Margaret Craske: An Internship in Living an Intentional Life
As I blew out my candles on my seventh birthday cake, I silently wished for freedom. My wish was not for freedom "from" something, but rather, for freedom towards something. I wanted a way of being that was open, connected to everything, and totally un-self-conscious. For many birthdays after that, my wish was a wordless yearning.
Throughout those years I felt ashamed and secretive about my wish because I knew my friends were wishing for more tangible gifts, like bicycles. As a child I read a question somewhere, "How can you talk about the sea to a frog in a well?" The question comforted me. I was the frog in the well, daring to hope that oceans exist.
One adult in my early life who seemed to know something about "the ocean" was my dance teacher at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, the renowned ballet teacher Margaret Craske (pronounced "crask"). Miss Craske, as we called her, was an irascible and exacting force. If you were looking for an impeccable foundation in classical ballet technique, then that was what you found in her classes. But if you were looking for a ritualized training in the technique of being a human being, you could also find it between the spoken words and dance steps. For me, each class was an embodied lesson in integrity and intention.
Three days a week, my young peers and I lined up at the ballet bars dressed alike in simple black leotards, with bare legs, white anklets, and our hair wrapped up in anonymous buns. Just like little nuns, our uniformity of costume depersonalized our outer distinctions and pointed us towards a level of expression that is beyond superficial appearances.
Miss Craske railed at us not to "flail your limbs about", because "every moment of dancing has to have meaning, and you give it meaning with your focus, intention and clarity." I sensed she was not just talking about dancing, but about life itself: it is not enough to flail about with our lives; if we want our lives to be imbued with meaning, we need to focus our attention and clarify our intention, not just every once in a while but moment after moment, with constancy and rigor. She was teaching us how to express our lives through awareness.
We were trained by Miss Craske to think only in terms of authentic long-term gains, rather than short-term rewards. She made certain that we initiated each outward leg rotation ("turn-out") from our hip joints, rather than at our ankles. When a dancer rotates from the ankles it creates an appealing illusion of a wider range of rotation than the dancer can genuinely support. Miss Craske made sure we understood that when we indulge in an illusion, we sacrifice any possibility of improvement because real change needs to start from a truthful assessment of the current situation. If we were tempted to exaggerate our turn-out, Miss Craske came by with her wooden cane and tapped our feet back into a more authentic stance, the way a Zen master might rap a drowsing meditator back into consciousness. Hour after hour, week after week, year after year we were drilled with an unspoken message: the way to generate real improvement is through incremental, sustained practice that is grounded in an honest assessment of the current reality. When I saw girls from other ballet schools turn their feet out from their ankles, I felt sorry for them because they didn't know better.
Just a couple of years ago I learned that Margaret Craske is also renowned as a close disciple of Meher Baba. Baba (as he is known by his disciples) was one of the first of many Asian spiritual masters whose teachings infused our western world in the twentieth century. After reading Margaret Craske's book, The Dance of Love, (written in 1980), the trajectory of my life suddenly made sense. Being her student at such a formative age set me along a life path of rigorous, body-based spiritual development.
Miss Craske's influence abides in the cells of my body because what we learn experientially, with our bodies, is an ingrained learning. She was adamant that dancing is about making conscious choices. When I substitute the word "life" for the word "dancing", the message becomes, "Life is about making conscious choices."
I consider my years training with Margaret Craske as an internship in living an intentional life. Miss Craske's insistence on integrity and clear focus were patterned into my biological structure as a girl. Those patterns continue to influence my daily choices as a woman, for which I am deeply grateful.