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  • Kathleen McGuire Gaines

How dance serves our pain

Julia Erickson takes her final bow

When dance patrons poured into the Benedum Center Sunday afternoon, they did so with the heaviest of hearts, grief clung to their faces. We had all arrived to celebrate the final performance of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre star, Julia Erickson. But just 24 hours earlier a white nationalist had entered a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, just 2.5 miles from my home, and slaughtered 11 people, injuring six more, with an AR 15 assault rifle. When I entered the theatre I worried that the events might also destroy the joy of watching this final dance by someone I love so deeply. But I found something else.

The day before I had departed my home with my almost-three-year-old daughter in tow at 9:45 am – the same moment the shooter entered the Tree of Life synagogue. We loaded into the car and sped off down Pittsburgh’s main artery of 376 West to arrive at the Children’s Museum right when they would open at 10 am. As the Squirrel Hill exit entered my rear view, I noticed three cop cars flying down the highway in the opposite direction. They were followed by two more, and then a hoard of ambulances. I called my husband who was still at home and told him not to leave the house – something terrible had happened in Squirrel Hill.

I am not originally from Pittsburgh, but it is my chosen home. I love its “biggest small town in America” vibe. But Pittsburgh is hurting deeply right now. Between the shooting Saturday, the killing of Antwon Rose, Jr., the massacre of a family in their back yard in Wilkinsburg, and the revelation that hundreds of people have been victims of assault at the hands of Catholic clergy in our state, every single person in this city has been recently traumatized. And we all carried that trauma with us into the theatre that cold, rainy fall afternoon.

All of my life I have led with emotion – unable to contain tears when they arrive. But over the last three years, motherhood has instinctively lent me more stoicism. I think somewhere deep down I fear that my sadness will permeate my daughter, the way that an early morning fog clings to the fibers of your jacket. And so I have cried less, even when I may have needed to cry more.

The company performed three works to Mozart accompaniment. The first was the full staging of Divertimento No. 15 by George Balanchine. The variation Julia danced was the same I danced for my first ever solo performance on stage with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School 20 years ago. My heart swelled at this memory and I felt a calming gratitude to have the opportunity to see her dance it. The final dance of her 17-year PBT career was Kylián’s Petite Mort. Once of my favorite pieces and one that highlighted Julia’s inherent emotive quality perfectly.

When the curtain fell the audience screamed with anticipation to see Julia off. And through what must have been at least 15 minutes of clapping, as bouquet after bouquet was placed at her feet, something deep inside of me cracked open and I began to sob.

I cried for my friend on stage with the bittersweet cocktail of tears that celebrates the joy of accomplishment and the sadness of finality. I wept for the fallen and for the pain of their families – some of whom are friends. I cried for the dance career I never fulfilled and the ovation I never heard because depression had crept in and removed me from my joy of dance more than a decade ago. I tried to imagine the world that is being left for my daughter. And I cried because Julia had woken all of this up inside of me – without saying a word.

As the house lights came up, I frantically tried to wipe the running mascara from my face, and immediately made eye contact with a friend, also a former dancer, across the isle. Without a word we met in the isle and we hugged. I whispered to her, aware that hundreds of people could see my emotion, "I don't know what happened, it all just came out, and what a terrible time for it." She smiled and said without hesitation, "There is no better time or place than this, don't you think?"

I share this with you because I want anyone who joins this movement to know that my effort to address the gaps in mental health support for dancers is not a witch hunt, and it is not a vendetta. The theatre is my church and dance is my faith. Dancing has been the most profound constant in my life – for better or worse. And because I love dance, its ability to impact me is profound. I know that is true for other dancers as well. I have not yet been able to close the crack that opened on Sunday, but there is healing in its exposure. I want to serve mental health needs in dance because the art form is so powerful for those who live and love it, and because I need its presence to grow and to heal.

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