Prompt 277. Midnight Alien Ballet
An essay on music, movement & healing from yours truly
I’ve been wrestling with a strange feeling in the last few months. This might sound counterintuitive, and I hope it doesn’t sound ungrateful—but there’s a bittersweetness in getting better.
Of course, it’s what I want more than anything—to be better. As much as I work to accept the in-between, I would love to renounce my citizenship in the kingdom of the sick and to permanently relocate to the kingdom of the well. But lately I’ve been thinking about my year of being bedridden (which I described as my hardest year and also my year of love) and what it afforded me, which was an empty schedule and ample unstructured time. So many ideas and dreams and unexpected gifts sprang forth from that fallowness, from spending an enormous amount of time with my family and my close friends to starting a painting practice. Recently I’ve been missing that solitude and creative spontaneity in a deep way.
This is something I have wondered about before. When the ceiling caves in, it’s terrifying and disorienting. Yet those moments have also been the most fertile stretches of personal and creative growth for me. A couple months after my second bone marrow transplant, I was rehospitalized due to complications, and I told one of my nurses that I get my best work done there and joked that it had become my favorite artist’s residency. She was a little horrified and joked that I might need to seek professional help for that. But it’s true that I’m wildly creative in those periods. I suspect the reason is that’s when it’s most necessary. Survival becomes a creative act.
But I would like to believe that it doesn’t take being confronted with your mortality to make space for the things that make your life good. These last few weeks, I’ve been realizing a very important fact: No one but you is going to protect your time. It seems obvious, right? But so often, I’m passive when it comes to how I spend my days. My to-do list is ever-expanding, the calendar fills up, and the less urgent but equally important things get shuttled to the back of the line. By the time I get to them, it’s late in the day, and my energy is depleted. I feel like I have nothing left.
So as ridiculous as it may sound, this new year I’ve committed to scheduling unstructured time, where I can do whatever I need or want, whether that’s taking a nap, journaling, going on a rambling walk with my dogs, or dancing as I did during that aforementioned hospital stay. I called it my midnight alien ballet, which I wrote about and am sharing today as part of our collaboration with the Princeton University Concerts, for their Healing with Music series and writing contests.
This one is inspired by their upcoming event with Dance for PD (Parkinson’s Disease), a program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group that has spread to over 300 communities and 25 countries. Research has shown the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s, from improved motor and cognitive function to better mental and emotional health. And a key component in this is music. As one participant said, “I sometimes cannot walk, but I can dance… The music leads me to a place where I am weightless.”
I’ll close this missive with a nod to this past week—to our New Year’s Journaling Challenge, inspired by a new volume of poems called Gold by Rumi, translated by Haleh Liza Gafori. It was a meditation on paradox, with the hope that it would help us navigate the bewildering contradictions in life, to learn that forever lesson of how to hold the beauty and cruelty in the same palm. And among my favorite poems in the book is one that begins like this: “The spring of souls is here./ Fresh branch, budding branch, come and dance.”
The speaker goes on to call a myriad of souls to dance: the hot-tempered lion, the true king, the one drunk on self (but destined for union). He calls to the one who condemns dancing as evil, to the beloved, and to the branch that bears no fruit. He calls to those who seemingly can’t dance: “You surrendered your head and feet./ Headless, footless, come and dance!” The whirling lovers wear crowns made of ecstasy, he says. “Unfurling its dazzling wings,/ the peacock calls to the bird of the soul./ You without wing and feather, come and dance.”
In whatever state of wellness, whatever level of ability, may the music move you to dance.
Some Items of Note—
If you missed our New Year’s Journaling Challenge—don’t worry! Rumi’s poems and the prompts inspired by them are evergreen, so you can take them up anytime. Maybe tomorrow? Start here.
We did daily check-ins in the Isolation Journals chat this week (where I saw so many of our custom journals!) and had so many lovely discussions, including a truly gorgeous chorus of collective gratitude on Friday. When I started this weekly ritual, I had no idea how powerful it would be. But so often I see someone say they didn’t have a joy to share, but reading others became their joy. What a wonder—our joys are contagious!
We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers (a.k.a. our favorite event of the month). It’s happening on Sunday, January 28th from 1-2 pm ET. Mark your Google calendar by clicking here!
Prompt 277. Midnight Alien Ballet by Suleika Jaouad
In my hometown in upstate New York, only a few blocks from my house, there was a dance studio run by an immaculately chic woman whom we called Madame. As a young woman, she had trained at the School of American Ballet in New York City, then danced professionally in both the U.S. and Europe before opening her school. I began taking classes there when I was about twelve. I started with an introductory ballet course and was hooked. By the end of that first year, I had my first pair of pointe shoes, and I was taking classes every day, everything from ballet to modern dance and hip hop.
