Throughout my fellowship year I submitted quarterly reports. Upon my return to the states, the fellowship committee asked that I submit a final evaluation of the experience. Here goes.
I’d like to first start by acknowledging that nothing is as simple it seems from outside of the experience. Before launch or post landing, there’s a temptation to make things neat. “It’ll be simple. Or, that was easy.” I believe it’s how we’ve been traditionally taught to tell stories. There’s a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning all’s well, then something happens, the conflict, the rising action, distress signals, and then it’s resolved. All’s well that ends well? Or all ends as soon as it’s well?
I’m someone who likes order. I like happy endings. I like things to go as planned. Sometimes I’m a little bit boring like that. It’s okay. That said, this fellowship was a lesson of anti-all of that. And that’s the imperfect story I’m aiming to tell.
So, here we go.
"Tell us about your project.” That was the singular question for my fellowship interview. We talked for an hour.
At the start, my fellowship was about the body. It was about being cut off from “our” bodies as a nation, and wanting to find a language to let us access our bodies a little more. I proposed learning a new movement form, the Argentine tango, and innovating a notation form to allow dance and movement to be written on the page. It was about “our bodies” and accessibility, making the assumption that because there is no way to “write and read movement” we can’t access it. So, I was here to help “us” access our bodies, access movement.
I was surprised when I won the fellowship. My project was exactly what I wanted to do. It was a perfect synthesis of learning more movement to support my skating and creating something that would enrich my playwriting practice. That said, I wasn’t saving anyone and I wasn’t necessarily contributing to solve a huge world problem with my fellowship year. How could I have won?
Of course, my project was exactly in line with the proposal of the fellowship itself, which is to take a year to explore, immerse oneself in a host country, and ultimately complete the proposed independent research project. Nowhere does it talk about stopping an epidemic, saving a community from starvation, or protecting an endangered species. Those were just concepts in my head of what I assumed a fellowship should be. “Assume” and “should” are dangerous words.
So with these misconceptions, four colossal suitcases, and a headful of Spanish I boarded a plane. I flew for 17 hours. Then I got off a plane. I was in Buenos Aires.
To understand the experience of the first few months of my fellowship, if not the whole thing, one has to understand what the prior thirteen years of my life were like. Which is to say, insane. This is not about my parents. I have great parents. This is about me. I am incredibly driven, vaguely insecure, and intensively competitive. My report card and transcript will tell you that, in our culture, this is a winning combination. I’m an only child. It’s incredibly likely my parents saw that destructive gleam in my eye early on and decided to stop at me. If there were two, they correctly calculated I would take that sibling down. I would destroy him or her in any and every game of house, hopscotch, or jump rope. There would be only one real daughter, anyway.
So. I started skating. I started skating and it turned into skating five times a week. Before school, after school. All the time. I don’t even know if I liked skating at 6, but I wanted to be good at it.
I started high school. I started more honors classes than I should have and theater and skating and peer leadership and anything else I could get my grubby overachieving hands on. I don’t think I slept much, if at all.
I started college. I was surrounded by equally brilliant overachieving nerds. Well, they could study their pre-med and their history, I was going to win the theater game. I did plays, I joined theater boards, plural, I took five classes any time I could. Senior year I finally, finally started to get burnt out. So then I, of course, dropped a class and decided to get two of my plays produced. In a semester. That made sense. Then the clock was up and Brown kicked us out and called us “graduates.” And I won this fellowship.
I am used to being overcommitted, sleep deprived, and constantly stressed. It’s how I function, if not how I thrive.
Cue: Entering a country where I know no one, have no pre-made commitments, and only have a vague overarching goal for an entire year.
Cue: The beginning of my fellowship experience.
I had to make my own schedules, my own commitments, my own friends, my own life. There was no one to validate my choices. There was no ruler or guidelines for me to quantify my own experience. There were no grades! How could I know if I was doing a good job?
The fellowship experience was the antithesis of my last thirteen years. And I was all by myself. I had to get things sorted. I caught up on my sleep deficit. I learned what it means to get lost on the internet for hours. I wandered around Buenos Aires. I made promises to myself and then broke them and then felt guilty about it. I slowly made friends. I started dancing tango. However, starting to dance tango in the tango mecca of the world is a bit intimidating. You are surrounded by amazing dancers and crazies. I don’t want to tell you how many times I’ve heard “Tango saved my life.” Maybe it did. But it sounds crazy. You saved your life. It’s a dance.
Fellowship is a funny word. Doesn’t it mean community, fellow men, fellowship of the ring? There were moments in my fellowship where I was intensely lonely. Even when I didn’t feel lonely, I knew I was alone. There was no one to tell me how to “do the fellowship right” how to do my project “right.” That was the point. I was the only one who could do this fellowship, this individual project. To a graduate of commitments and obligations and deadlines and guidelines all imposed by outside forces, the concept that it was all up to me, even what it meant to do it “well,” was incredibly hard to grasp. I was singular and alone. When you vent about having “too much time,” or don’t quite know how to handle this gift of a year and funds and time, all of which are in no shortage, it’s hard for people to sympathize. Where are my fellows in the fellowship? It was lonely sometimes.
