Book Review: Letters to a Young [Dancer]

Recently, I read the book Letters to a Young Poet, and it was really quite lovely. There were some moments that really stood out to me, but not because I want to be a poet. Let me set the first scene.

It’s March 22, a Friday. I’m listening to my favorite songs and dance around in my room, in the kitchen, in the bathroom while getting ready to go to a concert with my host mom and sister. On the way to the train station, and yes, I do a little bit of dancing to my music as I walk) I see Bence, one of the Hungarian folk dancers. He introduces me to some of the new students at the university, the new students who also attend the Hungarian folk classes that were moved to an open space at the dormitory around November. He asks why I haven’t come.

I don’t know what to tell him. So, I tell him some flimsy excuses: I’m busy, tried after a long work day, don’t have the time to walk all the way over there.

Those excuses aren’t true anymore.

I don’t know how to tell him that dancing hurts me. That is makes me just as sad as it makes me happy. I crave it deeply just as deeply as it cuts me. I’ve come to realize that dancing with them reminds me of my flaws and scars from my dancing past.

And yet, I desperately desire it.

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This quote really struck me when I read it on the train:

“No one can advise you or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to [dance]…confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to [dance]. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I [dance]? …if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity” (Letter One, p. 14-15).

From what I’ve already mentioned, I’m sure you can guess that the answer to those questions for me is a strong YES.

Yes, I might just die if I were forbidden to dance. Yes, in the most silent hour of my night, I must dance. Which begs the question…Why can’t I go to dance here?

I have agonized over this question the past few months. I know that I want to dance—I want to be with my new friends and to enjoy myself…and yet I feel dread whenever I try to force myself to walk towards the university dorms.

This brings me to the other quote:

“Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights” (Letter Three, p. 25).

Technically, this quote was in response to works of art in the book, but I read it and felt a bit of ease. Trust yourself and your own feelings. For whatever reason, I feel as though I cannot go to dance here.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine a few weeks before reading Letter to a Young Poet about my dance-aversion. While I knew he wouldn’t have answers for me, he would have questions—the questions I needed to ask myself in order to understand. It was because of those questions that I realized the reason I couldn’t move my feet to go to dance: I was in pain.

It’s wasn’t physical pain (though my ankles do tend to send a spike of OUCH up my legs once in a while), but rather emotional.

I have danced and been in a dance studio since before I was three. It was practically my second home for all of my childhood! As much as I loved that studio and those dancers, there was also a lot of negatively there involving body shape and beauty and competition. That voice has been with me for years, and it’s one I’m not able to shake easily.

“You need to take steps forward in order to overcome those voices,” my friend told me. How those steps forward look like is up to me. Physically facing it? Here in Hungary or back in my hometown? Mentally facing it? How so?

This next quote answered those questions…kind of:

“You are so young…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to love them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer” (Letter Four, p. 30-31).

First of all, can I just say I love the imagery of “…locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language”? Like, wow! So amazing!

Okay, going back to the subject at hand…

To me, this quote is telling me that it’s okay I don’t fully have the answer of how to take steps forward yet. It’s okay to live my day One Day at a Time (which is also a great Netflix show, please go watch it) and discover the answers slowly, day by day.

Another quote I loved was:

“…dear [Lady], love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you” (Letter Four, p. 34-35).

Loving your solitude can be so difficult, can’t it? Especially if you didn’t choose your solitude. However, I’ve learned some things about myself during this year (shocking, isn’t it?) and one of those things include that I now have an intense desire to live by myself. To live in solitude.

Partly because then I don’t feel like I’m bothering people by, say for example, singing out loud…or dancing around in my underwear… (Mulan II quote, anyone?)

But also because this year I’ve embraced my inner introvert, and I love the solitude that would come with living by myself. Yes, there can be pain or sadness in solitude, but there can also be relief or joy or answers.

This goes into the next quote:

“If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadness with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are moments where something new has entered us…” (Letter 8, p. 58).

On Saturday, March 30, I had brunch with my Country Coordinators and a few of my cohort fam as well as with a visiting pastor from the ELCA (who’s currently living in Germany and whose sister went to my alma mater!) During that brunch, I told the table how much of what I’ve learned about myself this year has been a “negative” (not a bad thing, but not a “I like this” or “I like that” thing) and I mentioned how that’s a bit sad.

However, this quote helped me realize that it’s not sad; I should put trust in this knowledge just as I would if it was more positives. Also, this past weekend, one of the girls in my cohort told me to think about it differently. Rather than think “I don’t like living in villages” I should think “I like to live in cities” and so on.

I will leave you with this final food for though from the book:

“…almost all of our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living…because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing” (Letter Eight, p. 58)

This YAGM year’s motto for me has been Subject to Change. Is there a transition in your life, perhaps similar to my own dancing conundrum, that has caused some sort of paralysis or confusion in your life? Remember, when we are in a state of transition, whether it be the beginning, middle, or end stages, one will always be constant: we cannot stand still. We must move with the transition. It probably won’t be easy and might not even be what we want, but regardless, we must take the steps—tiny or big—forward.

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