” … practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
“Squeeze your legs together like Gertrude and Alice!” exclaimed dance Professor Montoya, with a glimmer in his eye, laughing at his own clever innuendo. We were all clueless freshmen at SMU in that Martha Graham dance class, glancing at each other in our peripheral vision, wondering if we should dare ask … “Who’s that?” A very brave student behind me had spoken for us all. Unsurprised, Professor Montoya yelled, “Look it up!” This is how I was introduced to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I was unaware of it at the time, but this famous literary couple had one of the most enduring, solid marriages of the 20th century. Gertrude and Alice “met in Paris on 8 September 1907 … From then on, until Gertrude’s death 39 years later, they were never apart. They never travelled without each other or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects,” Diana Souhami, the couple’s biographer, wrote. “They were central to the cultural life of Paris for four decades. Everyone who was anyone went to their salons at the rue de Fleurus.” Their relationship was a perfect metaphor for the movement we were working on, squeezing our legs together as if they had become one, so they would never be apart.
There was a symbiosis in learning about Gertrude and Alice during Graham class. Martha Graham was the matriarch of modern dance, severing past ties with dance that subscribed to a universal beauty. Martha wanted “significant movement.” She, “did not want it to be beautiful or fluid but fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” The magnitude of her influence is impossible to grasp. Like Martha, Gertrude made her own way, inventing a new means of writing by separating from the standard plot-driven work, “ … escaping from the inevitable narrative of anything of everything succeeding something of needing to be succeeding that is following anything of everything consisting that is the emotional and the actual value of anything counting in anything having beginning and middle and ending.”
At the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance at 316 East 63rd St in NY, I once stood on what I felt was holy ground, an aged hardwood floor worn perfectly smooth beneath my feet, in a way only possible by years of fallen sweat from generations of dancers in endless rehearsals. From 1998-99 I made my contribution to the wearing of that sublime floor. With performative attention, arms by our sides, practicing our projection, my fellow dancers and I would wait for our teacher to walk to the front of the classroom. After our teacher reached the front of the room she sat, but that did not mean that we sat. Her subtle yet commanding queue, a slightly tilted head that seemed to nod “yes, you may proceed” was the only indicator to move. This nod, like a breath of life, set the dance class in motion without words. In unison, all of us extended our right leg to the side, caressing the floor, circling it behind the left leg so that as our knees bent we descended, our spines erect and our focus still projected forward.
Once sitting, our feet were together, so that our legs made the shape of a diamond. Our teacher would raise her voice to say … “and!” This “and” was the beat before the count of one, denoting that the floorwork could now begin. Floorwork preceded standing work and then often repertoire. It was mandatory that I took two technique classes a day, then composition or rehearsal depending on what time of year it was. It did not matter how much my body ached, how bloody my feet were, or how exhausted I was, if I was in good spirits or not. I committed myself to the work, showing up to the studio every day. Martha Graham believed that, “Dedication and discipline were necessary if the full potential for expression of the inner self was to be realized,” and that “practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
Gertrude and Alice’s dedication and commitment to one another in their practice of living together were the exact virtues I needed. Dance or any physical practice demands commitment. The very movements that give joy and exhilaration one day can be the very movements that tore one down the day before. The repetition of these exercises could seem redundant or stale but it is the opposite. Repetition, “the practice,” is honoring the act, investigating every little part, every big part, the in-between movements of going here to there or of being still …
“I am a dancer” Martha said. “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dance or to learn to live by practicing living the principles are the same.”
Gertrude spoke for both herself and Alice when she wrote, “Our pleasure is to do everyday the work of that day.” Their commitment to one another in their enduring practice of being together is something to marvel.
Britt Lorraine is a choreographer, teacher and artist whose life’s desire continues to be performance and the study of movement. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, is a certified teacher of Ron Fletcher Pilates, has studied at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and also graduated from the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. She lives happily ever after with her girlfriend and fellow artist Kristy Perez, their daughter Ava, and their chihuahua Anjou. Kristy and Britt collaborate and inspire each other in a variety of media through Saintlorraine. www.saintlorraine.com