That said, if you dig a little deeper into etymology (I love etymology), fellowship actually means something else. It basically can be traced back to the Old Norse of felagi, which is a combination of fe (money, as in a fee) and lay (as in, to lay down a book), the combination of which is someone who puts down money for a venture. Forget fellowship of the rings. This makes sense. In this sense, I am a fellow who has received a gift of time and a gift of money to pursue a venture. But I have never been given this much time nor I have seen this much money! Life continues to be difficult.
When you don’t have to worry about money and material things, it boils down to worrying about the immaterial things.
Cue: Existential Crisis.
How am I spending my time? Am I spending it well? Am I wasting it? What if I’m doing this all wrong? What if I’m a fellowship failure?
I had these thoughts a lot.
Looking back at all I’ve done, these thoughts seem absurd, I know, but I was in the fray and had no measuring stick. I have never had to tell myself “Enough, this is enough. You are doing enough.” Someone else always had done that. But there was no one to do it in Buenos Aires. Except myself. I had never had to do it, I didn’t really know how. So I spent a lot of time in Buenos Aires worrying that it, whatever it was, wasn’t enough. That I wasn’t enough.
There’s a lot of beginning-middle-ending stories that happened in a year. This main one is about me and my relationship to the fellowship. Within that larger frame, however, there are stories about tango, about writing, about making a life in a new place, about, well, living outside of a academic setting. I’ll take a moment now to talk a little about these stories, as while I fretted, I was doing things as well. I promise.
To start, I was tango-ing. First class: Terrified. But made it through, thinking that the same word for chain, cadena, was the word for hips in Spanish. It’s not, hips are cadera .But it sounded the same! Second class: So terrified I went to the studio, wussed out at the corner when I saw intense looking people enter the studio, and went home and felt bad about it. Third class: I went, but boy, was it scary. Slowly, this improved.
The tango trajectory went something like this:
- Be terrified.
- Kind of get over being intimidated enough to let the competitive drive kick in and go to as many tango classes as possible every day at every different studio in the city.
- Have very very sore feet and get burnt out on tango.
- Start going again, but with a vague sense of moderation.
- Start hearing mixed messages from the teachers, the same habit that elicited a “very good” from one was a correction from other.
- Commence being very confused.
- Realize I need to learn tango under one theory from a variety of teachers all teaching that same theory.
- Go to DNI Tango, the place where I had gotten as far as the corner prior.
- Start taking tango at DNI. Continue being intimidated. After a few weeks of tangoing and talking to people, realize a lot of big improvements happen in private lessons.
- Start taking private lessons intensely.
- Actually start to improve and expand into the dance. And from there, the rest is history.
Likewise, similar trends started to emerge in other aspects of my life. I started out intimidated and then let that drive to excel and connect kick in and things started to happen. I met people. My Spanish began to improve. I kept practicing with the people I’d met and they turned into friends and my Spanish approached being more comprehendible. My friends turned into a community and my Spanish became a tool instead of a source of embarrassment. I was going out, I was becoming fluent, my tango was getting better, I was filling my time (and thus worrying a little less about it). I was doing things. Except for everything I wasn’t doing.
Which leads us back to our normal programming.
Prior to my departure I had this brilliant vision of how I was going to Win at my fellowship. I was going to be a tango rock star. I would be going to milongas (the evening social dances) every night. Everyone would want to dance with me. I would be writing in the morning in my attic studio with a steaming cup of coffee and a magnificent view of the city. That was what my fellowship was going to be.
As I began to settle in and things began to pick up, I was doing a lot, things were happening. It was good. Except. The things that were doing and happening weren’t the things I had imagined. It wasn’t going “to plan”. I wasn’t going to milongas. I didn’t really like milongas. They made me nervous. I told people I’d be there, and then at 10:30 pm, I’d look at my bed and I’d look at the bus route and my bed would win. And then I would feel guilty the next morning.
To contextualize- this is, logistically, what it meant to go to a milonga.
- 21:00: Eat Dinner. Do whatever.
- 21:45-ish. Start getting ready.
- 22:15: Leave, in the dark, by yourself, to go wait for a bus. Which could come anywhere from 1 minute to an hour later. Or shell out far too much for taxis. Neither is ideal.
- 22:45-23:30: Arrive to milonga. Time dependent on bus waiting time.
- 23:35 onward: Find your friend or two. And then, either get asked to dance by guys you don’t know (mixed to bad results) or no one asks you to dance and I feel inferior cause everyone else is dancing, but I’m not.
