Everyone Should Dance

By Stephanie Salts


In a farewell speech to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance summer students and their parents, Summer Lee Rhatigan closed her thoughts and thanks with these abrupt few words,

“And finally, I think everyone should dance.”

It was funny because she wasn’t talking about people with coordination, rhythm, timing, etc. She was talking to the people who stood behind her, who had just performed,


she was talking to the people in front of her, seated in the audience. The grandpas, grandmas, boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, cousins, disabled… the stage hands, the person who handed out tickets at the box office. Those people should dance too.

This is something I’ve had the privilege of witnessing over the past several months. Editors, accountants, photographers, writers, receptionists, nannies, comedians, creative directors, graphic designers, servers, architects… I had the privilege of opening, or reopening the world of dance to these people.

The process of self-discovery, through movement, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

This past summer I had a friend suggest I start a little beginner ballet class. I put word out on a Facebook group that if any of these non-dancery folk would like to take a class this summer, I would rent a studio and we would meet once a week for an hour. I had about 10 people commit to a 7 week course. I’ve now completed two 7 week courses, with several people continuing and several new faces in the 2nd session.

I ended up structuring the class very different than any class that a place like Mark Morris might have to offer. I wanted to teach my friends ballet but I really wanted to offer them something where they felt like they were actually dancing during their 60 minutes with me. I also really wanted to share with them some of the life lessons that dance has taught me. Lessons in vulnerability, and how to be brave… how to take risks and how those things can translate into daily life.

When it came to the ballet part of class, I wanted my friends to understand true placement and rotation. Because of this, their ballet vocabulary was limited mostly to plies and tendus. I didn’t think it was necessary to rush them through the language, and besides this pace allowed them to access new muscles they never have a need for in their daily routines. Through doing these tedious little exercises, they were able to appreciate what ballet really is – a beast that demands everything you think you have and more.

Like I said though, I really wanted people to feel as though they moved their bodies and got their blood flowing. So, about 30-40 minutes into the class, I pulled the barres away and had my friends spread themselves evenly around the space. We would start by listening to our bodies. What do we want to do now that we have felt the restrictions of technique? We moved our joints systematically, we found aches and stiffness that we worked out through movement, we brought memories into our bodies and let them sweat through our clothes, we learned that through exploration our bodies are capable of more than we ever imagined. Changing our perception of ourselves, challenging us in other areas of our lives… If we know more about our bodies and how we can feel alive inside of them, we can know more about our personal identities, and who we were made to be.

One of my students, Daniel, is a friend who took the 2nd session of classes. I met him last March and he is such a joy to know. I will say that when I first met him I never imagined that he would be a person open to taking a ballet or dance class… I’ve been learning about how daring of a person he is. Curious, interested, eager, and this may be a new thing, but he seems to welcome change in his life. He works as an accountant in Harlem, though he lives only 10 minutes from me, here in Brooklyn. I recently told him that I think it is hilarious that he calls himself an accountant. There is no doubt in my mind that he is, to the very core of his being, an artist. And I feel very privileged to be able to share with you his thoughts about the class and what he experienced in the different weeks.

What I experience during ballet?  Difficulty.  It’s hard.

I remember jumping on a skateboard for the first time in third grade and feeling like I was meant to be on one.  It came naturally to me.  I can still hop on a longboard and fly down the street sometimes faster than people bike, and it feels like it’s the most natural thing in the world to me.  The board feels like part of me.  My body feels so right balancing on top of it.  It’s actually calming.  Perfectly natural.  And then soccer.  I scored my first goal in only my second competitive game, also as a third-grader, and scored somewhere in the ballpark of three-hundred goals since then.  I remember times when my foot connected with the ball in such a perfect way that a signal was sent to my brain saying, “It doesn’t matter where the ball travels now; that instant was a moment of sheer perfection.”

Ballet, though, is different for me.  I feel stiff, uncoordinated, inflexible, and in possession of far fewer brain cells than I imagined I was in possession of!  I’m not being hard on myself; it just doesn’t come naturally to me, like skateboarding and soccer did.  I wonder if it would have been a different story had I picked up ballet in the third grade.

Then I watch Steph teach us ballet.  In my 35 years, I never took any time to watch any ballet.  Not that I thought it wasn’t worth it; only that it never drew my interest.  But I’m totally drawn to it now.  It’s incredibly pleasing to see someone move with such coordination in a way that simply makes sense.  And if it makes sense, you start to wonder if there wasn’t already some map in your mind, far before you ever thought the thought, that says, “This will be territory that will make sense… and when you see it, you’ll know it.”  How else does something make sense to you when you’ve never seen it before?  Yeah, watching her move fires off the thought in my brain saying, “That was a moment of sheer perfection.”  And the thought crosses my mind, “How did this slip under my radar for 35 years?!?!”

Then there is the free improvisational portion of the class.  Plenty to say about this session.  Plenty.  Let’s begin, then.

 Not sure exactly how it all started, but I’ve never been much of a dancer.  It’s not that I had some uber-embarrassing moment in the 6th grade dance… I didn’t… I think I just never gave myself a chance.  I felt awkward dancing, and probably felt that I was more awkward than I actually was, and on top of that was probably convinced that everyone else (my peers) was sure I was even more awkward than I felt I was.  An exaggeration of an exaggeration.  An uber exaggeration.  Sheesh! 

No wonder I could barely dance alone, by myself, with no one around, to my absolute favorite music, for only seconds at a time until it became too painful for me to bear.  I was my own worst critic.  I didn’t even need anyone else telling me I wasn’t all that good.

