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Knee-Deep
by Jane Kosminsky

 
I asked Jane, my Alexander teacher, if I could include her story on Dancerhips.com since, although it was her knee and not her hip that was replaced, her story so well illuminates the experience so many of us have coping with a problem joint. Indeed, we should all hope to have as enlightened a journey! - NR.
 
Jane
The author dancing Mario DeLamo's Sola.
Photographer: Zachary Freyman.
Image courtesy 5 by 2 Dance Company and the author.

 
It is August. It is hot. I am staring down at my left knee. What an extraordinary journey it has taken me on - this silent navigator of my professional life. How carefully I have had to listen to hear the guidance of this long-term relationship. This spring, after an eighteen-year wait, I had knee replacement surgery. It is astounding how quickly we accustom ourselves to miracles. For the first time in thirty years I have a straight left leg! I look down and I can't quite believe it, but already I am practicing pliés and admiring the line. (Will the dancer's ego never retire?)

How did it all begin? It began when I was very, very small - possibly only three. I remember adults asking, "What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?" I hear my high, squeaky voice answering with authority, "I want to be a dancer." Even then I knew.

So began my intense love of movement - jumping, spinning, running - all filled with music and ecstasy, an endless delight. My enlightened mother took me to NYC for lessons - pre-dance with the Rom sisters; piano lessons, first with my mother and then with her Juilliard teacher, Gladys Mayo; and later to Saturday dance class at the Hanya Holm school. My knee hadn't uttered a word - just the usual "ouch" of childhood scrapes.

When I was fifteen, we moved to NYC and - by the grace of God and Hanya Holm - I was accepted at the High School of Performing Arts. I was going to be a dancer! It was the first time I had met so many other children who liked what I liked, who were impassioned by dance. It was the first time I had seen so many boys in tights - ten of them in my class alone.

I was in heaven. Like Jean Brodie's "girls," we knew we were "la crème de la crème." After all, we were going to be on the stage! We saw every dance concert we could, "second-acted" Broadway shows, and danced every second it was humanly possible. We danced at school, we danced after school and, when we were lucky, we danced all day Saturday, too. We were adolescents drunk on dancing.

At the end of my sophomore year, my knee proved to be less than intoxicated. Doing prances in class at the O'Donnell-Shurr studio, I tore the lateral meniscus - the cartilage. The knee swelled up, I could not walk and summer plans to attend a dance/theater workshop in Utah organized by Dr. Rachel Yocom, director of Performing Arts' dance department, were seriously threatened. This was the first time I heard the words, "Maybe you should give up this dancing. Maybe you should find another career."

I can still hear those words, spoken by my first orthopedist. Knee surgery, then in its infancy, was not an option. The field of physical therapy had barely been conceived. I smiled politely, died inside, and simply didn't listen. I was very, very stubborn. I was a dancer.

Off I went to Utah. Since I couldn't dance, I studied acting, made props, painted scenery, took a make-up course, helped in the costume shop and made a brief appearance sitting down on stage and waving my arms in "Anitra's Dance" in Peer Gynt. What a wonderful opportunity, and how utterly courageous Rachel Yocom was to take a group of teenagers and the May O'Donnell Concert Company across the country and back by bus. What an education for us all! I had learned the first lesson: If you can't dance, do everything that is related. Six months later, I was dancing again.

The second lesson was more painful and more interesting. At the age of twenty, my knee sent me someplace new: the ongoing imbalance in my legs caused my back to spasm. For a year I was bent at a right angle to the floor or locked in upright rigidity. This definitely wasn't fun. Clearly, once the spasm cycle was broken, I had to begin to find a different way of working. My early training had, in part, included the "grip, tuck, pain-is-gain approach" to movement. It wasn't working. My doctor had insisted I strengthen my abdominal muscles by holding the NYC telephone directory between my legs and lifting it. That certainly worked. I began to experiment. Could I dance without gripping every muscle in my butt? Could I move using my new-found abdominal support? Yes! Dancing became easier and at the same time more complex; there was more to think about, more to accomplish. Best of all, I could keep dancing. And I did.

I danced ferociously with every choreographer I could find. It was always all about dancing. Unknowingly, I was preparing for the next great adventure. As college days cadenced (I began at Juilliard and finished at CCNY), I was invited to join the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Paul had lost two dancers unexpectedly. He needed a quick study to join the company for the Paris season. Would I like to go? Of course I would! What knee problem? I never gave it a thought. In the next three weeks I learned and rehearsed seven major works, studied for finals, read two Jane Austen novels on Christmas Day, wrote one last paper, took eight hours of finals (including a physics final), was picked up, driven to the airport and left with a champagne send off. My mother packed for me. Thank God! I had no time!

