Finding a New Rhythm

After a health crisis, Tapestry's Acia Gray slows things down

Finding a New Rhythm
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Acia Gray never expected dance to be the death of her.

But last fall it came very close.

As the artistic director of Tapestry Dance Company was preparing for Esprit, the company's October production at the Paramount Theatre, she suffered a severe flare-up of ulcerative colitis. As nasty as that sounds, the reality of it is 10 times worse: agonizing stomach cramps, high fever, drastic weight loss. By the time she sought medical treatment for it, Gray had to be hospitalized for two weeks. Such a grave threat to her health forced the internationally respected rhythm tap dancer and choreographer to take a look at herself and the breakneck pace at which she was constantly moving. What she saw and what she took from it have become the theme of the company's spring production, Rhythm ... of a Life.

Gray's health crisis began almost a month before Esprit was to open – and as soon as the cramps kicked in, she knew what was happening. She had been treated for ulcerative colitis before, and although she had been clean for two years and a physical in mid-September had cleared her of any problems – indeed, had indicated that her condition was good enough that she wouldn't need another internal exam for five years – the pain was all too familiar.

Still, Gray decided to soldier through it. Relying on herbal remedies and her own grit, she proceeded with rehearsals – this despite the fact that the pain brought the dancer literally to her knees. "I probably was up on my feet four days of that time in rehearsal," Gray recalls. "Luckily, the show was a restage that utilized video," meaning rehearsals were less taxing than ones working out new choreography would have been. Even so, when the full cast was present for rehearsals, Gray admits she would jump up and do the runs full out, which was incredibly painful. "Every time my feet hit the floor I could feel the impact in every part of my body," she says. "By Saturday night of the run, I couldn't physically move during warm-up and spent the time on the floor with a heating pad."

Miraculously, Gray made it through both performances of Esprit without collapsing. But just when she should have been allowing herself some desperately needed rest, she was getting on a plane for Bowling Green, Ky. The very next day Gray left to create a new work with dancers at Western Kentucky University as part of the National College Choreography Initiative.

According to Gray, "The presenter picked me up in Nashville on Sunday, and I could barely sit still for the pain in my body. He told me this later. ... Somehow I thought I was hiding it? I managed to make it through 21/2 days of work with them, but I slowly got slower (couldn't jump), holding my stomach the entire time, and at every break I was curled up in a fetal position. By Wednesday night, around 6pm, I softly called over the presenter from my crouched position on the floor to tell him I needed to go to the emergency room. I was admitted immediately with a temperature of 104 and a very, very, very sick colon."

After a round of blood work and X-rays, the Bowling Green doctor overseeing her case proclaimed hers the worst colon he had ever seen. Gray estimates she had lost 10 pounds prior to the opening of Esprit and another 5 pounds in the week since – dropping her from an already lean 119 to just 104 pounds. The medical staff told Gray that if it hadn't been for her athletic conditioning, she would have been in intensive care. Gray was taken off solid foods and spent the next 16 days in the Bowling Green hospital, getting nutrients through an IV tube.

It was on her fourth day that her partner, Tapestry co-founder Deirdre Strand – who had pleaded with Gray not to go to Kentucky – made it to Gray's bedside. She helped Gray recover her strength, and after two weeks of rest and drugs, they decided to make the trip home. The flight back, however, was grueling, with Gray getting a crash course in the ways that altitude affects the human body. "Every time the plane would go down, I'd start to pass out. I kept popping Life Savers to keep me from passing out, because the sugar goes into the bloodstream immediately." By the time she arrived in Austin, Gray was three pounds lighter than she was when the staff unplugged her from the IV tubes in Kentucky. She was down to 95 pounds – and she admits to being shocked the first she saw herself in a full-length mirror.

Acia Gray is not one to let go. She is blessed and cursed with a tenaciousness that keeps her moving, teaching, directing, administrating, working, long after she should stop. At this point, though, she says, "I knew I had to stop and now." She began to think about her "dancing as fast as I can" lifestyle and how it was burning her out from the inside. She recognized what she had to do and gave herself new mantras: Slow down. Spend time with my immediate family. Don't try to do it all. Collaborate. Breathe. Let go.

The personal lesson was profound enough for her that Gray reconceived Tapestry's spring production around it. What had been a program titled Rhythm, featuring a variety of dances by Gray in collaboration with guest choreographers Nicholas Young and Lane Alexander of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, became an exploration of the daily pressures and deadlines that drive us and blind us to life's beauty and our own fragile nature and that can truly kill us. "Somehow it seems part of the therapy," Gray says, "not only for me, but for my wonderful company that had to also survive without me for two months." For the program, she's taking on issues with which she's dealing – being so driven, needing to breathe – and giving them to specific dancers to work with, such as giving Tasha Lawson some direction and telling her not to analyze the movement, but to "just let it go. Let it go." Or giving Jason Janas a break between two dances and requiring him to stop and catch his breath, with the audience watching; no matter how long it takes – two minutes even – he's to take his time and breathe.

For Gray, all this is about finding a new rhythm for the dance of her own life. "In giving the dancers those motivations," she says, "I'm coaching myself. I feel a need to slow down even in my solo work. I'm still working on that letting go and breath."

Gray made it back into the studio herself on Jan. 5. It was not easy. She had been away from dancing for three months, longer than she'd ever been away from it before. She was walking at only a third of her regular speed. She had lost so much muscle that she was physically unable to dance at the level she had in October. She wasn't sure that what she had before would come back to her, and that scared her. But the dance is still inside her, and as she has worked in the studio these last few weeks, she has found herself really relaxed in a way she hasn't known before, which has made the dancing all the sweeter.

"Unfortunately," the dancer reports, "this crazy life is already showing signs of a flare-up again, but this time I'm taking it seriously and am in constant contact with my doctor." She is also taking pains to keep the rhythm of her life less frantic, less urgent. She is working more collaboratively with her dancers – "letting them take an idea and run with it" – and working less at home. "I used to be on the computer for many more hours when I was home, but I've really been good. When I get home, I clock out. When Deirdre gets home, I clock out."

What may appear to be simple changes in routine are bringing Gray riches beyond measure – life as it ought to be lived. Because of that, she was and is grateful for the danger to her life. "It was never a negative. It was a blessing – a hard one, a painful one, but a blessing." end story

Rhythm ... of a Life will be performed Feb. 27 and 28, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For ticket information, call 469-SHOW.

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Austin dance, Acia Gray, Tapestry Dance Company, Esprit, Paramount Theatre, Rhythm … of a Life, Western Kentucky University, National College Choreography Initiative, Deirdre Strand, Jason Janas, Tasha Lawson

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