I loved everything about those classes—the leotards and tights and chiffon skirts, the camaraderie with my fellow dancers, the feeling of my body getting stronger, becoming more pliant, able to assume new shapes. But more than anything I loved Madame. She was exacting and had very specific ideas about how a young lady should dress and carry herself. I remember she once told us that maintaining the posture from class—neck long, straight spine, tailbone tucked—would ensure our posteriors would remain firm until old age. Sometimes she could be absolutely terrifying. She might halt class midway through and ask us something like, “What Russian authors have you read?” We were twelve, so inevitably no one raised their hand, and she would chide us for our lack of sophistication. But somehow she also managed to be very loving and incredibly encouraging, and my fellow students and I flourished under her guidance.
I began to dream of dancing professionally. Setting my sights on the New York City Ballet, I signed up for classes at Skidmore, which has an amazing dance program. But a couple years in, as my body matured and became curvier, I came to the devastating conclusion that I was not destined to be a prima ballerina. I decided to refocus my attention on other interests, like the double bass and writing, and I left ballet behind.
Until a year and a half ago, that is, when I was in the hospital. I was being treated for some complications from my second bone marrow transplant, and I’d been in excruciating pain for days. The only way to cope was to completely dissociate from my body, to sever myself from its turmoil. Every time a physical therapist came to my room, I shooed them away. I hated how clinical it felt, but also I felt angry about how much I had physically deteriorated. I spent all my time either sleeping or painting, both of which were a complete escape.
Then on a Sunday morning, I woke early, long before the sun came up, and I read the essay and prompt in that week’s newsletter. It was “One Hundred Small Dances” by Sofia Tsirakis, a dear friend from college who had started a daily dance practice during our first 100-day project a decade earlier. Sofia wrote about her process—how she would close her eyes, listen, and let her body guide her. Over time it became a cherished ritual. She described it as “a road trip with no fixed destination.”
There in the dark, I slipped out of bed, and I put on one of the songs that Sofia had recommended by the legendary Tunisian musician, Anouar Brahem. I had grown up listening to him—he was one of my parents’ favorites—and I began to move without thinking. I used my IV pole to steady me, and I rolled out my neck, then flexed and pointed my feet. I hinged at my waist and did a swan dive (suddenly, I recalled: a port de bras) and felt the most wonderful stretch in my legs and hips. After that, a slow turn—the most gentle pirouette. By the end, I felt an almost electrical current coursing through my limbs. I was also amazed by the muscle memory, and how those movements transported me to those days with Madame. At that point, I didn’t recognize my face in the mirror; bald and lashless, I felt like an alien. Connecting to my younger self was a powerful anchor.
Writing about it from this distance, I can recall a sense of elemental gratitude. For feeling well enough to be present in my body, for being not only able but eager to move, even if it was in the simplest ways, like stretching in bed or tangoing with my IV pole. If you’re lucky, and you emerge from the valley, it can be hard to stay grateful for such simple things. You forget what a miracle it is to have strong legs that can carry you a distance, however big or small. You forget what a joy it is when the fog of exhaustion briefly lifts. And maybe that’s how it should be. But I don’t want to forget. I never want to forget.
Your prompt for the week:
When was the last time you danced? Where were you? What were you listening to? What thoughts or feelings emerged? What stayed with you?
If this has gotten you in the mood to move, you can read Sofia’s prompt, “One Hundred Small Dances.” Below her essay is a link to the Anouar Brahem song on Spotify. But may I also suggest a couple of songs by my beloved, Jon Batiste? The first is Worship, a powerfully upbeat song. For a more adagio experience, try Butterfly, which is up for two Grammys, for Song of the Year and Best American Roots Performance, and which began as a lullaby that he wrote for me when we couldn’t see each other.
Today’s prompt is part of our collaboration with the Princeton University Concerts for their annual Creative Reactions and Audience Voices Writing Contests. Inspired by the 2023-24 Healing with Music series, we’re inviting music lovers of all ages to reflect on their relationship with music. This is the second of three journaling prompts; you can find the first here. Learn more about the challenge and submit your work below!
If you’d like, you can post your response to today’s prompt in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals. As a reminder, we love seeing your work inspired by the Isolation Journals, but to preserve this as a community space, we request no promotion of outside projects.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
A New Year’s Journaling Challenge, where we shared the ancient wisdom and searing insights of Rumi to help us learn that forever lesson: to hold the cruelty and beauty of life in the same palm
Beholding the Body, an installment of my advice column Dear Susu, where I answer a question from a reader whose chronic illness has caused a growing gap between her mind and her body—and a rift between her and the wider world
American Symphony: A Conversation, where I spoke with my husband Jon Batiste and director Matt Heineman about “peak compartmentalization,” learning to say “I’m not okay,” and Matt’s covert ops at the Grammys