From time to time, NDEO will be featuring guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the field of dance education. We continue this series with an entry from Sonya Monts, owner and director of The Dancer’s Extention in Saluda, NC. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please email Shannon Dooling-Cain at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guest Post: Dancing Through Grief
Sonya Monts, Owner and Director of The Dancer’s Extension, Saluda, NC
This year has been very difficult for me, and I am grateful for the kind thoughts and support of so many NDEO members who have become my friends and colleagues in dance education. Dance, not only physically moving but also teaching happy children, has been crucial for me to work through the grief over the death of my husband, Thomas, to cancer, and also both of my maternal grandparents, all within three months time.
Continuing to teach was important to me because it was not only a part of my normal weekly routine, but normal for my own two children, too. My son is accustomed to mom being at the studio, and my daughter is one of my students. I also knew my 45 enrolled students were depending on me, and they wanted to continue their dance classes. As many teachers know, teaching is somewhat of a performance in and of itself. You have to be “on”, smiling, focused and ready for anything. For me, to be “on” every afternoon was an escape from the grief, even if only for a few hours.
In ways I think Thomas lived vicariously through my dance career. He encouraged me to open and direct my own studio before I even agreed to it myself. He supported me in every class while earning my Certificate in Dance Education (CiDE) through the NDEO, brainstorming ideas and proofreading papers. Although never trained in a performing art, Thomas had plenty of ideas of how things should take place on the stage. He was constantly suggesting songs, props, backdrops and stage placement. Some of his ideas were silly and I squashed them before he could even finish telling me his thoughts, but others were quite amazing - I took them and ran with them. Over a 26 year relationship (we dated for six years before we were married for 20 years), it would be hard for me to list all the inspirations in my dance career that were actually Thomas’!
Teaching was an escape from the grief, but dance can also be used as a way to express emotion and share the grieving process. It has been my custom to perform a solo after the students’ last number, before our group finale in the Spring Concert, so it only seemed fitting that I choreograph and perform a solo in my husband’s honor and memory. As he had so many times before, Thomas inspired this dance, too. During one of his last full-brain radiation treatments, I was driving us home from Mission Hospital in Asheville. Thomas had his phone plugged into the car stereo, and was scrolling through his vast music library. He chose to play Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song played and we listened at least through the first verse, and then he said, “This is a great song... a classic.” There was a moment of silence. I then said, “You know, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the second choice for my Miss South Carolina competition”. He said he remembered. I continued remembering, telling him that we decided on Here Comes The Sun because Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was simply too sad for a state competition. He then said, “Yes. It is a sad song,” and with those words a tear rolled down his cheek. Although neither of us was willing to admit it, we both knew without saying the words that his time here on earth was coming to an end. After another moment of silence, he then said, “I think you should dance to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road this year”. I replied, “For you, I'll make it happen.”
So, for Thomas, I took every ounce of my talent and courage to make it happen. Dance is an art, and art reflects life. Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, was brilliant in her ability to relate human emotion through movement. As a pioneer for dance arts, she gave power for dance to express grief. I began by following her example.
I found it too emotionally difficult to choreograph to Elton John's original version of the song, so I located the version by Sara Bareilles, and collaborated with my music editor to have the music cut for my comfort for choreographing and performing. To prepare to choreograph, I repeatedly listened to Elton’s version, watched Youtube videos of both Sara Bareilles performing the song live, and Elton singing Goodbye England’s Rose from Princess Diana’s funeral. I studied a video of Martha Graham’s Lamentation. In all of these, the single most common thread was a heavy, weighted feeling. Not a feeling of being grounded necessarily, not a feeling of strength or power; but, a feeling of a heavy, heavy weight that holds you down to the ground and makes you nearly immobile and in ways downright bitter and angry. That is grief, and that is what I needed to convey through dance.
Throughout the process of choreographing this piece, my overriding thought was to constantly ask God, Thomas and the Universe the first line of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics: “When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land?” I have landed in this huge pit of grief, but where is Thomas and where are my grandparents going to land? It is my belief that Thomas has landed among the Saints, and is walking the Yellow Brick Road in Heaven. He's walking that Yellow Brick Road with both my grandparents, too. The time wasn't right for me to choreograph and perform Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the Miss South Carolina competition in 1995. The time was right for our 2017 Spring Concert.
In order to keep my students from having to cope with my burden of grief, I kept my song choice and choreography a secret. No one knew of my plans except me and my music editor. I did not even rehearse the piece on stage during the dress rehearsal. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever gone on to a stage in front of an audience and just performed. This was a new freedom I enjoyed experiencing because I felt that the dance was more emotional and from the heart, rather than over-rehearsed.
Following the performance, with a standing ovation and tears flowing, my brother brought six yellow roses to the stage for me. I walked into the audience and handed a yellow rose to Thomas’ mother, his father, and his sister. I came back to the stage, called my daughter to come from behind the curtain, kissed her and handed her a yellow rose. I held the fifth yellow rose up towards the sound booth for my son, then handed that rose to my daughter. The sixth rose I kissed, and gently placed downstage center for our group finale, in memory of Thomas. Many of the students did not see my performance, as they were backstage in costume changes. However, the entire audience, including the parents of my students, my family and Thomas’ family members, watched my performance live, and many students have since watched the performance by DVD. In this way I have been able to share my grief, without sacrificing the joy of their weekly dance classes and the excitement of the concert.
This year taught us all that dance does not always have to be a happy frolic across the stage. If life is sad, then dance can be sad, too. Dance can be the perfect art form to mark and remember a major life altering change. Just as Martha Graham experienced (Freedman, 1998), I have had so many people approach me after seeing the concert or the DVD to say how meaningful my performance was, and that they could see and feel how difficult the year had been for me. It’s humbling to know dance can affect others, warm their hearts, and cause them to stop and think how special life is. We all shared the pride of having successfully completed the Spring Concert, despite the difficulties of serious illness and death, and the grief that comes with these. We know Thomas and my grandparents are proud of us, too.
Source: Freedman, Russell. Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life. New York: Clarion Books, 1998. Print.
Sonya Monts (BA, RDE, CiDE) is the owner of The Dancer's Extension in Saluda, NC where she teaches ballet, pointe, jazz, contemporary, and creative movement to ages three through adult. She is also the dance teaching artist for Polk County (NC) Schools. She holds a Magna Cum Laude and Cum Honore Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College (SC). Committed to lifelong learning and the promotion of a high quality dance education for her students, she earned her CiDE through the OPDI program in December 2015, after the successful completion of 33 hours of online coursework. She has 35 years of dance experience, with 20 years in dance education, including solo and group choreography, workshops in the public library system, choreography and staging for local theatre productions, and liturgical dance within the United Methodist Church. For NDEO, Sonya sponsors a NHSDA chapter, contributes to Dance Education in Practice, serves on the Applied Strategic Plan committee, consults with OPDI staff and instructors to improve or create OPDI courses, and frequently participates in the online member forums. In 2016, she received NDEO’s Outstanding Dance Educator - Private Sector Award.