A caveat: I completely acknowledge that if I were to have gone out more to Milongas, I would get to know more people and it wouldn’t have been so terrible. But because I didn’t go out, I never knew anyone and because I never knew anyone, I didn’t go out. I know there’s a vicious cycle in this. But then also consider that I am a morning person. I am the morningest morning person you will ever meet. I’d rather wake up than stay up. A lot of times I didn’t want to be up at midnight or 1 am dancing, I’d rather get up at 6 or 7 and DO THINGS, WIN, with the sun up no less.
But wouldn’t I bite the night bullet, for tango? Didn’t I LOVE tango? Turns out, I did not. I like tango, don’t get me wrong. But I was realizing, given the choice between dinner with friends or dancing with strangers, I would pick dinner with friends every time. At this point I’ve been skating for about nineteen years. I have a movement practice. I wasn’t a 45-year old woman undergoing a divorce. I didn’t need tango to save me. Skating had saved me. Many a time. And I wanted to learn tango, I wanted to be friends with tango. But I didn’t need tango. I think this is okay. But it also meant I wasn’t sacrificing everything for tango on a daily basis. So combine my morning person-ness, with my fear of the night and strangers, and my lack of desperation for tango to save me, and I wasn’t going to milongas. I was being social, I was going to class daily, I was learning and getting a whole lot better, but I wasn’t going to milongas. Milongas shmilongas, you say? But my dream! My plan to become a tango rock star! Cue: more guilt and feeling “I’m not doing this right.”
I also wasn’t writing “enough.” The story of my writing is short. Which is to say, over a year of writing and not writing and feeling guilty about it I learned about my process. Which is to say, I handwrite. I spent several months, more than I’d like to admit, jotting stuff down in passing and then sitting down at the computer and declaring “Now I Am Going to Write” and staring at a blank .doc for about five minutes and then getting lost on the tunnels of the internet and tumblr. This happened a lot. And then I would say, “I am not writing!” and feel bad. I was writing, small bits. But by hand.
And finally, later than I should have been, I finally said, “Eff the computer, the Microsoft word, eff the internet, you guys are all in cahoots against me and my writing. I’m going to be Phyllis Wheatly, I’m going to be Tess Slesinger, I’m going to be Jane Eyre. (If you don’t know who these people are, look them up.) I’m going to handwrite. And I did. And I wrote. I actually wrote. I wrote a whole play. And then I had to type it up. This took days. But I wrote, and I finished a draft. And another one. And I found my process to writing. That said, I’m staring at a third draft that needs a major rewrite because all the prior rewrites were dinky scared rewrites. So, I’ve gotta figure out a better rewriting process. But in my time in Argentina, I learned how to write. I learned my process. Or I started to learn my process. There’s still a lot to go.
That said, I had been saying, “Once I finish my play, I’ll do this movement notation. This thing I proposed for my project. I’ll make language that’s about accessibility, about becoming comfortable with “our bodies.” In proposing having better access and comfort with our bodies, I’d mixed two very important and distinct subjects. I’d combined writing with bodies, “because the people of our nation aren’t comfortable with their bodies.” It was once I’d finished my play, and was staring at the moment where I dive into this notation that I realized my mistake. I had misconstrued myself with the nation and mixed it with a cause about which I feel strongly (accessibility). Body wasn’t the nation’s problem (although there are huge problems with how we, as a culture, approach the female form. Don’t get me started). It was my problem. Accessibility, now that, is a society problem.
Accessibility, first. I’d say we didn’t have a language to access our bodies. To access movement. True. We don’t. There is no universal notation. But also realized, through tango, through talking to people, body language itself, is the universal language. A completely essential, nonverbal one at that. And to try and make a new universal notation is to undermine and invalidate a system that seems to be working pretty darn well. And in thinking, I realized what really gets me angry isn’t that we can’t access movement, but that there isn’t wide access to theater. The cost of a Broadway ticket is absurd. And even if you’re going to an off-off-off Broadway show, if the ticket costs twenty dollars and you’re a struggling single mom with two kids, I doubt you’ll drop sixty dollars on an hour and a half of entertainment when the movie theaters (as overpriced as they are) cost half. There’s an imbalance of who’s coming to theater, and I’d argue the people who need it most and can later make the best theater are the ones through no fault of their own are unable to come see a show.
I want to make theater accessible. That is actually the goal. I’d also come across closed door restaurants in Buenos Aires as a phenomenon. There were a lot. And I began to wonder if I could pair a closed door restaurant (premium food, exclusivity, and secrecy at a premium price) with an open theater (innovative experience at a very very accessible price, if not free). Although they two concepts are obviously at odds with each other, I wondered if they could also be used to support each other. So I began to interview the owners of closed door restaurants. I also know that I’m going to end up being an entrepreneur myself. Between playwriting and teaching figure skating, I’m going to be living a freelance lifestyle. Regardless of whether or not this Closed Door Restaurant – Open Door Theater idea could work or not, talking to pioneers in making a lifestyle of their choosing hardly seemed like a bad idea. I knew I’d be doing the same, in some respect or another. And I conducted the interviews to see if the Closed Restaurant-Open Theater idea had any possibility. Mixed answers. Lots of good advice. Worth the effort.
