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July 2019 Vol. 15 No. 2

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Charles Tarlton

Alvin Ailey’s I Wanna Be Ready

Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it.
                                                                                                              ― Martha Graham


The old man came slowly up the beach, reaching as far forward as he could with his right leg, hesitating, and then dragging the left leg forward, his boot plowing a long, small furrow in the sand. Right leg stepping out, left leg, limp and shrunken, dragging itself level. His body had no other coordination. The arms flailed and flapped. His head twisted vehemently at the end of his neck. He bent forward, straightened up, and leaned to the right and then to the left. Behind him and then in front of him, off to either side, coming back and in front again, a little black dog scampered, never getting too far away from the old man moving slowly along. The dog would come up close, bark its high-pitched halting bark, and then run back to the circling pattern, as if on a tether. The old man paid no attention to the dog, absorbed as he was in his strange dance up the beach.

take a graceful bird
an osprey, watch it diving
in the windy surf
snatching guilty Menhaden
that squirm in the devil’s talons

death is reaching in
frightened souls writhing in fear
now God’s promises
about to be tested. Oh!
I pray my truth’s all been told

struggling with unseen
devils, hoping I haven’t
sinned too much. Sing it!
low and moaning, make the church
tremble to the sounds of dread


Dancing is about acting, about being a liar, basically. Because often you don’t feel like dancing, but it’s your job. So you get out there and you do the movement, and it’s not happening. So you work harder, you work harder, you go deep inside what you’re about.
                                                                                                         — Dudley Williams

When the confident choreographer was asked what the dance movements expressed, he showed us that with your feet apart and your knees slightly bent, it meant to display strength, and when you pushed your right arm out from your side, and then your left, it meant intimacy with the people all around you. Does that mean if you leaned forward and touched the floor, then you were saying you were part of the earth, but when you straightened up and reached overhead you were calling on God? A clenched fist, then? Rolling over several times and then leaping to your feet, Your face contorted in a silent scream of (oh, what? — rage?). The dancer moves on the outside, thinks or feels on the inside, but we don’t have a suitable lexicon, so all the meaning (if there is meaning) in the moves remains forever private.

he translates feelings
with a wild kick and a roll
then changes his mind
calls it all “force d’elegance
instead, his paean to beauty

none of these little
turns are quite routine
how we tie our shoes
reach thoughtlessly to open
the door, racing up the stairs

of the human bones, how
they are connected
where are they hinged, where rigid
every limb goes its own way


The Highlander’s football team lined up across from the Claremont College team, the Highlander’s center was bent over the ball, and the quarterback was up close and hunched over him. The offensive backs were arranged in the split-T formation, the fullback, hands on his knees, stood a half-step behind his flanking halfbacks on either side. The quarterback shouted out the signals — hut one, hut two, hut three— and the center snapped the ball into the quarterback’s hands, who turned quickly hard to the right, just as the right half-back charged toward the line. The quarterback pretended to give him the ball, but pulled it back at the last moment, as the halfback charged past him and into the oncoming defenders. The quarterback then moved two steps along the backs of the linemen, and pitched the ball gracefully out to the fullback, who was coming around fast in a wider arc to the right, with the left halfback running interference. “It’s a lot like ballet,” Coach Selin used to say.

“get up off your back”
as if God were saying that
then knocking you down
every time you tried. Could you
fly in the face of the Lord?

if every movement
actually had a meaning
all its own, what would
all this twisting and turning
be saying — could we read it?

a black crow flew down
and hopped around the road kill
jumping in fury
as cars sped past disturbing
his cold ritual supper


The still photograph is of Matthew Rushing in “I Wanna Be Ready” at Jacob’s Pillow in 2013, a video sample of which can be viewed at the Dance Interactive website.

A fuller version of “I Wanna Be Ready” (An African-American spiritual sung by a small choir, danced by Matthew Rushing, and filmed at Ailey’s old childhood church in Rogers, Texas) can be viewed online at the Vimeo website.