They say it takes ten years to make a dancer and twenty to settle animmigrant, both of which I have been. I started to dance in mymid-twenties, and after ten years of training, having swum upstream tomake an aging instrument into an expressive one, I began to finallyacquire that coveted dancer’s “center,” though the moment I danced as atenured dancer was fleeting—as the absence of a life-long foundationcollided head-on with the tenuousness of a newly-trained body. Then,what does the aging dancer do when her physical facility wanes? Shepours herself into other bodies, redirects her ideas into movement forother bodies, translates her ideas into movements for those bodies. Inother words, she choreographs, superimposes herself on the shiftingsurface of other bodies. She re-enters the self from a differentposition, recreates herself elsewhere. This way, the dancer does notdie, but lives on by way of transforming.
Ecosystems, humans, all systems continuously make adjustments topersist, even if those adjustments seem invisible to the eye. It is anillusion that a dancer stands in perfect, static balance on one leg. Ifone looks closer, one can detect the rapid, micro-movements the anklemust make to reach the next exact position of balance, informed bynerves signaling from the brain. The dancer is considered mature whenshe has developed enough strength to transition through and sustain herpositions. With this maturity, all her ideas can finally translate intomovement. Humans adapt and transform their psychological, emotional andspiritual postures on a constant basis in order to persist in anever-changing historical and personal narrative. Adaptation issurvival. In addition to evolving biologically, our minds must learnnew ways of framing things, again and again. Our psychology mustreconfigure its position in relation to what our consciousnessperceives to be reality at any given time.
It is twenty-three years since I immigrated to the United States from Iran. What I experience is not homesickness, or longing for the homeland, but disconnection from the elements of childhood. If we broaden the definition of immigrant, everyone has immigrated in some way: those of us who came from somewhere else are sensitized to fluctuating definitions of self/home. And if we are not the product of physical re-placement, our conceptual or emotional leaps serve as migrations. So it is safe to say that in favor of occupying a new place, we have all made departures.
Longing can result whether thedeparture is voluntary or not. For example, growing older is aninvoluntary departure from youth every person experiences; childhood issomething we cannot regain. On a voluntary level, all art-making is aform of migration, from one state of consciousness to another, from onepoint of creative maturity to another.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines longing as, “a strongpersistent yearning or desire, especially one that cannot befulfilled.” Nostalgia is described as, “a longing for the past, oftenidealized and unrealistic.” Originally coined in the seventeenthcentury from the Greek Nostos, meaning homeland, and Algos, meaningpain and longing, it referred to "the pain a sick person feels becausehe is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again". In theFrench, this feeling is called, Maladie du Pays, sickness for homeland;in the German, Heimweh, home-pain; and El Mal de Corazón, heart-pain,in the Spanish.
In examining other cultures’ understanding and experience of longing, the untranslatable Portuguese notion of Saudade, sometimes spelled Sodade,comes to mind. A uniquely Brazilian and Western Iberian emotion, itcombines longing, homesickness and nostalgia for something unattainableor distant. It insinuates a joy and acceptance in this yearning. ThePortuguese words Falta and Saudade are bothtranslated as “missing” in English, but they are two different kinds ofmissing. Whereas Falta refers to misplacing one’s keys, missing someoneby arriving late or an even-tempered kind of missing, Saudade refers to a more profound kind of suffering-missing. Saudadeis untranslatable in English perhaps because it grew out of the longingexperienced after many left Portugal in journeys to unknown seas. Agenre of Portuguese music, Fado, derives itself from this unique notionof Saudade.
In the Iranian culture, the Persian word Del-tangui, or, literally translated, contraction or missing (tangui) in the heart (del)–similar to the Spanish El Mal de Corazónor heart-pain–can mean any of the English notions of nostalgia,homesickness, and longing. A more specific word for homesickness inPersian is Beemaar-e Vatan or literally translated, home (vatan)-sick (beemaar).Embracing longing is also an integral attribute of the Iranian culture,from capturing nostalgia in its art music, to elaborate rituals formourning the dead, to a long tradition of poetry that speaks of thelonging of the lover for the beloved.
If longing is an inherent step in the process of departures/arrivals, why not, as in the instances of Saudade and Del-tangui,embrace one’s longing, and taking it a step further, subvert it into acatalyst in our search for a state of integritas or wholeness? Longingfor the unattainable dance experience compels the retired dancer tochoreograph. Beckett might have had this spirit in mind when he said,“I can’t go on. I will go on.” He can’t go on according to a seeminglyunendurable pain, but not going on would be an insult to our resilienceas humans, so he goes on because of our resilience, because this pain,indicator of some desire, can be shepherded in the service of art.
Desire, the driving force behind longing, is also the driving forcebehind the creative response to it–whether it is the artist’s desire toexternalize thoughts, and to connect with his or her time andgeneration, or of the work of art itself to be created, to exist at apoint in history which has evolved to the precise moment when it cancontain within itself that work of art. The task then, for those wholong, is to sustain longing on the razor’s edge, at a balancing pointof vying for the desired object and yet not crumbling under its forceor ever fully resolving that longing, lest desire should disappear.