By Miranda Lupel
Who is Cyndy Gilbertson? This is a question I was first able to ask on December 6th, 2018. However, the answer I received was incomplete. Even now, the question goes largely unanswered. At one point she was a teacher, and now she is a dancer. This talent and passion was discovered late in life, and the luxury of in-person dancing came quickly crashing down for 75-year-old Cyndy when Covid-19 took over.
A little over three years ago, I met Cyndy for the first time at a senior center, as a part of my middle school’s after-school program. At this time, I began to learn the story of this inspirational woman. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and found dancing as an outlet to express herself in spite of the diagnosis. Parkinson’s is a disease that affects movement, and it is a proven fact that dancing can help stop the progression of physical and psychological symptoms. Dancing can help people with Parkinson’s feel like less of an outcast in this fast-moving society.
“When the dance class is going on, there are no patients, they’re dancers.” This was said by Reggie Butts, in the documentary Capturing Grace. Capturing Grace centers around dancers with Parkinson’s, of whom Cyndy is one of the stars. This movie is one of the reasons why I wanted to reach out to Cyndy again after all this time. What especially stood out to me was what it is like to discover dancing when your whole diagnosis seems to contradict what the typical dancer looks like. This movie and these people show that dancing does not need to follow typical or expected rules– if anything, it should be the opposite. As Cyndy put it, Parkinson’s forces you to reveal your vulnerabilities.
An immediate response to this kind of story might be to think about the level of strength that these people hold, but they aren’t looking for pity. Mark Morris, a choreographer and creator of his own modern dance company, said that when teaching this class he did not need to tread lightly, as they are all there to dance like anyone else.
Cyndy still lives in her Brooklyn home, as she has for years. When I asked her if she had anyone living with her, trying to imply if she had a caretaker of some sort, she said she had a “younger roommate”. As her determination to keep dancing through a pandemic has proved, her age is a barrier seen by others but not by herself.
The lead up to our phone call was not as complicated as one might think. The conflicting issue was mainly Cyndy’s busy schedule. All I did was call the senior center, where our journey began. Although it took a few weeks, they left me with two phone numbers for Cyndy, a home and a cell. What the director of the senior center made quite clear was to be patient if she did not pick up the phone. This warning gave me a clear sense of what kind of world I would be entering– a world where technology is not a priority. Before this, I honestly had no idea what to expect. So many triumphs and unimaginable obstacles had arisen in the past 3 years that anything was possible as I dialed her number.
As I talked with Cyndy on the phone in the comfort of our respective homes, she caught me up on what she had been up to. The three zoom dance classes she takes, how even with the dancing in her living room she had seen a drastic deterioration in her body, and how at one point the terrace in her apartment was the only outside contact she had with the world. I was able to see an inside perspective on what it was like to live as a socially-defined senior citizen whose motivation was suddenly taken away from them.
After this call, I reflected. Reflected on the 12-minute conversation I had just had, the conversation I had been craving for three months. I reflected on the person I was in 2018 when I first talked to Cyndy and the person I am now. Back then, I was barely a middle schooler, asking broad and naive questions. Cyndy controlled the conversation then, introducing ideas I barely even understood. She then began to describe identity and the fluidity of sexuality. “If you look at a painting and it just has one color then it’s not very interesting. But if you have different shades and movements coming in and out, it makes it much more interesting.” In 2018 I politely nodded my head and kept moving but now, I listen to this conversation over and over again. I slowly go over the content of our talk in my head and wondering how eleven-year-old me would have perceived this.
Ever since this worldwide virus changed our lives, any moment of normalcy feels like a sigh of relief. For Cyndy, these moments are fewer than most. I began with the question “who is Cyndy Gilbertson?” In learning about her story and who she truly is, I did not realize I would end up with an answer to questions about my own identity.