Martha Graham said that “the body never lies.” She built her technique and vocabulary on contractions. That is what my body involuntarily, automatically did upon entering my former dance teacher’s home. My dad caught the Roanoke Times update, so my mom and I stopped by Saturday afternoon. Everything was up for auction to support her move to an assisted living facility. I went mostly to say hello and be supportive, unaware I would have such a visceral experience.
Then I saw the box. My hips tilted, my stomach lunged towards my spine, my breath escaped upward in a contraction that brought tears to my eyes. The small wooden box held student registration cards and fees. Something we saw everyday when we signed in to class, something she touched everyday. I took ballet class Monday and Wednesday, morning and evening; contemporary class on Tuesday or Thursday maybe; afrocentric movement a couple evenings a week; and the occasional tap class on Saturday morning. I started teaching class there – a pre-ballet class on Monday and subbing a beginner ballet class on Thursday afternoon – before starting my own ballet ensemble.
It was like walking through a museum with the reverence of being in church. We all walked slowly, spoke softly, offered hugs while we pondered the greater significance of the moment. Besides being a stunning dancer, Carol Crawford Smith is a prolific visual artist. Much of the artwork that was familiar to me was already sold, but one print remained that hung in the Draper Road studio. As a dancer and as a woman of color, Carol celebrated the diversity of bodies. Hers was the only studio I ever attended without a strict dress code; instead, we were encouraged to wear bright colors that represented our personalities, that inspired us to move. Part of the Africanist aesthetic is the “get down” or ability to flex one’s joints and muscles which symbolizes one’s ability to live and ownership of the body. The Center of Dance and UJIMA both celebrated the fullness of living in one’s body and sharing that energy. She frequently shared with us from Kwanzaa traditions, such as: kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) which means self determination, to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Carol Crawford Smith changed my life, and many lives in a small town in Southwestern Virginia. It was our good fortune that a former Dance Theatre of Harlem artist chose to make this community her home. Carol’s beautiful spirit bears witness to the power of choice. Life handed her harsh battles and she responded with joy.
I’ve been home for about a month as I’m in the process of a job/life change. At first glance, it seems like nothing changes in this town. But with this extended visit, I am able to peel back the many layers of who I am. There is something powerful about an embodied remembrance. When I picked up Carol’s registration box, it signaled to me that a new chapter was coming. My life changed as a knock-kneed twelve year old walking into her studio, and it changed again as I stood in her house, a monument to her determined spirit.