When memoir works, it gives the reader a razor-thin slice of life, serves it up on a prepared slide and examines it through the microscope of the memoirist’s eye. Renée E. D’Aoust’s memoir, Body of a Dancer, not only works but gives the reader an unfalteringly honest and brutally clear-sighted vision of the nature of an artist’s passion. From the opening pages, D’Aoust establishes that the dancer is not after beauty: “The body of a dancer is tired before it is worn out…The body of a dancer has an ache in her abdomen…The body of a dancer has shin splints up the front leg…” (5-6). In short, the dancer courts pain.
When D’Aoust talks about entering “Martha’s House of Pelvic Truth” she is talking about the literal truth any athlete or artist understands that to achieve greatness, to achieve beauty, the body must suffer. In chronicling that suffering, the book ranges from personal accounts on the author’s own life in dance to essays such as “Ballerina Blunders & a Few Male Danseurs” that provide insight into the history of modern dance.
Three of the essays were cited as “notable” by Best American Essays, including one of my favorites: “Graham Crackers.” Here, we are introduced to one of the choreographers in Martha Graham’s studio, a woman named Pearl: “Pearl speaks kindly because usually the girl has no talent. Pearl does not speak kindly to those with talent” (14). Pearl’s strategy provides an apt metaphor for the dancer’s experience. The more talent you have, the more passion to create art, the more suffering you will endure. The chapter begins with an image of a bloodstain on the floor: “Advanced dancers doing sparkles on the diagonal across the floor jump before the blood and land afterward” (13). The image says volumes. The spilling of blood in the service of art is a fact. Unadorned and un-explicated. Serious dancers deal with it. They do what is asked of them: “Don’t think because you haven’t been taught to think. Do it. Whatever they want. Again and again. All art is the act of showing up….Movement to a dancer is like breathing to mortal souls. You must bleed. Bleed now!” (20)
The memoir is refreshingly void of self-reflection, never descending to bathos as so many lesser memoirs do. Instead, it simply presents image after image of discipline, the kind of discipline that erases self-pity because there is no room for it. “There is no tomorrow in the world of dance because goals are too far out of reach, so use up everything” (20).
The end result is a true portrait of the artist, the dancer as one who “shows up,” one who denies his or her body, his or her desires, in the service of an art that most of society will fail to appreciate. These artists do it because they have to because they must. D’Aoust’s point is that we are the worse for it if we romanticize the sacrifice of the artist/athlete. Too often as a society, we focus on the rewards: the gold medal in the Olympics or the rave review after the performance. Renée E. D’Aoust reminds us that for the true artist/athlete it was never about those surface rewards, but all about the discipline, the sacrifice.
About the reviewer:
Peter Grandbois is the author of The Gravedigger, The Arsenic Lobster: A Hybrid Memoir, and Nahoonkara. His essays and short fiction have been shortlisted for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio.