When I was in my 50s, my body showed signs of wear and tear, and my lifetime career in modern dance began to limp. At the time, I was making site-specific work for dance concerts in churches, using both professional and community dancers. I was quite capable of rehearsing and coordinating three groups of dancers and collaborating with musicians, costume designers, and the church itself, but my ability to “think” movement had declined, along with my ability to execute it, and I found myself relying more on the dancers to develop movement material. I had always done this to some extent, but now it felt like a sign of decline.
Then, like springs bubbling up from dry ground, little groups of intentional words appeared in the middle of my journal entries, and I started writing: first essays about dance, then stories. I continued writing while teaching dance and producing concerts until I’d developed a daily writing practice of several hours.
Seeing clearly that I needed help to learn this new craft, I applied to Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program in writing. At the same time, I auditioned for Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, a company that pairs senior and younger dancers. Accepted to both, I stripped my life of every other activity and devoted myself exclusively to the writing program and dance with Liz. There followed two glorious years of travel with the company, dancing all day and writing at night in Gdansk, Tucson, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the company’s home near D.C. We taught and made work in and with local communities, sometimes staying for weeks, and the resulting performances could make use of children and adults, personal stories, local traditions and legends, and music—from mariachi to gospel and beyond. Everyone worked together.
After Vermont College and the Dance Exchange, I became a full-time writer and part-time teacher of writing and rhetoric at Columbia College Chicago. Unlike dance, writing is singularly solitary, as is my life. My children are grown and husband gone, and I now live alone. Where once I rose at five to practice and plan the day’s rehearsals before my children woke, now I glide from dreams to words at leisure, untroubled by the demands of others.
So where do I find the community without which art turns inward, dries up, and dies? First, in a committed writing group, to which I’ve belonged about four years. We meet for two hours every two weeks and discuss one person’s work, which all read and comment on ahead of time. The focus is intense, the reading careful, insightful, and demanding. Second, at the Writers Workspace, a shared facility founded and directed by Amy Davis. In its writing studio, one can work in perfect quiet, but other rooms allow for conferences and phone calls. The kitchen is a natural gathering place, and writers discuss their projects over lunch. At the Workspace I joined a novelists’ group, more casual than my writing group but equally supportive. We meet for two hours every two weeks, no preparation required, and take turns reading from our novels in progress. Brief discussion follows each reading.
The third way I stay connected is through teaching, which keeps me in touch with today’s 18-year-olds as well as the college's larger community. A residency at the Ragdale Foundation a few years ago gave me opportunities similar to the Workspace: quiet in a community context with collaborative discussion and sharing of work available when I want it.
The demands of collaboration threatened to overwhelm me when I ran a dance company, where I taught daily technique classes, choreographed, worked with lighting and costume designers, collaborated with a manager on budgets and grant proposals and tried to maintain my own technique at the same time. Now collaboration is essential nourishment and exchange. My book, The Crack between the Worlds: a Dancer’s Memoir of Loss, Faith and Family, would not have found a home without the support of the Workspace. Recently published by Wipf and Stock Publishers, it seeks a community of readers, and I search out friends and groups and circles of readers, as publication throws me back from the solitary desk into the world.
Maggie Kast founded and directed Chicago Contemporary Dance Theatre from 1963–1982, then danced in churches and temples as Kast & Company Liturgical Dancers. She studied liturgy at Catholic Theological Union, earning an M.T.S. degree, and later received an MFA. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her book, The Crack Between the Worlds: A Dancer’s Memoir of Loss, Faith and Family, was published by Wipf and Stock.