Perhaps this was my mistake; I had a plan for my dance career, and I was not shy to tell it to everyone who would listen. My goal was to dance as long or longer than my dance heroine, Martha Graham, who performed until she was 92 (when she proceeded to drink herself into toxic alcoholism, which was definitely not part of my plan). At some point in the mid-1980s, a close friend and dance student of one of my own dance students actually expired while performing onstage at a hafla! Her death fomented a great many comments among the bellydancers of the day about how heroic that would be to die, doing what you love—dancing. However, I found the idea repulsive and still find it abhorrent because dying onstage would shatter the foundational trust between a performer and the audience: that is, people attend a performance to be entertained, inspired, and distracted from reality; not to be confronted by death itself! It is an unspoken contract between performer and audience so to aspire to croak while onstage would violate that trust in my eyes, unless you (as a member of an audience) have come to the Roman Coliseum to witness the death of the Christians in the teeth of wild beasts! Then, I suppose, death becomes the dancer.
Having said this brings me to the question that is the elephant in the dance studio: Is there life after dance? The dancer spends her career perfecting her technique, building her knowledge of the culture and music, assembling and reassembling her costume wardrobe and collecting her accolades until all of it interacts together inside her being like a life sustaining and seductive drug. How can there be a life after dance that would be as satisfying? Would you settle for “sort of” satisfying or maybe just “okay?” If we had to diagram the dilemma like diagramming an English sentence, we might find dancing in the center of everything with peripheral activities such as teaching, coaching, writing about dance, designing and vending sparkling items as offshoots from the central interest—the doing of it.
Martha Graham at 54Nevertheless, I had been outspoken about my plan, seldom pausing to think that I could be thwarted by fate quite easily. I discovered, after an insightful walk on the beach five years ago, that a small blemish on my right foot could be skin cancer and realized I should have it examined by a specialist. Oh, yes! It proved to be the most dangerous type of skin cancer—the one that has no cure as of this date: Melanoma. I quickly had the tiny thing removed from the top of my foot and paid little heed to the surgeon’s warning that the operation would leave a scar (Who cares? There is stage makeup to cover it.) and my surgery could possibly result in nerve damage and a weakness in the foot structure. “Not mine; dancers are athletes, accustomed to dealing with and healing injuries,” I reasoned.
My plan remained intact; the site would heal, I would strengthen my foot, and I would continue to dance.
During the last phone call that I received from my dance partner, Bert Balladine, he asked me if my foot had fully healed and if I were able to dance again. “ Yes!” I answered confidently, so he advised: “Good! Continue to dance and teach as long as you can, Najia, because both you and I have stayed too long at the fair. It is too late to start over in something new, and you have become really phenomenal at what you do and how you teach it.” When we finished our phone conversation, I had the niggling feeling that I would be thinking about this whole subject again, but I had no idea how soon it would be. Six months later, only one month after Bert, my friend and mentor died, and after I had struggled with all my might to regain my dance, I underwent another terrifying operation accompanied by six weeks of daily radiation to remove an embryonic stage of breast cancer!
“Don’t give up,” everyone encouraged. “You did it before. You are a cancer survivor and you can do it again.”
I believed them and believed in myself and my dance. However, it was a lot harder to heal the wounds of radiation treatment than it was for me to come to terms with the odd shape the dimpled scar left in my breast. “Never mind,” I told myself. “Lovely breasts are not crucial in the dance—there is always costuming that can make them appear as if they were…” I returned to dance, egged on by the memory of Bert having told me about his learning ballet movements from aged ballerinas who could only sit on a chair with their gnarly legs askew, thumping the dance floor with a hefty cane to punctuate the Russian commands they wanted obeyed. If the crone divas could do it, I could do it, and after all, Martha Graham had danced until she was 92 years old…
My semi-restored condition lasted only a few months until I tore the meniscus of my left knee from dancing on the wonky foot that had been injured by the cancer operation and subsequent infection and death of the skin graft it took to repair it. An orthopedic surgeon repaired it, and I went to six months of physical therapy.
Once again I returned to dance—albeit less sure of myself.
By that time, I had become accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sure enough, it did. I threw away nearly all of my shoes because all of them hurt my foot and made it sore and red on top. Then, one day, out of the redness of the top of my foot emerged a sharp and pointed, blue plastic thread. I went back to the surgeon who pulled on it with a pair of tweezers. Yank! Yank! “Humm,” he mused, “It won’t come out. I guess it has grown into your flesh,” and he deftly snipped off the blue plastic he had pulled out. The remainder slipped back inside as he said, “Sometimes we just have to leave it there.” I went home and waited for my foot to heal again so that I could return to dance, but my foot did not heal. I found it difficult just to walk. I found another surgeon who was willing to open my foot another time and take out the tangle of blue plastic thread that had been used to sew my original melanoma site closed. Two inches of thread—knotted about every quarter inch. It had been a “purse closure suture” he told me in the operating room as he walked around showing it to everyone present.
Finally, I began to walk for exercise and began to attempt to dance once again!
Evidently, “Gott lacht.” Two months later, I found myself back in the hospital for pneumonia. Even though I had taken the pneumonia shot at the appropriate year, I developed pneumonia anyway due to a lowered immune system brought on by the radiation treatments I had had for the breast cancer. Additionally, that illness served to murder my gallbladder. I went home wearing a large bile bag on about three feet of flexible plastic tubing that collected bile for the next two months and had to be measured and emptied twice per day. When I was deemed well enough, I returned to the hospital O.R. to have the offending gallbladder removed along with the bag and its tubing that had been inserted through my side into my now damaged liver.
Finally, I was free of the collection bag and ugly tubing, and I could return to dance!
I had lost much of my student dance clientele and worst of all, could barely walk, let alone dance. “Don’t give up! You can do it!” everyone agreed. However, I was tired of repeated struggle and my students were even more tired of seeing it. I was gradually “dying onstage,” so to speak. Nonetheless, I had stayed too long at the fair, and in order to remain part of the dance, I retired and took up coaching dance like Bert’s little old crone ballerinas, perched on a chair and barking my orders—but without a cane. I found that the method works if you make it work, and if your students believe in your hard-won expertise. Still, there are many young dancers who cannot believe that an old woman could ever have been a young leith dancer. They find it inconceivable to commit their dance egos to the trial and error that must take place in order to mold the dancer into her strongest version of her own body and her creative vision. I believe that the dancer who does have the ability to see beyond what her reality is now, into what she could become as a unique dancer with her own body type and her own responses to music, is actually helped along by not having my body demonstrate my dance, causing her to attempt copying what I had been able perform.
Like my late instructor, Bert, my career has filled me full of stories of gigs and colorful events surrounding the dance that have served to inspire me and bring more meaning into dance movements. Life and misfortune have forced me to retire from performing, and I have been periodically relegated to a chair, vocalizing my vision of the possibility for moving an audience’s emotions that resides in our music. All I have to do really, is teach confidence by coaching my clients to explore unique ways to listen analytically, with imagination, creativity, and a sense of humor. I encourage my clients to conjure mind images and foster adaptation of them into movement. As long as there are young dancers who aspire to become more than mere replicas of other dancers, there will always be “a life after dance” for me whether I can walk or not.
“I am and always will be a dancer; listen to my cane thump on the dance room floor!”