A Thousand Blackbirds

A few weeks ago, Paul and I went to see my all-time favorite band, Over the Rhine, play at a cool old theater in Portland. My friend Darci introduced me to this indie folk couple from Ohio over a decade ago while in grad school and they've been my favorite ever since - to sing along to, to dance to, to cry to. Their melodies and lyrics seem to be the music of my soul. 

We've seen them play live several times, but this concert felt especially significant - a reminder of the beauty they offered just when we needed it most. As a pair of artists, Paul and I know deeply the power of art to speak to us, to help us understand life with a new depth - but lost in the daily grind of the day to day, we can all too often and easily forget. The evening turned out to be somewhat sacred, filling us up and reminding us of all the loveliness and connection the world has to offer. Throughout the night and days following, I kept coming back to this repeating verse from one of their songs, my favorite on their newest album:

All I wanna be is a thousand black birds, bursting from a tree into the blue. Love - let it be not just a feeling, but the broken beauty of what we choose to do. 

- All Over Ohio, OTR

Paul and I were processing the concert, life, and the world late one night a few days following the show. Many days as of late, it's been lovely to experience the joy of the Christmas season through the eyes of our four and six year olds, and cling to the magic, rather than focusing on any of the pain. But the reality of this season is that I feel so acutely aware of the suffering and brokenness in the world. Aleppo. A chaotic and increasingly confusing time for a divided America. The suffering of neighbors and friends everywhere.

Author Brian Andreas shared following the recent election: No matter how you voted in this election, it’s hard to miss that we’re in a place we've never been before. Nothing is hidden. Our deepest fears, of difference & intolerance, of powerlessness & oppression, of the loss of who we want to be for ourselves & our families, are now out in the open for all of us to see. We can no longer un-know how deeply these fears divide us...

Everything feels exposed, like an open wound. I have sensed this in my core - the brokenness has felt too much to bear at times. And when it does, I try to cling to what I know to be true, to where and how I can be, as OTR says it so poetically, love that embodies and exemplifies broken beauty. I remember who I am, how I understand the world, and how I can use that understanding to make a difference.

All of this has me thinking a great deal about Performing Ourselves, a dance outreach program that I started with my friend and colleague Kate in 2012. In the program, we train undergraduate dance majors to teach girls living in poverty across the city of Madison. These students have the opportunity to teach dance outside of the ivory tower of the traditional dance studio setting, to learn what it means to be a person of consistency and significance in a young girl's life, and to see first hand that dance offers gifts far outreaching triple pirouettes and high leaps. Madison is a seemingly idyllic city where, in actuality, the racial disparity is one of (if not) the highest in the country, and where an overwhelmingly academic community cannot grasp how to make a difference in a gaping opportunity chasm.

The journey thus far with Performing Ourselves has been beautiful and sweet but also overwhelming and humbling. As an organization, we know that we cannot change the full picture of the day to day lives of the young dancer participants, but we do know where and how we can make a difference. We can live out the value that dance is not just an art form for the privileged, but that every body matters - literally, and every person has the right to know their own body and to feel connected and empowered to be who they were made to be within it. We can build community, connection and joy through movement. Connection has become one of, if not the, key element for our curriculum - connection to ourselves, to others, to the world. It seems in many ways, that's just what we need right now as a collective whole. When I personally get lost in the overwhelming brokenness around me, I turn back to where I have agency in my own sphere, where I can bring about my own little tiny piece of tangible change - and I cling to that // to this. We all must start somewhere.

Over the Rhine connects people through their lilting melodies and honest, haunting lyrics. Dance has become one of the greatest connectors in my life, which has resulted in the work I feel so compelled to continue with Performing Ourselves. I'm not naive - I know that while the arts resonate for me, that's not the case for everyone - but I do believe we all have to dig deep to find our pathways for connection, which we each possess somewhere within, and then nurture them in this dry soiled world. I wonder what that looks like for others, how we'll all find a way to dig down and connect to the truth among us. This is the way, ultimately, that love will lead us to find the broken beauty in all we choose to do, in all we choose to be.


If you're interested in learning more about Performing Ourselves, visit www.performingourselves.com



Mariah LeFeber