagged and broken. A barbed wire garden of gnarled broken branches surrounded it.

The cold air felt good against my nostrils as I took a deep breath and pressed my hands into my lap next to Silva. Just as the first movement began to vibrate down my spine, my inner child let out an obnoxious giggle. I was nervous. The lens of the camera made me feel like I was sitting in my underwear. I haphazardly composed myself and we started again. My inner child was determined to get her 15 minutes of fame; her giggle-fest happened three more times before we came to terms with it and incorporated it into our dance. We barely made it to the car before the rain started again. Big raindrops slapped against the windshield as Silva and I looked at each other. “Oh my God that was fun!” I said. Silva was so excited she couldn’t speak. I smiled and thought: I can’t wait for tomorrow.

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