My 9/11

On 9/11/01 I was in Detroit, Michigan, following the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange nationwide community performance initiative, “Hallelujah.” Here is a bit of what I wrote about that day, from my series, “Everybody Say Hallelujah.”

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At 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, I was pulling up in front of the Hannan House senior center on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, when NPR interrupted a radio program on jazz to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Like so many Americans that morning, I called home on my cell phone. My husband told me another plane had crashed. I rushed into the building and found Lerman with three of her dancers and UMS’ Dichondra Johnson, gathered to lead a workshop. The center was unable to get its TV working right away, so we were huddled around a radio at the reception desk when we heard a plane had struck the Pentagon. I remember gasping, clutching my chest and stepping backward. What next? Lerman took my shoulders and whispered, “Come back, come back.”

The four started calling home, since the Dance Exchange makes its home in suburban Washington. The lines were jammed. They were also concerned about two other Dance Exchangers, Thomas Dwyer and Kazu Nakamura, who were in a plane on the tarmac at Washington’s National Airport, about to depart for Detroit. (The company eventually all made it by car.)

We couldn’t find out much. In a display of professional resolve that held out all month, the team decided to go on with its agenda, and we went upstairs to see if anybody showed up for the workshop. Eventually a half-dozen older women arrived, mostly African Americans. To my dismay, they seemed focused on the task at hand, and were content to wait for a new update in a half-hour. While I fought the urge to race out and connect with CNN, the ladies began to talk happily about the last time they had worked with Lerman, in the fall Detroit performance.

“You made a lasting impression on me,” said a woman named Barbara. “I have always known that I am beautiful. My daughter saw me on stage the last time Liz was here, and she said, ‘Now everybody knows you’re beautiful. Ray Charles knows you’re beautiful.’ I’ve always been a buff, but I’ve always been in the audience, You gave me a chance to be on the stage!” This opened a lively and relaxed exchange around the circle of seniors and dancers: introductions and re-introductions, stories about summer activities. The minutes went by and nobody brought up the chaos in New York and Washington. I felt my blood pressure dropping to normal.

Finally, Lerman got down to the work of the day — astonishing, considering her husband and only child were beyond her reach, out there somewhere in the turmoil in D.C. “What do you think Paradise is for you?” she asked. As we went around the circle, people conjured up sharply remembered images: peace of mind, a sunny window, a kiss in the morning, good work. Each story came with gestures. Lerman gathered the gestures and five minutes later we had a dance: Hands balanced each other, thumbs came up and traveled in a circle, arms rose, fingers touched cheeks. We repeated the gestures until we had them memorized. Some of these surfaced in the final performance, including mine; you can’t know how touching this is until it happens to you.

An emissary from real time brought the news that the twin towers had collapsed, and there was a plane crash in Pennsylvania. I felt panic return, then recede again as Lerman plunged back into the workshop: “Is anybody from Paradise Valley?” Stories were told about the lively Black Bottom neighborhood, and the entertainment that went on there 24 hours a day. Billy Eckstine and Sara Vaughn, Hastings Street and Adams Street, the Joe Louis Chicken Shack and the 606 Barn. All of it plowed under for a freeway “to get folks from the suburbs to the city quickly,” said someone. This led to talk of the Great Migration: “How did you end up in Detroit?” There were journeys from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, New York. They or their parents fled jobs in the fields, stubborn illness, death in the family. They came to look for work in “the arsenal of democracy.”

Lerman led them toward stories of being forced to move from Paradise Valley, and they offered the even tougher tales of growing up in Detroit in black neighborhoods that were last on the list when it came to social services. We heard calmly told tales of being “raised on discrimination,” where “after the war we couldn’t get jobs, they took the light-skinned first, and you just did the best you could,” and “there were no blacks on buses in 1948-49, white men would jump on and beat blacks up.” There were sweet and funny stories, too. Finally, Barbara looked directly at Lerman and said, “We wouldn’t share these stories with just anybody, you know. Not unless we feel comfortable. We trust these dance people.” All the people hugged and we went downstairs and out into a new world of trouble. But for a little while, Liz Lerman had us dancing in Paradise.

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