I have been moved by dance before. I recall seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and getting goosebumps, my heart feeling light and stirred, the gracefulness and power in the dancers’ bodies so striking that I fell into the dance with them.

However, the dance piece I saw this weekend moved me, not just visually but viscerally. It was a 25-minute long painting come to life, every step stroking my soul to the point where what I was seeing on stage translated to a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The piece, Out of the Mist, Above the Real (a video excerpt is available here), was part of the penultimate performance of the Philadelphia-based Jeanne Ruddy Dance company, founded in 1999 and discontinuing this year. The work was first performed in 2004 but was obviously so well received that it was selected to be a part of the final season.

In short, the piece is a moving representation of artist Thomas Cole’s series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, which depict the four stages of life: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. The score commissioned for the work was a combination of choral and Irish chamber orchestra music, both joyous and haunting.

The dance begins so colorful, a chorus of dancers guiding a beautiful blond 3-year-old as she leaps, runs, and skips across the stage. The scene is absolute innocence, this fair-cheeked cherub audibly laughing and giggling as she is guided from dancer to dancer. The ensemble is her support system, and they carefully watch over her, lifting her when she needs to be lifted, directing her where she needs to go. The little girl is dependent on these dancers but follows the voice of her heart. A woman dressed all in white—the girl’s guardian angel—stays close by the child’s side, a heavenly maternal figure keeping a constant, loving watch over the child.

In the second stage of the piece, the child has now developed into a 10-year-old girl. She has still retained much innocence, but her movement is now more refined; she is trying to find her place in the world and uses her support system for guidance. She dances with the ensemble, copies their moves, but is now able find her own dance as well. It is her time to seek out autonomy, testing the waters between being led and being a leader. The woman in white remains present.

There is a marked shift in energy between youth and middle age. Company namesake Jeanne Ruddy performs the role of Middle Age, and she is absolutely striking. There is no doubt the woman has become independent; she is a leader, and she is captivating. She commands the stage like a balletic bull fighter, a motherly matador with a subtle sense of sorrow imbued in her movement. Much of her dance is performed as a solo, but the colorful ensemble still emerges to dance by her side, and the guardian angel is never too far away.

Jeanne Ruddy photographed by Bob Emmott

When the woman of Old Age takes the stage, there is a profound difference between Middle Age’s dance of independence and Old Age’s soliloquy of alone-ness. With her long gray hair and thinning arms, the woman dances in front of a black backdrop, nothing but stars to guide her movement, the lack of others—the support system—so loud in the silence. Her dance is so much more subtle than the earlier movements of youth and middle age but is so emotionally heavy and laden with wisdom. When the chorus finally enters the stage, their brightly colored clothes are now draped in black. Instead of nurturing the dancer, their role is now to guide her into the end of existence. The woman in white—the guardian angel—offers her loving presence one last time, a reminder that during a time of great loss—family, friends, independence, home—the spirit is always there.

Photo by Joe Labolito / Philly.com

***

Why was I so moved?

A longing for that youthful innocence that never dictates movement, being able to prance freely in the park or wildly on the beach and being encouraged rather than scorned.

A recognition that the journey between age 10 and middle age is a long one, and at times I am still so very much a little girl trying to find her place in the big world.

A reinforcement that one day my dance will rise to its pinnacle, knowing it has only reached that magnitude through lessons learned, lives lost, and experiences treasured.

A reminder that we are infinite but not immortal, and although the spirit carries us throughout life, the dance will eventually slow into silence and stillness.

The dance reminded me of a 5Rhythms class I attended a while back, during which two new students showed up, two high school girls who looked about 15. Before class started, they stood in the center of the studio and practiced their kicks and extensions and straddle jumps and pirouettes in front of the mirror. I was nervous, because clearly these girls had no idea what this class was about. They were concerned with their form, and even when class commenced and we were all slinking over the entire studio floor, eyes closed, back, forth, up, down, right, left, the girls remained fixed in the “front,” eyes on the mirror, moving only the way they were taught in class and making sure it looked correct in the reflection. I think they got a little freaked out during Chaos, when myself and the other students have a tendency to go kind of trancey and spin around like whirling dervishes. They sat out for a while, then joined back in, only to stand in the back and do a silly line dance.

My first instinct was to be really annoyed with these girls: They clearly didn’t get it. They were too young to understand. I had a bit of this holier-than-thou attitude, like I was Queen of 5Rhythms, and they should be abolished from my kingdom.

But after I had more time to reflect, I realized that, 15 years ago, I was them. I came from a dance studio background, where jumps and turns and splits and extensions were only as good as they appeared in the mirror. When I first got to college and had time alone in the dance studio, I didn’t close my eyes and lose myself in the music: I stood in front of the mirror and watched myself jete across the room, making sure my back leg was in line with the front. That my penchee arabesques sunk low enough, that my back was straight and leg was aiming toward the ceiling.

And still, I realize I’m not even halfway there in discovering my true dance. Certainly, what I feel now feels authentic, the same way whatever those girls were doing during class felt authentic to them. However, what do I look like to the 60-year-old 5Rhythms instructor? Is it possible that to him, I am just as naive as those 15-year-old girls are to me?

Life experiences, challenges, wisdom are the foundation of any form of artistic self-expression, and it would be silly for me to expect those 15-year-olds to have some profound sense of self that is comfortable expressing itself through dance. Heck, even though I was one hell of a contemplative teenager, I didn’t express my emotions through frenetic ecstatic dance at the time. And what will my dance be 20 years from now? 40?

As I wrote earlier in this post, “It’s a bit cruel that by the time we reach an age of such wisdom and experience—a time when our dancing would reflect decades of memories—our bodies are breaking down. If only an 80-year-old could dance in an 18-year-old’s body!”

One of the beautiful things about practicing 5Rhythms is that I get to witness so many stages of life, as expressed through dance. On the floor are fresh-faced 20-somethings with clear skin and luscious locks, 70-somethings for whom each wrinkle and gray hair represents a story.

Individually, each of us is the main character in Out of the Mist, Above the Real, whether we are young, middle-aged, or old.

Collectively, we are the ensemble, the support system that encourages the dance and watches each other’s back.

The energy generated during this time together is the nurturing Spirit, and that is what remains in our flesh and bones even after class is dismissed.

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