But there was more to it.  This mindset reached into other areas of my life.  Probably more areas than I care to begin to name.  I remember writing an e-mail to my Mom telling her how oppressive it would get sometimes.  I described it to her using my dog as a parallel.  Now I had this beautiful Boston Terrier, Koko.  I’ve never seen a dog so unbelievably full of life.  He was a ball of sublimated energy… gloriously positive energy.  He wanted to do everything.  Everything.  Nothing scared him.  And when I took him on our nearly daily hour and a half walks, the leash kept him from getting into trouble.  But he so wanted to do everything.  Twenty-five pounds of sheer muscle and determination aren’t that easy to manage for ninety minutes.  

Anyway, in this e-mail I sent to my mom, I described how Koko wanted to do everything.  And how I had a leash on him preventing him from doing everything.  I then proceeded to describe how I would also love to do everything.  And how I had my own leash on me preventing me from doing everything.  Yeah, one-hundred fifty pounds of sheer muscle and determination aren’t that easy to manage for upward of two decades.  (Just typing this out makes me swallow hard.)

Funny, then, how this problem was solved.

In our fifth class with Steph, we were asked to dance improvised solos for each other.  

Four days before that particular class, I still couldn’t dance for more than twenty seconds or so, alone, by myself, with no one around, to my absolute favorite music.  

Three days before, Koko died unexpectedly.  To give you some sense of what he meant to me, I walked hundreds… hundreds of miles with him in his twelve and a half years.  

And like magic, the day after Koko died, I could dance the full length of a song, alone, by myself, with no one around, to my absolute favorite music.  No more leashes to hold.  Not his, not mine.  It was the last beautiful thing he gave me.

And on the day of our fifth class, I did what I would have never done: I volunteered to go first for our solo dances.  I wanted to, so badly.  So badly that Steph thought it better to have someone else go first.

I got to go second. Butterflies, but determination.  This is my time.

The task we were each given the in the previous class was to stand alone in front of each other for 60 seconds, and silently offer our presence. Some people decided to stare off into the distance. I deliberately chose to look into every person’s eyes.

My assignment today, in class number 5: to dance however I felt like dancing, but always leading with my eyes… dancing where my eyes took me. I get the feeling that my eyes are pretty expressive. Glance into my eyes long enough, and I won’t have to tell you what’s on my mind.  You’ll know it.

Not sure how long I went, but there I went. This week my eyes felt like they were burning rifts everywhere they moved.  The stage burned.  The stage was now in shambles.  And while my eyes didn’t burn, I burned.  I was completely in the moment.  I have no idea what I looked like as I moved.  And it didn’t matter.  What mattered was the moment, the movement.  My eyes moved me, took me places, and everything else followed (most of the time).  I felt other parts of my body.  I felt my legs most intensely… how they followed instead of initiated.  It’s a strange feeling for a soccer player and skateboarder to have your legs follow instead of lead.  But followed they did.  As did my arms (most of the time), and my hips, and my chest (when my arms moved more than they could).  

I wanted this.  Wanted it so bad I volunteered for it immediately.  It felt right.  And it was encouraging whenever Steph said “good” and disorienting whenever she corrected me when she felt I wasn’t leading with my eyes, or slowed me down when my pace was too quick.  But it was all good.  And then my time was over.  I was out of breath, not because I was winded, but because the moment was breathtaking.  

I didn’t know I was capable of… whatever it was I just did.  But there I went.  

And taking my seat back in the circle was one of the most gratifying feelings I’d had in a long time… the way a soccer player feels when he takes a seat seconds after he’s been substituted out of a game where he’d played his heart out, regardless of his performance.  Yeah, that was the feeling.

The next week there was no ballet. Steph read aloud specific assignments for each person.

The music starts playing. I think to myself, get loose.  Try out your assignments.  Move around the floor.  Don’t stay put.  So I’m moving.  And I’m smiling again.  Mexican jumping beans in my chest.  I’m laughing a little now.  I pause, stand still, to consider it all.  Yeah, I’m excited by it.  Thinking about it, but also just feeling it.  So much of dance seems like it’s just feeling it.  Can you think with your body?  Can thought occur outside your mind?  It certainly feels like it.

The last class of the session left me with these contrasting ideas about ballet and improvisation.

From what I can remember, improvisation causes me to breathe faster… it all feels so new, fantastic and almost outlandish.  Ballet, however, has different qualities to it.  You feel like you’ve known it forever.  It takes you to a familiar place.  And gently draws your attention away from your surroundings.  (And apparently causes your body to forget that you have to breathe!)

Improv is that cortadito… that small Cuban espresso cut with steamed milk and loaded with sugar.  It’s quick and sweet and takes you places.  You’d drink four of them in rapid succession if you lived on a planet that had ten extra hours in a day.  Ballet, on the other hand, is that cup of jasmine green tea.  You’re careful as you prepare it, and you slowly sip it over the next half hour.  It slows you down and centers you and lulls you into presence of mind… sharpness of being.  

Yeah, I’m breathing in the jasmine-flavored aroma as I watched my classmates, (and teacher) move in their own way.  It’s the same movement, but the variation is delightful.  Each of us leaving our own fingerprints on our own movements.

Thank you, Daniel. Watching you come out of yourself has been so fulfilling. Your movement, sincere and untainted, is breathtaking to watch. Know that. 

One Response to “Everyone Should Dance”

  1. Rand Renfrow

    Holy crud. This is incredible.
    Steph! What a wonderful teacher and leader. Daniel! What an amazing pupil, abounding in courage.
    I think transformation has occurred for both of you, and it is glorious to hear and read about. Thanks for sharing, seriously.

Comments are closed.