Alice Dempsey

2016-2017 Live Deliberately Essay Contest

Alice Dempsey, 18
Honorable Mention, 17-18 Age Group
Durham Academy
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

My soil is not a dark, rich crumble that stains your hands and burrows beneath your fingernails. It is hard, grey vinyl that softens your jumps and glows with your sweat. My tree is not tall and brown with fanning leaves. It is strong and supple with fluid arms. My soil is the dance floor and my legs are firmly rooted into it by two strong feet. Trees rely on water, but my passion for dancing thirsts for sweat and tears. Thoreau says to cultivate your tree for its fruit, which is much harder to quantify because my fruit blossoms, ripens, and rots within a few minutes. It is not a collection of words or series of images, but a medley of movement. Dance is the expression of my deepest vulnerabilities. When my grandfather died, I was drowning in exams and my calendar was black with deadlines. There was no opportunity to stop and gently pry the millstone of grief from my ankle. My respite was the studio where I didn’t need to speak, just move. Trudging to class with cold feet and aching limbs, I would shuffle into the studio ready to leave. The future hung as bleakly as leafless branches in winter. But once I stepped on the floor, everything evaporated. There was only today, and there was only now. I know that dance is the tree I must cultivate because I rely on its fruit. I’m partial to its sweet taste because it is grown from my tears and fed by my inner emotions.

The curtain hung in heavy folds by my hand, faded velvet now matted with time. The theater was cold even though it was June. Rehearsals had started in January, and I was confident about this performance; the dress rehearsal last night had been flawless. I heard the musical cue and felt my friend shift behind me. I straightened my costume and stepped out on stage. What happened? I don’t remember. All I can recall is the horror pulling at my plastered smile as my body refused to procure the manicured movement. Nothing was right, and the music seemed to always be a second ahead of us, blowing raspberries as we struggled to match its dizzying pace. The hours we had spent rehearsing disappeared. Thoreau said to disregard past successes and to see the past as the opportunity that brought the present, and those two minutes on stage were a painful reminder of his wisdom. We ranted in the dressing room, yet there were only minutes before the next piece; there was no time for reflection. The dance was over, and we had to forget it. Dance does not dwell on the past just as Thoreau urges us to live in the present. The past is both everything and nothing, essential and inconsequential. It is important because it builds the foundation of technique that every dancer needs, but dance itself is the beautiful crystallization of the present moment.

Thoreau says to live deliberately with humanity and meaning. His ideas are abstract and complicated, so I study them through dance before trying to apply them. For what is more deliberate and human than movement? Every moment is choreographed. The tilt of the head to the height of the leg is set because nothing is superfluous or unnecessary. He wants us to follow our passion and find the perfect tree for us, and I have stumbled across my tree in my dancing. Dance is unapologetic and authentic, just as Thoreau encourages us to live. He says to look up to the greats that have come before us and learn to revel in nature in order to become more human. For me, that connection to the natural world and our own humanity is the celebration of the innate beauty of the human body: dance. It is the outburst of emotion, raw and unchecked, that inspires choreography. Unlike writing or painting, the medium for dance is the body itself. It is painfully human as the corporal body struggles to bring to life the twisted confusion of emotion. As apples fall from trees, dances fall into our greedy hands and give us a glimpse of our true selves.