Dancer Voices
Paul Taylor choreographing To Make Crops Grow on Parisa Khobdeh. Photo by Whitney Browne, courtesy PTDC

I was 22, fresh out of school. Wet behind the ears, I was using a light boom backstage as a warm-up barre before my debut performance with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I noticed Paul Taylor walking toward me, wagging his index finger like a disciplining father, and I shrank with fear.

"Don't touch the booms. Someone has worked very hard to focus those lights," he admonished. And just before he turned to go, he paused and added, "And listen to your seniors." But he wasn't done. As he strode away, he turned back and said, "Oh, and always say thank you to the crew."

What struck me about Paul's notes—and what has stayed with me ever since—is what was at the heart of those three directives: respect, gratitude and the importance of family. They are values that are embedded in his dances and in his company.

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After two surgeries, Khobdeh found her way back to dance. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC.

I was soaring through the air in a double-attitude jump during a rehearsal of Paul Taylor's 1978 classic Airs—and when I landed, I immediately knew something was wrong. A searing pain tore through my lower right leg, and with nausea and fear rippling through me, I fought to breathe.

A pall fell over the dancers as they gathered around me—I felt like I was awake at my own funeral. In shock, I turned over, raised my ankle, scooted myself off the floor and shouted, “Keep going, start the music! Don't stop!"

I love dance. And love for me is growing together and growing apart. I had to learn what it was to grow in the absence of dance.

Ironically, I'd spent most of my career on a partially torn left Achilles tendon. Amy Young, then my fellow dancer, often practically carried me offstage to make it in time for curtain calls; I danced on the stage but limped in the wings. When I could no longer walk home from the subway, I decided to have surgery in 2010.

So when my right Achilles unexpectedly ruptured just two years after I finished recovering, I felt defeated. Sidelined for months, I spent sleepless nights with my leg elevated, only to see it turn blue. I lost feeling in my toes. I took painkillers, ran scorching water down my neck to distract myself from the agony—nothing worked. I felt like I had danced my body to death. Sleep deprived and emotionally eroded, I told the doctor, “I don't want to dance."

But even during this darkest of times, those words didn't feel like the truth. As I lay in bed after the second surgery I thought, I have to create and I have to dance. Paul called me the next day to ask if I'd watch rehearsals; Carolyn Adams called me to teach for her at Ailey; artistic director friends asked me to create a dance, a film. I felt those familiar muscles twitching to life along with the music, even from the confines of a chair. And sooner than I'd allow myself to hope for, everything began to transform for the better—I was dancing again.

I ran barefoot for the first time in months onstage in April 2014. My smile had never been more real. I was awed by my body's ability to heal. And my soul's.

Dance is the light in someone's eyes, the sound of silence suspended while running onstage before I catch the beat right out of the air; it's compassion compressed in a touch and the tilt of a head that begs that question: “How is your heart in this moment, in this breath?" It's throwing yourself backwards to your partner from across the stage and trusting that he'll catch you. Dance is love. I can't stay away.

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