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At the Sphinx. Left to Right, Betty De Jong, Molly Reinhart,
Eileen Cropley, Carolyn Adams, Jane Kosminsky, Janet Aaron.
Photo courtesy the author.

Those were very exciting years. The company was small (eight dancers and Paul), and Paul was still dancing. We rehearsed all afternoon, every afternoon, Monday through Friday. We danced everything full out every time - no marking. I've never jumped so much in my life. We worked very, very hard. On the weekends we tried to recover. I remember sitting down at the bottom of the stairs in my apartment building and literally crawling up; I was 23 years old. Exhaustion and ecstasy, ecstasy and exhaustion - deep friendship bound by a love of the work - this is how I remember the Taylor company. Was it glamorous? Sometimes. After all, we did tour the world. I met Ravi Shankar in Calcutta and Edward Albee in the bar of the Semirimis Hotel in Cairo. I was fêted, wined, dined and occasionally adored. Ah - the magic and illusion of dance!

We were held together by dance class and by the "dancers' underground" - those doctors and healers, often off the beaten track, who could help keep us dancing. You could find most of the dance world in the office of Dr. Rose Smart, a chiropractor. She taught us to take vitamins and carry our therapy equipment on tour, to work on ourselves and each other. The modern dancers found Don Farnworth, ballet master, who taught us to stand on our feet and to stop tucking, gripping and pushing. Finally - a teacher who understood!

Despite this help, my knee had finally had enough. During rehearsal for a New York season, my leg collapsed. What was left of the cartilage had turned into sand. This time it meant surgery and in 1969 that meant major surgery - a week in the hospital, six months of recovery and the risk and deep fear of never dancing again. "Start thinking of another career," urged my surgeon. Fortunately, I was still very stubborn. You cannot dismiss a grand passion so easily.

Oddly enough, this turned into the best of all times - a time to discover that I existed whether I danced or not, a time to touch the transcendent that draws us over and over again to answer the question, "Should I still choose this?" with a resounding, "Yes!"

Several weeks after surgery, I sat down on the floor with Don Farnworth. We began by bending my knee. It took many weeks. Paul gave me a key to the studio and slowly I began to put myself back into my roles. I had no strength. Could I still dance? What did it actually take? How much strength did I really need? What really worked for my body? I spent hours each day physically exploring these questions. And I learned - not just to do less and less but to do the right amount of less so that I could dance dangerously again. It was a very rich time. When the company returned to rehearsal, I was ready.

In the 70's, life shifted again. The decade was seminal. In 1971, Bruce Becker and I formed 5 by 2 Dance Company, and John Houseman invited me to join the faculty of the Juilliard drama division. Both of these events are stories unto themselves.

I had known Bruce since high school. I had gone to his bar mitzvah. He had been my first dance partner and certainly my favorite. He was an extraordinary dancer. No one could dance faster or leap higher; no one was more musical. But it was his great capacity to move you to tears or laughter that set him apart. He was unique.

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Bruce Becker in Go Down Moses from Helen Tamiris's Negro Spirituals.
Photographer: Bob Fuhring. Image courtesy 5 by 2 Dance Company and the author.


At a time when single choreographer companies were the norm, we decided to do repertory. We were among the first to do so. We cast ourselves. We cast against type. We did classics (Tamiris's Negro Spirituals, Taylor's Duet, two duets from Limón's There Is a Time, among others) and we invited established choreographers and new choreographers to create works on us - Anna Sokolow, Mario DeLamo, Mark Haim, Moses Pendleton. We were both injured dancers, but by then we had developed strong survival skills and we helped each other. We were still dancing. It was glorious!

By the beginning of the 80's, 5 by 2 had grown to 5 by 2 Plus, a modern dance repertory company, and we discovered, like many company directors before us, that as the demands of the company increased, time to attend to our own dancing decreased. My knee seemed to have an agenda of its own. It developed osteoarthritis and a permanent bend. The road's cold theaters were very cold indeed and it became harder and harder to do mechanically what my talent was actually capable of. It was time to come off the road. It was time to retire from performing. As usual, Bruce and I agreed. But what was I going to do next?

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Bruce Becker and Jane Kosminsky in
Norman Walker's Meditations of Orpheus
Photographer: Bob Fuhring.
Image courtesy 5 by 2 Dance Company
and the author.
My silent partner, my knee, led me organically and unerringly to a second career. In 1971 when I joined the Juilliard faculty to teach dance to the actors, I met the legendary Alexander teacher, Judith Leibowitz. Judy became my colleague, friend and, finally, my mentor. I had absolutely no idea what the Alexander Technique was, but I did know that my actors could move with enormous ease and fluidity. At the end of the year, I had my first lesson with Judy. At the end of my first lesson, I knew I would train as an Alexander teacher when I retired. And that is exactly what I did.

