By Mimi Quillin
When I was at Boston Conservatory of Music majoring in dance, a group of us visited a hospice and performed for the people living there. More than three decades of performing later and it is still one of my most memorable experiences.
The performance – a Christmas show – started. Lacking a proper stage we danced in a big room with our audience in wheel chairs surrounding us. Every way I turned there was a new face watching me. Knowing that our audience was terminally ill made me cautious about how to approach them. They looked so delicate, propped up in their wheelchairs, with their heads covered in scarves to keep the cold from their heads. I wondered if I needed to alter my presentation in some way to make them more comfortable. I was terrified, but I kept dancing and smiling and pretending that my audience was perfectly healthy. As my nerves calmed down I began to see the looks of sheer joy on their faces. I don’t know how to describe it without sounding trite. Maybe it’s just one of those things that you have to experience to understand. I was only 20 years old and I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to be dying. I definitely didn’t think it included smiling or expressions of joy. It was my first experience of understanding of the power of dance to communicate. I had spent an awful lot of time working at becoming a dancer and a lot of that time is solitary. It’s self-driven because let’s face it – no one else cares if you can point your feet or jump high or how many pirouettes you can do except you! And all that work was now giving something to someone else. And much to my surprise, it was giving something to me, too! I took a giant step forward feeling the responsibility and power flowing through me. It was different from my parents or my teachers applauding me. I now had power to make contact and to bring joy.
Years later when I wasn’t getting much work because of hitting middle age – and that is bad news for a dancer (especially a female dancer) – I decided to seek out that experience again. I took a job as an artist in residence at Calvary Hospice in New York City. I went there wanting to relive that strong connection to an audience that gave me so much power. I honestly didn’t take the job for altruistic reasons, as much as I would like to pretend I did. I was looking for something. I knew that I was needed there. It was that simple.
Dancing is not at the top of the activities list in a hospice, but I discovered that every single person I came into contact with had a relationship to dancing. I led a large group in dancing, I danced with patients in their rooms, I talked about dance with a dying dancer, I talked to a man who met his wife dancing to Artie Shaw before Artie Shaw became famous! I remember one patient especially— Mr. Lettman. He wasn’t actually ready to be in the hospice yet but he had no where else to go and he was seriously ill with prostate cancer. He had been a New York cab driver since immigrating there from the Bahamas. Knowing he could no longer walk, I began our time together by suggesting that he could move as much as he wanted to right there in his bed. It made sense to him and he really missed moving. I put on a CD of the song “Wade in the Water” and prepared to lead him in some movement. Well….Mr. Lettman showed me! He closed his eyes and he started by putting his palms together in a prayer. As he expanded his movements I realized I was witnessing a movement prayer. One of the nurses entered during his dance and she stopped and watched with me. She looked surprised but the joy in his body was contagious and she began to smile and nod to me. We both knew it was a very precious and special moment to behold. The music ended and Mr. Lettman opened his eyes and smiled at me and said, “Thank you.” I thanked him back. I believe that was some of the most authentic dance I have ever had the privilege to see. I was included in his prayer.
My play, Dégagé (disengage), was born of my journal record of experiences like the one I had with Mr. Lettman. I grew to care very deeply about many of the people at Calvary. And I learned to care the moment I met them because very often they were not there when I returned. They were on a bridge and had already started their journey.
The residents of Calvary allowed me in to the most private of moments in life – their death. And when I sat with them or moved with them people often told me all about themselves. I suspect if we had met under other circumstances that they might not have been so open, but when it’s your time, you want to be remembered.
It was an honor to be here with them. Dégagé (disengage) seeks to honor every single one of them.
Mimi Quillin is a performer, choreographer and writer. Her original play, Dégagé (disengage) will have its world premiere at the Hangar Theatre July 20-29, 2017. Visit the Hangar’s website to learn more and to purchase tickets.