Jim Ross

The Naked Leopard

For decades, Dad kept a repro of Degas’ The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage over the piano. It inspired him to sit at the piano and sing. To me, dance was a philosophical concept. I liked what Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “I would only believe in a God who could dance.” I’d never seen anyone dance on a live stage and didn’t feel drawn to it either.

That changed one summer. I was 24, an avid long-distance runner, a psych grad student, and the only male living in a group house with six women.

One of them, Laurie, was enrolled in a summer program jointly sponsored by American University and the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Farm Park, which had just opened. Renowned dance companies accepted summer residencies to choreograph and teach. One night, Laurie enticed some of us to tag along to see live dance at Wolf Trap.

The performance that rocked my soul came from Erick Hawkins. The first male dancer in Martha Graham’s company, the male lead in her Appalachian Spring, and briefly Graham’s spouse, Hawkins had broken with many Western traditions in dance. He claimed heavy influence from First Nations, a Japanese aesthetic, and Zen thought. That night, we saw his imitation of a big cat in Naked Leopard.

Wearing only a scarlet dance belt—a loin cloth that gives support—the 62-year-old dancer conveyed a quiet sense of confidence, using fluidly purposeful yet effortless movement set to music by Zoltán Kodály. He moved slowly, stealthily, deliberately, so much like a leopard that we overlooked his human form. When he sprang, we saw his inner strength and sureness as if it happened through him and not by him. 

Seeing I was intrigued, Laurie told me that Hawkins’ bible was Zen in the Art of Archery by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel. I found the book and read it aloud, marking it with black and red felt-tip pens. The Zen master is quoted as saying to his student in the book:

Put the thought of hitting the target out of your mind. The spider dances her web without knowing there are flies that will get caught in it. The fly, dancing nonchalantly on a sunbeam, gets caught in the net without knowing what’s in store. But through both of them it dances, and inside and outside are united in this dance. So, too, the archer hit his target without having aimed.

The subtext behind Naked Leopard and the explicit message in Zen in the Art of Archery were the same: instead of focusing on being the agent, we should allow it to happen through us. We’re the vehicle, the instrument, the host that allows it to happen. My pockets were nearly empty; nevertheless, I bought four more copies of Herrigel’s book. I was enthralled with dance, in particular with Naked Leopard, and with a new set of philosophical notions for thinking about movement and, for that matter, everything.

Summer ended, the lease ran out, and we dispersed. But the following year, Laurie returned for another summer of dance at American University/Wolf Trap. Twyla Tharp was among those in residence that summer. At Laurie’s suggestion, I went to classes to observe and was intrigued by Twyla’s teaching methods. Instead of describing and modeling the movements she wanted her students to perform, Tharp barked off a series of numbers like a quarterback. Her students moved in unison, with a jerky, almost mechanical quality.

Laurie persuaded me to try dancing. After I said yes, she got the okay from a teacher at the Dance Theater Workshop to let me slip in. Fortunately, when I showed up, nobody asked me to prove I belonged. After the first class, the teacher said, “You have great runner’s legs.” I took that as a polite way of saying that I performed leaps like a dead lizard. Then she asked, “Are you running away or running toward?”

“I was running away, but now I’m running toward,” I replied. By week’s end, I saw that I was taking far too much attention away from the paying students. Baking a loaf of Anadama bread, I crossed the street and rested the still-warm loaf at the teacher’s feet. “Thank you,” I told her, bowing and slipping back out. I had runner’s legs, not dancer’s legs. 

At summer’s end, I drove Laurie to New York in my beat-up VW bus so she could begin her career in dance. Over the next few months, we consumed a mad rush of dance: Lar Lubovich’s company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Wendy Perron and Wendy Summit at the Cubiculo; Icarus performed by the renamed Alvin Ailey City Center Dance Theater. Dudley Williams danced as Icarus and Ailey’s heir-apparent, Judith Jamison, as the sun. But my clearest memory was of Erin Martin and Kei Takei performing Once Upon a Journey, with the two sitting on stage eating imaginary spaghetti. By show’s end, Laurie and I were ravenous for pasta.

Then, back in Washington, DC, I made a decision: I would give up running to dance. I signed up for lessons at two different studios following radically different teaching philosophies, Wigman and Hawkins. Laurie told me, “Too soon, that’s nuts.”

My experiment in dance lasted nine months before I returned to running. For years, though, I experienced invisible strings—an image suggested by Hawkins and Zen in the Art of Archery—pulling me along, one on either hip.

I married Ginger, a dancer. Ginger, like Laurie, spent summers in the early 1970s taking classes in the American University/Wolf Trap Program. Once, we sat at Graham’s feet as she talked about her life, career, Hawkins, and Appalachian Spring. For decades, when writing research proposals to get funding and keep people employed, I let it happen through me. The writing often felt effortless and I encouraged others to do the same in writing, running, dancing, even child-rearing.

A few years ago, I retired. Now, when writing nonfiction, I let it dance through my fingertips where they meet my keyboard. I no longer run or dance; I walk. 

Nietzsche said, “All great thoughts come while walking.” Movement—walking, running, dancing, swimming—causes the synapses to fire better and make connections they otherwise couldn’t make.

Hawkins, whose body was his instrument, was still choreographing and performing well into his 80s.

I asked Katherine Duke, artistic director of Erick Hawkins Dance, whether a video of Naked Leopard exists. She said no, but Hawkins left behind his idiosyncratic choreographer’s notation to aid in its recreation. 

Libby Smigel, the dance archivist in the Library of Congress Music Division, gave me black-and-white stills by Michael Avedon of Hawkins dancing Naked Leopard. I asked Libby whether she’d read Zen in the Art of Archery. She said, “Not yet, but there’s a copy in Erick’s archives.” I sent Libby a copy. 

After seeing Hawkins in the Naked Leopard and buying my first copy of his bible, I’ve given away at least one hundred copies of Zen in the Art of Archery. I always keep a few copies on the shelf, right alongside the one I marked up. Now and then I re-read it. And whenever I find the opportunity, I remind people to let it happen through them.

© Jim Ross

After a rewarding career in public health research, Jim Ross pursued creative pursuits in 2015. With a graduate degree from Howard University, he’s published in Hippocampus, Newfound, The Atlantic, Typehouse; and other journals on five continents. He’s also recently written and acted in a one act play and appeared in a documentary limited series. Jim and his wife split time between Silver Spring, Maryland and Great Cacapon, West Virginia.

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