The Alexander Technique drew together so many of the ideas and concepts I had been working with for years and placed them in a clear and workable framework. It so obviously provided a way for dancers to dance longer and better, and without injury! How could I resist? My actors urged me on. How could I resist them? The actors were so playful and inspiring. It felt like we were all working together in a community.

Since 1985, I have been totally spoiled. I work primarily with performing artists - gifted ones. Together we dive right into the important issues, the ones that continue to fascinate us all - energy, focus, dynamic. I actually get to share what I know and to continue to explore. And all this from a torn cartilage!

Although my knee had moved me off the stage, it was eventually to move me in front of the camera. In 1997, a friend suggested that I create a video about the Alexander Technique for the general public. "Surely everyone could benefit from the performer's secret weapon." I moved into high gear. Absolutely everything we needed arrived on cue - extraordinary videographers, a remarkable production staff, a fax machine, an angel from Ohio and that last $20,000 and, best of all, a wonderful actor - William Hurt (from Juilliard's fifth graduating class). I hadn't seen William in years and there he was in my favorite Japanese restaurant saying, "Count me in." He made the "shoot" so, so easy. This time, instead of doing "run, run, leap" we were doing "neck free, head forward and up." Right before Christmas in 1998, we created two videos - First Lesson, with William and me, and Solutions for Back Trouble, with master teacher, the late Deborah Caplan, and introduced by William. I hadn't had so much fun since I stopped dancing. Of course, my partner Bruce held me up through it all.

 
Last January, I paid a visit to Dr. Phillip Bauman, one of the great dance doctors of this generation. I could no longer take classes. There was no potential for improvement. I needed some help. The technology had made huge advances. I could replace my knee with titanium. I could become bionic! Today a torn meniscus is a one-day affair taken care of by laser surgery. Physical therapy is highly sophisticated and hugely helpful, especially as practiced by the therapists who work with Marika Molnar, including my own extraordinary Chris Bratton. And the "dancers' underground" thrives blessed by the gifts of Dr. William Walsh and others. Today mind/body approaches abound and myriad healing modalities have joined the mainstream. How lucky we dancers are!
 
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jane

Bruce Becker and Jane Kosminsky dance Paul Taylor's Duet.
Photographer: Jack Mitchell.
Image courtesy 5 by 2 Dance Company and the author.

Several years ago a psychologist asked me why people dance if it is so painful. I looked at her in amazement. Pain and suffering are neither interesting nor important. They bore me and I hope they bore you. What might be interesting and possibly important is what we learn from them, what we gain that we can share with others. My knee story, like any other dancer's injury story, gave me a point of departure for personal exploration. Dancing brought me the world - literally. It also brought me great friendships that have graced my life for decades.

Why do we dance? To explore what is most true in us, most real, most honest. I believe we dance to explore the "crack in the cosmic egg" - to resonate with our own deepest vibrations, to touch the transcendental with delicacy and clarity and strength.

It is August. It is hot. I stare down at my left knee and wonder where it will lead me next. This summer, I am resting, reading ridiculous numbers of murder mysteries and doing my physical therapy exercises religiously. In reality, I am doing what any dancer would do - I am preparing to go back to class.
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About the Author:

A former faculty member at the American Center for the Alexander Technique, Jane Kosminsky continues to teach Alexander Technique in Manhattan at The Juilliard School, the Neighborhood Playhouse and privately. Since recovering from surgery, she has been enjoying the ability to straighten her left leg fully, for the first time in many years. Soon she will be attending beginning dance classes.
She can be contacted at jbkosmos@aol.com
 
Resources:

An edited version of this article ran in the October 2001 issue of The Juilliard Journal www.juilliard.edu/journal. It is reprinted here, in a slightly different version, with permission.
 
Jane Kosminsky's videotape, First Lesson: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique with William Hurt and Jane Kosminsky, can be purchased from Winstar TV and Video: telephone 800 / 538 5856. In DVD format, it includes additional material and an interview with William Hurt. Her second video, with Deborah Caplan, Alexander Technique: Solutions for Back Trouble, is also available through Winstar. Videography for both projects was by Juan Barerra and Molly McBride.

The American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) website can be found at: www.alexandertech.com

For more information on The Juilliard School, see www.juilliard.edu
 
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