Renee D’Aoust may have stopped dancing, but she continues to move forward with her life and writing. She shares the progress of her momentum with Hillary Transue in the Summer 2014 edition of the Etruscan Newsletter.
Renee D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (published by Etruscan Press in 2011) chronicles her experiences as a young woman and a student of modern dance.
The memoir opens from a second person point of view, inviting the reader to imagine the physical duress and emotional stress of such an intense, passionate lifestyle. From there, D’Aoust moves to first person, giving the reader insight to the author’s experiences in dance. Body of a Dancer is, at times, horrifying; yet it provides a compassionate glimpse into the seductive life of the “anonymous dancer,” as an artist, a tool for art, and the living art itself.
I had the pleasure of interviewing D’Aoust by telephone. She is a soft-spoken, charming woman, who chooses her words with careful precision. In further testament to her character, she spent the first few minutes trying to quell some of the nervous excitement I was experiencing.
D’Aoust first discussed the technical process of her work, explaining that the “genesis for the novel was originally a poem in 1997,” and that afterwards, the poem developed into creative nonfiction pieces. She described “writing things out through essays,” which were published in various literary journals and later grew to a full-length memoir. This developmental sequence made it easier to share her story, however personal, because of the pace of the process.
I wondered if perhaps the experience was a cathartic one for her. D’Aoust was careful to correct my choice of words, letting me know that the experience was not an emotionally draining one, which catharsis would imply, but an exhilarating experience. “I really felt like I wanted to speak in a way that I was never allowed to in dance.”
Interestingly, the memoir reads like a dance. The writing is both rhythmic and lyrical. In response to this observation, D’Aoust agreed that dance does lend itself to a sort of “rhythmic prose” which would explain why the memoir began as poetry.
In fact, Body of a Dancer is separated not by chapters, but by acts. “Acts came very late in the process. I just couldn’t call them ‘chapters,’ and the book had been written. I woke up one morning and realized those had to be called ‘acts’ and it changed immediately. I probably spent a couple years being bugged by the chapters.” This might explain the reader’s inclination to experience the writing as a sort of dance. “The parallels between dance and writing are woven into the book,” she said. The book itself felt like a performance to D’Aoust, one in which she “broke the fourth wall” to reach her audience.
In Body of a Dancer, D’Aoust expertly captures the intense physical duress dancers must endure or “push past,” and the sometimes crazy, competitive obsession with dance. I asked her whether the suffering a dancer endures is really worth it. D’Aoust seemed to be expecting this question, because she expressed a concern she had during her writing: if the reader would question whether or not leading such a stressful life was worth it. To her, “worth” is a very subjective word. “For each person, that line of, ‘Is it worth it enough?’ is different.”
While many of D’Aoust’s dancer friends experienced emotional stress, she did know dancers who were “very grounded.” She argues that the most grounded dancers or artists are the ones who managed to achieve the most success. “I became kind of suspicious of that kind of thinking (the artist as a crazy person), because I knew artists who were very grounded. You have to give it your all each time. You have to throw yourself completely into it. Some people are able to do it and keep grounded. Other people don’t keep that grounded.” Presumably, the ones who are not grounded do not end up successful.
After dancing, D’Aoust admitted she covered all of the mirrors in her house to prevent herself from obsessing over her body image. “When I stopped dancing, I covered all the mirrors in my house; didn’t look at myself in the mirror for years.” She claimed it was intense but that her efforts were ultimately successful. However, she laments some small remainder of that kind of thinking.
After the release of Body of a Dancer, when she discovered she was going to be doing readings, she started worrying about her weight again. “When I knew the book was going to be published and I was going to be reading from the book in public, my first thought, shockingly and sadly, was, ‘Oh my God. I’d better lose weight.’ And it made me so sad because I had done so much work to be comfortable in my body and not worry about weight.”
It might seem unusual to most people that such slender, beautiful women in leotards are able to contort their bodies on stage for an audience of strangers and still be self-conscious while doing so. D’Aoust thinks that kind of thinking is misguided. She blames cultural values placed on women’s bodies for the poor self-esteem of many dancers: “Look at these women with incredible bodies who are in pain, have a distorted body image, and it’s this kind of invasive, cultural body shape that is so unhelpful.”
Now that D’Aoust has moved on from dance and her first book, she is working on a new memoir about the family land she maintained with her mother as a stewardship forest, and how “working in the forest can be a balm.” She says of her writing process for the next book, “You know how writers always say that the process of each book is always different? I didn’t really want to believe that. The process of Body of a Dancer was so special, I didn’t want to believe that the next book would be even harder. Body of a Dancer had such a strong purpose, I felt that I knew why I was doing it and where it would fit in the body of literature. I was very purposeful … and I miss that sense of clarity. With this current project, I feel like I have to find it, like I have to dig deeper.”
One of the contributing factors to some of D’Aoust’s work reduction has been the tragic loss of her mother, with whom she was very close. Not only was her mother supportive of her life in dance; she was, perhaps, her biggest fan and editor. “My mom passed away three years ago and we worked in the forest together, and my mom was also my first reader and editor, so not having her as a part of my initial writing process was very difficult.”
When I asked if she had any advice for aspiring writers, it was her mother’s words D’Aoust recited back to me. “Butt in chair, pen in hand, paper on desk, write,” she recalled affectionately. I could almost hear the smile in her voice.
D’Aoust is currently an online teacher at both North Idaho College and Casper College. For fun, she maintains a blog for her miniature dachshund, Tootsie, which can be found on her webpage at http://www.reneedaoust.com/. However, D’Aoust’s more serious work still takes precedence. She said she hasn’t been keeping up on the blog as much these days, but that her readers should see it as a good sign. “For me I’ve noticed—like Tootsie’s blog and Facebook—I spend less time on those places when my writing is going very well.”
She is a woman who very much feels the need for “movement”—the word that defines the guiding philosophy of her life after having been a student of modern dance for so many years. In her spare time, D’Aoust is still reading, writing, and spending her time in Idaho on her family’s land with her husband and Tootsie. Even though she’s not dancing anymore, she is still very much a dancer. “I hike. And walk: Movement.”
Hillary Transue is a graduate assistant at Wilkes University’s graduate creative writing program. She lives in Ashley, Pa.