It’s All Art


It’s All Art

Stephanie Lee


I am drawn to the undeniable human experience. The guttural, heart-wrenching physical assertions of the body. For me, few things are as addictive as the pleasure of moving across the floor, twisting my limbs, expanding breath and energy through my body, and carving previously unseen pathways in space.

Because I love to dance, I want to dance.

When dancing is your first love, you tend to hold onto her for a very long time. I tried to do whatever it took to keep her faithful, chasing her over for two decades and across three continents. My family didn’t approve but I thought that this kind of love was noble and even necessary to achieve greatness. Naively, I applied diet advice and pushed myself through workouts I didn’t fact check. I managed to coax a career out of dancing in New York, but by 26, the burn out became real. The year I got to perform in all the venues I dreamt of, found work with a choreographer I admired, and finally started to make a living as an artist was the year I fell out of love.

Like rust that sneaks up on your favorite bicycle, my desire to dance slowly eroded, invisible to everyone else but me. I tried to get in front of the toxic self doubts when I realized I really no longer enjoyed dancing but still had to go class to maintain both the personal and professional relationships. Would you still be my friend if I stopped dancing?

What if dancing was not the only way to feel good about myself? Dancing without expectation and ambition – I had never imagined I would ask myself to do such a thing. But here, in the thresholds of living the last bits of my youth (now in my late 20s I tell you youth is actually worthless, 57 is the new 21), in a city that regularly deploys cronies to sniff out weakness and filter out bullshit, I gave it a go.

What began as a public experiment to cross train was really my secret way of figuring out how to reject all the training I had previously had in my body. Yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics? Come here! Alexander technique, and Feldenkrais, Flying Low, Fighting Monkey, tai chi, Kundalini, breakdancing, parkour, Ido Portal, weightlifting? Check. Rotator cuff injury from rock climbing? Circus school will fortify me!

My therapist at the time, (whom I discovered later was also a BDSM specialist and a Jungian mastermind), recommended I leave my cushy way of life and get out of NYC. I obeyed the calls of my heart, broke up with the Jew I was dating, and went to Europe for a spell. It was a magical trip; I met some of my greatest mentors, friends, and training partners who have radically changed the way I move.

But nothing prepared me for the sweaty hell that is Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. In fact, the first time I tried it after my mentor suggested a teacher, I was so appalled at the uniform (a WHITE gi??), the amount of uncoordinated bodies in a room, and the brute choreography of attacks on fragile joints with gusto that I didn’t return for a year. It took 8 gyms, a very patient coach who gave me private lessons in a basement of a boxing gym, and a huge desire to ‘get’ this thing — I am proud to write that I am now part of the ‘cult’ of sweaty, uncoordinated people who wear, among other colors, bleached white gis.

My early days of studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was eerily similar to my start in dance; I got hooked, I got injured, and that kept me..hooked. BJJ is said to be one of the few martial art forms where the weaker, smaller opponent is at an advantage. Personally, I have truly found it to be a knowledge-based martial art. My athletic advantages from years of studying dance have not kept me safe from less athletic but more technically skilled opponents for example, but it’s too late to get my money back (shakes fist at pointe shoes!) Much like chess, the study of tackling an opponent with systemic joint locks, athletic fluidity, and mental resilience requires that you learn by making mistakes. Some of those mistakes can be grueling and downright humiliating, but most are a reflection of the most vulnerable parts of you.

I am a bit of a romantic, and a tragically introverted one at that so take this well thought out statement with a pinch of (Romantic) salt: how you move through life is a reflection of how you move in Jiu Jitsu. Which is eerily similar to how you express yourself in dance. One can draw intellectual parallels between any two art forms if you dive into both deeply enough but tipping back into my own goals as a movement teacher, I find my body to be far wiser than the rest of me, somehow integrating all the lessons from dance and Jiu Jitsu and applying them in ways I know not yet. I will say this though; I use the same framework that helped me be successful in dance to be (hopefully) successful in Jiu Jitsu: find the right teachers, listen to your body, and don’t take no for an answer.

My ‘Come to Jesus’ moment in Jiu Jitsu came after a particularly unsuccessful session battling my brown belt coach for 4 minutes. “There are only three things you need to remember. 1) Eliminate the road blocks 2) Get rid of grips you don’t need. 3) Gain Position before Submission”. I was stuck by how poetic his short speech was; nobody had ever told me I could position myself for that kind of control or that kind of advantage over someone else, using tactical initiatives and sheer willpower, rather than relying on aesthetic and luck. I bet you there is a real, battle tested manual for self actualization out there. For now, I will embrace the journey over destination.

Both Jiu Jitsu and Dance require that you be immersed in the present to learn but Jiu Jitsu tends to empower folks in a highly practical manner. I am relieved to have found a new community who is incredibly supportive of my movement and lifestyle — I can now find moments to get super nerdy out on specific details of a movement, lean into a conversation about cross training without getting competitive, and ponder about the shit that comes with the wisdom of your teachers.

What I miss most about dancing now is how easily strangers turn into friends — warming up together in a cold hallway before the audition, tackling a hefty, dirty, tricky dance combination, getting so lost on the way to class that you both decide to screw it and go dance in the park instead. It is always your comrade in arms that saves you from yourself for art is nothing without the people who champion it.

To paraphrase a good friend and gorgeous dancer-turned-US-PoleDance-Champion: as young dancers, we inherit both the technique and the wisdom of our teachers. But that negative self talk that goes through your mind, about being incapable of love, affection, respect, about being unworthy, about adhering to hierarchy, procedure, and the inflated reputation penis you’d have to suck?

Those are not our words, those are the words of our teachers also. That is the shit we have also inherited. Because I come into Jiu Jitsu as an adult, I have a proper set of armor against words and actions that do not serve me. I have an army of experience to serve my instincts when I feel I am right. Strangely, I am a far more patient person as a Jiu Jitsu student than I have ever been as a dancer. For the first time in my life, I’ve not felt the pressure to be anything but an open book, a white belt holder, carrying the beginner’s mind in a large empty cup. Finding a second way to move through life is incredibly gratifying and leaves me hope that a third is possible too. This is my roundabout way of coming back to Dance and honoring my lineage.

It is a good thing Ambition has not left my body completely. I wouldn’t have searched high and low for a soul-ution**.

** a word coined by my great mentor and teacher Erika Randall

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