When you are singing, you aren’t thinking about how much your feet hurt. When you are eating, you aren’t thinking about it either. Or talking, or laughing at a marionette dance Paloma does right at the moment you need something to take your mind off of your feet. Matt Mahaney, a former Dance Exchange dancer and outdoor educator who led our hike, said early on in our 26 mile day, “The way your feet feel now—this is as bad as they’re going to feel—they won’t get worse”. Tender feet that called attention to themselves with every step became another thing to notice as we moved ever forward. They made themselves known like the encompassing green, the sunning turtles, the owl that turned his head sharply to stare us down, the waterfalls, the millipedes, the gnats, the mile markers.
During Dance Exchange’s 2 ½ week residency in Syracuse, NY last February, we made a new piece with community members built from ideas and stories about distance. Distance between people, places, ideas, cultures, and histories all found their way into our work. During this residency, we met Zeke Leonard, a professor in the Department of Design at Syracuse University. Toward the end of the show, Zeke and I shared a short exchange: “There is distance between us”, I said. Zeke responded, “We decide how we measure it”.
In a section that was created in this residency, and was recently performed at the Kennedy Center (you can watch it here), Zeke tells the story of creating a banjo from instruments sourced from a 10-mile radius of his home in Syracuse. His “10-mile banjos”, created from pitch pine from a demolished building, a $2 cigar box, and old guitar parts tell the story of the places from which they came, and demonstrate the beauty of reuse.
Shortly after taking a break on a sunny patch of grass along the Potomac, 14 miles in to our 26 mile day, the group began referring to 10-mile stretches as “banjos”. Instead of having 12 miles left to go, we just had to cover just a little bit more than a banjo.
I love no mirrors. I love no mirrors! I never want to see myself again. I see five other faces and I’m happy to see them. They see me, and so do the trees, so that is enough. We’re all smelly and disheveled. It’s a little bit like rehearsal, except that in rehearsal, the disheveledness becomes style. Out here, our appearances are a result and a function of the way we are living. And likewise with our bodies—the physical choices we made were of necessity to keep walking and stay warm and eat and drink and sleep. It was without calculation, or artifice, and it felt like dancing.
The tears that I cried in an aerial dance studio in Knoxville, MD at the end of my 60 mile walk between DC and Harper’s Ferry with a team from Dance Exchange probably had their roots in fatigue, first, and the emotions that came up when I thought about leaving the walk, second. But they were triggered by watching Matt Mahaney dance a movement phrase he created from his experience on the Walk. During our time on the C & O Canal towpath, Matt knew what to do about blisters, he carried our packs for miles to give our legs a break, he showed us how to light the camp stove, set up and take down our tents, and pack our packs. He woke us up with hot water bottles to keep us warm for a few more minutes in our sleeping bags. And at the end of the first big stretch, the evening before four of us would head back home, and he and Cassie would continue forward on a much longer journey, he made a beautiful sequence of movement in which he caught a bit of those 60+ miles in his tired body.