“We mathematicians understand that our discipline involves creativity, beauty, and abstraction as well as precision and utility. An education worthy of a free person should include active, meaningful experience with all of those elements.” – Priscilla Bremser, American Mathematical Society Blog
Believe it or not, I was reading about math today. Mathematics, it seems, was once considered to be part of the liberal arts disciplines, today it is considered to be almost its opposite, with liberal arts reserved for areas considered (unfairly, in my mind) to be fluffy with math being real world and practical.
Like many writers, I grew up thinking of math as the opposite pole of literature. I was not particularly good at it, and I didn’t really mind. My father, also a writer, never encouraged me to think of math as all that necessary, beyond getting good grades in school. He didn’t like it much either. So I essentially thought of mathematical minds as another type of mind. I can, on some intellectual level, appreciate the idea of higher math having an abstract beauty– it means nothing to me. I am tone deaf when it comes to that. This is no doubt my loss. If I had been encouraged to appreciate mathematics for its beauty maybe there would be something there that would apply to my career as a writer.
Similarly, very early on I decided that dance was not for me. There are, no doubt, lots of reasons for this. I was not coordinated as a kid. I’d been switched from being a lefty and taught to write with my right hand, and this might have been part of it. Or maybe it was a simple lack of aptitude. Other kids were better at sport and dance. I felt clumsy and awkward and I soon took the defensive posture that such things were not important. What mattered was the mind, not the body. I became entirely dualistic in my thinking. My body existed as a somewhat ill-fitting vessel to carry my brain around. My physicality was relevant in only one area of my life– sexual attractiveness. There I felt entirely unworthy. The truth is, it is hard to suddenly own your body on special occasions and do it with any kind of grace.
My father, Albert Lee, described dance this way in an unpublished novel:
“He sees the world as if looking through windows in his head, inside a body that always fascinated him, primarily because it wasn’t him. He felt he was enveloped within an alien form. Dancing always seemed proof positive that this species had not yet evolved. It was the primitive dance of cannibals about a tribal fire, a ferocity in the air he could sense whenever the incessant beat of drums began.”
So it seems there may have been some parental influence in this notion that the world of the mind– the writer’s world, and the world of the body– the dancer’s world were very distant from each other. The writer’s brain and the mathematician’s brain were at opposite poles on one axis. The writer’s art and the dancer’s art were at opposite poles on another axis.
I certainly never thought I would be spending so much of my life in the company of professional dancers as I do now. Careers have a habit of not quite going where you expect them to; they’re a bit like love in that way. I answered an advertisement for a public relations director for an international ballet company and next thing you know, I found myself among these exotic creatures. They were strange and exotic to me in the beginning. I marveled at their barre exercises and their dance shoes. I could not imagine that years later I would be describing split sole jazz shoes in great detail from memory. (This happened while sitting in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona with a distraught Russian ballet dancer after someone had broken into our car and stolen the bag with all of his shoes in it. It was the only thing they took. The policeman, to whom I described the various dance shoes, was kind. They caught the bad guy. The shoes– which he had thrown as he ran, seems he’d been expecting something else– were recovered.)
I’ve learned a lot from being around dancers.
There is a way that dancers talk about their bodies, and the bodies of their peers, that can seem shockingly matter-of-fact to outsiders. My partner, for example, said he had bad feet, a short neck and a bad face. A bad… face…
The dance world with its unforgiving physical ideal seemed harsh and cruel to me.
But I came to realize something. My partner was not being harsh to himself. He was being honest. He does have, by ballet standards, a short neck. He does not have the lovely arched feet that dancers call “good.”
He does not have a good face. His nose is wide, there is a gap between his front teeth and his forehead has a strange dent in it. But here’s the thing– I had not noticed any of this until he pointed it out to me. I saw him on stage and I could not take my eyes off him. He absolutely fills the space with his energy. I fell madly in love with him and thought he was absolutely beautiful.
But maybe he would not have seemed that way to me if he had be unwilling to admit to himself that his neck was short, his feet were a bit flat and so on. He knew his liabilities and his assets and how to get the most out of the body he had because he had spent ages working with it.
All of this made me aware of just what a taboo we have about our bodies. We are supposed to pretend as though we do not notice any difference between people, but of course we do. Not acknowledging the difference is supposed to be more kind. I am not sure any more that it is.
One of my dance teacher contacts recently posted an article to Facebook which was supposed to prove that girls who did ballet had more self-confidence than those who did not. They determined this by asking two groups of girls to rate their physical attractiveness. The girls who did ballet ranked themselves higher than those who did not. Thus the ballet girls were supposed to be more confident. There is one problem with this study, it didn’t measure how attractive the girls actually were. Maybe the girls who did ballet thought they were more attractive because they actually were. Maybe it wasn’t all in their heads and had nothing to do with confidence at all. If they had asked each group to assess their ability in math they would tend to assume that the result had at least something to do with real-world math ability rather than pure self-confidence.
The girl on the left may be prettier than the girl on the right. The girl on the right might be better at sports or science than the one on the left. One dancer has “bad feet”, but he has more charisma and so he gives the audience a better show and gets more applause.
A famous writer once said that novelists do not write the books they want to write, they write the books they can. This is what the disembodied art of writing has in common with the incarnated art of ballet. A dancer can do a lot with her body to improve, compensate, bring out its best, but when it comes down to it– there is only so much that can be done. To some extent, every dancer will be constrained because of the body she was born with.
It is exactly the same for writers. I may admire a certain form. I may imitate aspects of it, but sooner or later I am going to smack up against my own limitations. I cannot be every kind of writer. I could get frustrated with myself for it, or think the world of literature and its constraints are harsh and cruel. That won’t get me far.
I really started to find my own voice on the day that I accepted all of the kinds of writer I was not. I stopped trying to write the books I thought I ought to write and wrote the books I could write.