Rocka My Soul

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Rocka My Soul

Dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company. (Photo: Nan Melville)

And suddenly the glass case shattered. You know the one, perhaps. I’d been agitated by it for the past hour or so, sitting as I was maybe 25 rows back from the stage at Chicago’s ornate Auditorium Theater, watching the Alvin Ailey troupe dance their hearts out, moving their bodies with such lithe precision and grace.

A huge hunger, a wanting, a hope stirred in the cage inside my breast. “Appreciating” a “performance” wasn’t enough. Oh God. This great inner wanting yearned for a freedom we don’t much talk about these days, in our relative affluence and comfort, but the music and the movement of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with its roots in Africa, in Gospel revival — in growing up black in America — went so much deeper than that. I didn’t want to feel separated from the dancers, some disengaged spectator watching fine art in motion behind the glass case of culture. That felt so wrong.

I had never seen them perform before and didn’t know what to expect. The troupe has been around since 1959. I guess I waited till I was old enough to be truly ready for them: this heritage of African-American dance, born of the “blood memories,” as Alvin Ailey himself described them, of a man who grew up black in Texas in the 1930s and ’40s.

“There was the white school up on the hill,” he said of his upbringing in Rogers, Texas, “and the black Baptist church, and the segregated theaters and neighborhoods. Like most of my generation, I grew up feeling like an outsider, like someone who didn’t matter.”

After the second intermission, the troupe moved into the show’s finale, its signature, multi-part dance called “Revelations.” As I say, I didn’t know what to expect. I admit this sheepishly. Ailey choreographed “Revelations” in 1960. It’s been performed in over 70 countries in the half century since then and has been described as “the most widely seen modern dance work in the world.”

Pia Catton, writing last year in the Wall Street Journal, said of “Revelations” that it “reliably brings audiences to their feet, even dancing in the aisles. The combination of modern dance and spirituals creates a sense of uplift so infectious that most people leave the theater either singing the music or trying to dance the steps.”

Like I say, I didn’t know this. But something in me was waking up. And then Vernard Gilmore began dancing a solo number called “I Wanna Be Ready.” The dance is an aching spiritual cry to mortality.

“I wanna be ready . . . to put on the long white robe.”

This is gospel. It’s deeply religious — and I’m not a religious person in the least. I avoid describing myself spiritually as anything at all, except open, willing to listen, reverent, sort of Buddhist, sort of agnostic. I was raised as a Lutheran. My moral template begins with the concept “turn the other cheek.” I listen to everyone, remain skeptical, believe in the soul, communicate as best I can with the universe that exists beyond my ego, understand that I will die and sense that death is not a cul-de-sac of non-existence but rather a transition to . . . God knows what.

“I wanna be ready . . .”

As I sat in my seat, listening and watching, the words and the movement pierced something profound. “I would not be a sinner. I’ll tell you the reason why. ’Cause if my Lord should call on me, Lord, I wouldn’t be ready to die.”

The words I heard had nothing to do with specific religious precepts on how to behave. The words I heard were barely words at all, but a plaintive, prayerful cry commingling with music and the billowing movement of a young man on stage dressed in white. And what I heard was an homage to life. To be ready to die means no more than to be alive with conviction and integrity, to live fully, to say yes to life in this moment — now — and breathe it in, looking, reaching beyond what I think I know.

And as I breathed this in, the yearning caged inside me freed itself. Tears filled my eyes. I became aware that I was clapping and swaying with the music and so was pretty much everyone else in the theater.

And then it ended. But as the dance numbers that comprise “Revelations” continued, I was fully present, no longer ruminating about some mysterious, socially imposed divide between performer and audience. I was spiritually part of the performance.

The last dance, performed by the whole company, was “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” — so big and spiritual, with women in yellow dresses, men in their Sunday finest. I was utterly open to the joy it exuded, yet aware, in spite of myself, of the pain — the depths of America’s history of cruelty and racism, the “blood memories” — from which this joy flowed. And the music and the dance went on and on, filling the moment like few things in my life have ever filled a moment. Time didn’t simply stop; it vanished, as we, the audience, stood swaying and dancing in the aisles.

And this is the heritage of America’s pain. It ends in joy. It ends in redemption. I can still hear the music and feel the dancing inside me. “Oh rocka my soul.”

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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