But in re-evaluating where my passion for “accessibility” was actually placed, my project changed from learning tango and making a notation to learning tango, writing this play, and conducting a series of interviews to start the lifetime process of figuring out how to make truly accessible theater. That last bit will take awhile.
So, the fuel for accessibility had been redirected to where the passion actually lay. And then the bit about bodies. I’d misconstrued my own discomfort with my body with a national problem. There are national problems in regards to body, but the one I actually needed to and was equipped to address during my fellowship year was my own.
I started eating better. I had more time to cook and less processed food at my disposal. I was dancing. I was walking a lot. I lost 12 pounds over the year.
Despite a victory over the scale, there was a battle inside that had yet to be won. I noticed that I’d go to daytime milongas (solving the nighttime issues, which were many) and still would feel intimidated by the women dancers. They were slimmer, they were prettier, and this made them “better dancers.” There weren’t actually better dancers. But I built them up to be, because of how I felt about myself. I don’t’ really know how one builds up self-confidence. I found this quote and posted in on a sticky on my desktop.
“But more than anything, it lies in my ability to truly not give an eff what anyone thinks of me. Because I know what I think.” – Amy Schumer
I read it every day. I ate better. I lost weight.. I heard people say “That’s so cool!” every time I told them about my fellowship. I was writing. The days passed. Things went well. Things went poorly. I went to tango class. I got better. I had a talk with a dear friend about plans and how they’re supposed to not go “to plan.” That you should use the space between the original plan and the actual reality to learn, to gather data, to figure out what to do next time, but not to beat yourself up. I began to find peace with where I was, with what I doing. I stopped being so hard on myself. All the energy I spent worrying got funneled into experiencing the city, being present and appreciative of what I was doing, where I was. I began to relax, to focus on what mattered to mean instead of just worrying. I threw away everyone else’s measuring stick and finally began to use my own.
At DNI Tango Studio I met a tango friend named Benedikt. We started to rent a studio and practice tango to pop music. Benedikt became a brother. I’m pretty sure dancing tango with a brother-like figure in the middle of the day to pop music all by yourselves is the anti-tango. But that was the tango I loved. That’s the tango that saved me, that I fell in love with. That was my tango. And that’s what I danced.
On my last full day in Buenos Aires I stopped by DNI and said my goodbyes. Me in flip-flops at the milonga, I hadn’t come to dance, but just to say farewell. I cried so much my contacts clouded up. I didn’t know that could happen. But Dana, the founder of DNI called me upstairs where they were having their afternoon milonga. And she called me up for a “last dance,” where basically they put on music and I cycled through a bunch of friends and pros and dance a bit with everyone. I had flip flops on. But I didn’t’ care. I didn’t care about the flip flops or how I was dancing or what the other people thought. I knew what I had done and what I thought about what I had done, and I’d done well. I’d found my tango. I’d written my play. I’d taken a photo every day. I’d made Buenos Aires my city. I’d made a life of my own. I’d become okay with me and stopped needing external approval.
At the end of it, I could see it and how far that I’d come.
I finished my dance with Juan, who’d given me my first private class. A strange coming back to how you start, but it all being different. No heels, better dancing, and instead of caring about the outside, just enjoying being inside the dance.
More tears. A good bye party. A morning walk through the city.
I got on a plane. I cried a lot. Another pair of contacts, clouded. I got off a plane. I cried over a breakfast of huevos rancheros. And just like that I was back.
But I was different. And I am different. I don’t know exactly when the shift happened, honestly, but I do know I worry less about what people think, I laugh louder, I’m braver, fierce. Though, I still do like my mornings. The tan on the back of my legs is starting to fade. I’m losing my Spanish. I think I’ve gained a pound. But these are superficial changes, and I know that despite the distance between me and that city, there are deeper and lasting changes that will stay. And those changes, and the moments, and days and hours that brought them, those are the fellowship experience.
To arrive in a place where you know no one with heavy suitcases, a head full of dreams, and a vague goal. That’s the fellowship start. To have too much time and feel vaguely lost, and not see the progress that’s happening due to the preoccupation of time and “doing it right” that was my fellowship middle. It’d be easy to say the fellowship end is tangoing brilliantly, writing a play, being fluent in Spanish, learning to manage time, relax, and trust myself. I’ve done it all and now it’s over; The End.
False. I’ve done all that, yes. But it’s hardly over, in truth, it’s just the beginning.