Sunday, March 24, 2013

Art that's true

My area hosts a pretty major youth ballroom competition every year. Between my friends whose kids compete and my kids’ friends who also compete, my girls and I go to watch every year. We aren’t a particularly athletic family, dance included, but someone needs to be the audience, right?

This time, we stayed for about four hours, catching younger divisions of dances like swing, cha cha, tango, and samba. No matter what their age or how long they’d been doing that particular dance, you could tell instantly who had years of dance behind them, even if it was “only” ballet. They were at home and at ease with what they were doing. All of them, however, even the relative newbies, had confidence pouring off of them. (Not cockiness, though. When they walked off the stage, I didn’t see a single kid acting like they owned the world, or like they thought they were better than anyone else. I’ve lived in a lot of places around the world, and that’s something I consistently notice where I live now: high levels of art + low levels of ego.)

Between the newer and more advanced categories were the national youth cabaret championships. Cabaret, at least in this context, is kind of like figure skating, only with more of ballet and gymnastics and less of icy floors and sharp blades strapped to your feet. Cabaret is the dance with all the lifts and balances that make you gasp. Unlike when you dance a few minutes of say, the cha cha for judging purposes, the cabaret is a dance with a plot to it. The dancers in this competition were excellent—their steps were difficult and graceful, and watching made you feel like somehow you could do that, too. Maybe your body couldn’t, but your soul could. Not to mention the pure enjoyment of athletics raised to art, a similar feeling I get when watching the Olympics. Beautiful bodies expressing something beautiful inside all of us.
That said, my prediction on scoring turned out to be accurate for every couple. The top two were my favorites. The second place couple had the most challenging moves, with a lot of lifts and complex turns that could have resulted in some serious injury had they not been so perfectly executed. It was technically perfect. The first place couple was slightly less flashy, but there was something…something about their performance that made you know that they were the winners. Controlled grace. The spotlight in cabaret is on the female dancer who’s flying through the air, etc. etc. You expect her to be graceful. But I’ve never seen a guy dance as gracefully as this—I can only assume he had just as many years of ballet as she did. Their choice of music and even costuming/color was perfectly suited to their routine. They made it all look easy, as if of course anybody could do this. I was never worried about “what if they fall,” because of course they wouldn’t. It reminded me of long-ago Nadia Comaneci’s perfect Olympic gymnastic performance—that natural and graceful. And because of it (or maybe the reason for it), there was a lot of emotion to the dance that felt like they were taking you behind the everyday façade to show you what they were really thinking and feeling.

And that’s what a good book does. With any book, whether you’ve written one like that before or not, you can tell if an author has put in long years of unappreciated or unseen work beforehand. It’s all those years of ballet before taking up ballroom. All those half-finished or trunked stories, all those rejected manuscripts where you opened a new file and started a new story the next day.  Beyond that, there are books that are technically flawless. Books that are as flashy and “hooky” as you can get, with extreme tension and plot turns that make you gasp and a voice that pushes to the limits. A lot of these get published. But the books that you love, the ones that say something to your soul that other ones don’t, have that something extra that this winning dance entry had, too. It gives everything to the art. It opens up all the doors and windows we like to keep closed for fear of exposing ourselves too much. It tells the truth in the most naked and vulnerable way, and in that, it links us to the things that are most human in all of us.

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