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Staying Flexible

I’ve written here before about how much I love dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. If you don't know her, she has created countless amazing dances, Broadway shows, films, and any number of performances that often combine modern dance with classical ballet. Tharp has also written books about creativity, collaboration, and the power of continuing to move as we age. Earlier this year, PBS’ American Masters released a documentary about her—one of many produced throughout her career. In this one, we see Tharp—who will turn 80 in July—creating a new work with several other accomplished dancers, Misty Copeland among them. There she is, standing in front of a large computer screen, choreographing their moves via Zoom. She complains a little about the time lag created in this virtual collaboration, but other than that, she seems totally game.

The film moves back and forth from her early life and career to this current piece of work, and the overriding theme is clear—she is fully committed to dancing, choreography, creativity, and movement, regardless of the circumstances. Like most people’s trajectories, hers was not direct or easy, but what made it work was her dedication and her resilience. Nothing symbolizes that more than watching her talk to her dancers—all in various time zones and all online. She's pushed boundaries throughout her career, whether she was choreographing dances to Beach Boys and Billy Joel songs, or working on a Broadway show with David Byrne and Talking Heads. The Gap saw her versatility and endurance when they included her in their 2007 "Classics Redefined" ad campaign (the photo above comes from that).

As I watched the documentary this weekend, I realized it was exactly what I needed to see and hear at this near end of the pandemic. It is also the perfect reminder for me as I get ready to head into a new phase of my life. The secret to success seems overwhelmingly to be our ability to be flexible and to adapt to what is in front of us at the moment.

In such a weird way, the pandemic has given us the chance to do the right thing, for ourselves and each other.

Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last 14 months trying to do my job and my life under very different circumstances than I’m used to. In addition to our underlying fear of getting Covid, most of us have tried to do our “normal” activities remotely and extra carefully. We’ve had to live without most of our regular in-person connections with each other, and we’ve all had to figure out how to perform our daily tasks from a distance. Initially, I had a strong feeling that none of it would work. I halfway expected that we would all just throw in the towel at some point and sit in the dark until the whole thing was over. But of course, that isn’t what happened at all. Instead, most everyone I know figured out a way to do their job, to connect with their co-workers, their students, their families, and each other. It seemed awkward at first, when we had online Happy Hours and socially distanced gatherings in our front yards, but what I mostly felt is that we were trying because we were committed.

That’s what I thought about when I was watching Twyla Moves, as she stood confidently in front of her Zoom screen talking to the dancers. I never know if humans are naturally resilient or not, but I do know that when I hold back a lot—when I let fear and anxiety plan my route—I lose my conditioning and my balance. Sometimes, it just feels safer to go through the motions and protect myself from taking risks or pushing myself. But, it doesn’t take long to realize that approaching my life that way leaves me emotionally rigid and fragile.

Watching so many people step forward in this last year has been stunning to me, in so many ways. I’ve seen faculty who said they could never teach their subjects online do it anyway—engaging students, helping keep them connected, making them feel as if they have a place to be. In such a weird way, the pandemic has given us the chance to do the right thing, for ourselves and each other. As hard as it’s been to get up every day and go through the same motions, we have, and it’s helped us be better. I felt that way when I saw Twyla furrow her brow, trying to even out the timing on each of the four Zoom squares in front of her. When her production designer tells her he likes the organic nature of it, she smiles and agrees.

This is all of us, if we let it be—trying new things, pushing forward when we can, bringing light and lightness, and redefining ourselves always as new paths are set before us.


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