The Fordham University dorm on 60th Street and 10th Avenue, a tall, beige brick building with a beveled façade, is known, by those on an inside track, as the cheapest hotel in New York City. Fordham, a Jesuit school, requires visitors to sign in when they arrive, and guests of the opposite sex must leave their host or hostess by 3 o’clock in the morning. Flouting this conscription incurs a $15 fee—which apparently fazes very few people.
When I arrived, which was way before 3 a.m., the security guard was giving a pizza delivery boy a hard time. “Can’t go up,” he said, iguana-faced, imperturbable. “She must come down. Call her.” As the pizza boy rooted around for the number, the security guard sniffed his blue insulated satchel, on the desk. “What kind of pizza, that?” he asked. “Personal,” said the pizza boy. The security guard reached in and opened the box. A tiny cheese pizza lay inside, cooling rapidly. “I want one of those,” he said, his nose up close, nostrils cocked, sniffing instinctually. “Get me one of those paaarcel pizzas.” He sat back, hands clasped on belly, and cracked a small reptilian smile.
When Lara tripped out of the elevator to meet me, his smile turned into a beam and his eyes turned beady. “Hel-looo,” he said, his voice a different register. He made an elaborate show of screening my driver’s license and getting Lara to write my details down. His eyes followed her all the way back to the elevator.
What is it about dancers that makes them so immediately recognizable, so easy to peg? They walk like tall people, even when they’re not. Their chin line, never less than perpendicular to their neck, acts as a fo’c’sle to which their face is the figurehead. They veritably sail through life, led by that figurehead, the rest of their bodies streamlined, responding to stimuli by moving like the flaps on the wings of aeroplanes.
So it was with Lara. Compact, purring, powerful, she was a little Porsche embodied, revving and smooth. Looking at our reflection in the elevator door made me feel like a Toyota Previa. From the ‘90s. Like the kind my mom drove, but with more bumper stickers in the back and maybe some fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror.
Lara, a newly graduated dance major from a suburb of Detroit, lives with Sarah, an aspiring forensic anthropologist, and Ariane, who studies graphic design and TV. The door to their dorm apartment had handmade paper cutouts of their names pasted on it. That was it, as far as flair. The apartment, a temporary living situation, was otherwise marked by an almost total absence of character. There was a television on as background music, and a few pieces of basic living-room furniture that I recognized as standard dorm fare, built with rounded edges to better protect the heads of falling-down-drunk post-adolescents. The fabric on the sofa was the color of stains, to better hide them. So was the color of the carpet. Everything about it reminded me of my own time in college; the stale-beer-and-doctor’s-office smell of the hallway, the big void of the future, terrifying in its infinite capacity, and slouching on the couch, wearing sweatpants rolled at the waist.
Lara, pulling her hair back into a perky, utilitarian ponytail, perched on one of the short-bus chairs and consulted the internet. “I’m going to make a herbed summer squash and potato torte,” she declared. She took a potato and cut the eyes out with a blunt knife, carefully. Then she cut it into slices, one by one by one. She sliced a squash, too, and then pirouetted into the kitchen and came back out with a cake tin. She layered the potato and squash onto the nonstick surface and sprinkled chopped spring onion and thyme leaves, carefully picked off the sprig, on top. Even though she was using real food, it sort of felt like play-acting. I think it’s because she’s a dancer. The food was just another tool for movement. The scent off the spring onions was incredibly strong.
She popped open a Bluepoint Blueberry Ale and swigged, then mixed flour with grated pecorino from a tub. She scattered this over the cake tin and drizzled it with oil, then fanned potatoes and squash on top. Sarah, her face illuminated by the purple Mac on her lap, texted away on her phone, absently watching the flickering television.
Students on a Fordham meal plan often “shop” in the cafeteria, Lara explained. The points on their swipe card net them chicken breasts or pints of milk, which they then transform in their dormitory kitchens. A few months ago, Lara even made yogurt in her dorm room, under a lamp with a hot bulb, using old yogurt. She was a vegetarian for a year, but has switched back. Why? In a word: “Thanksgiving.”
She had a comfortable sense of hygge, a word I came across in Denmark that refers to the creation of a cozy, warm and stress-free environment (similar to the German Gemütlichkeit). Instead of turning on the soul-sucking fluorescent light in the common room, she went into her room and fetched a three-headed lamp with warm yellow light that she angled strategically, to everyone’s advantage. I like when people make that kind of effort. “I’m serving you a small piece,” she said as she cut the torte, “but you can have more if you want." We all did. The potatoes, yielding softly, were perfectly cooked, and the grated cheese offered a piquant contrast.
Lara, a dance major and women’s studies minor with a predilection for math, recently presented her senior thesis, a 30-minute choreographed piece on hysteria that involved ten dancers in unisex, institutional-looking costumes, spoken verse, and music from a 19th-century female composer as well as a guy from the University of Michigan. The promotional postcard, beautifully typographed, had on it an Antonin Artaud quote and an etched image from the archives of the Salpetrière, a notorious Parisian hospital/asylum through which thousands of hysterics streamed at the height of the craze. “Women weren’t allowed to express themselves in the 19th century, when hysteria was at its peak,” Lara explained. “The advent of modern dance coincided with the drop-off in hysteria, and I wanted to explore the potential connection.” The background on her laptop was a close-up of a buxom pin-up, and she wove past it into Facebook to show me a clip of the piece, performed in a huge open studio on 55th and 9th, with offices and apartment windows visible behind the dancers. To consult the computer, she bent at the waist, a first position cambré, instead of slouching.
She stayed in the same position, bent at a 90° angle as if this was the most natural thing in the world, while she drew me a map of the contemporary dance world. I could see the map take shape in her brain as she scribbled it into my notebook with a decisive, neat hand. Concert on one side, commercial on the other, with subcategories like “contemporary/avant-garde/emerging” and “music videos” branching out underneath.
“I came to New York because I wanted to”—her eyes narrowed—“make it?” Most of Lara’s sentences end with a question mark. This summer, she’s working in a yoga studio and for a dance company in exchange for classes. She’ll be living at the dorm, where she’s an R.A. and has, for New York, lots of space. But she knows where she wants to be and what she needs to do to get there.
Miss Dance Michigan 2005 looks innocent, but she seemed to me rather wise beyond her years. Her insouciance is just a mannerism; underlaid with a depth that’s subtle, calm and elegant. She popped ice cubes out of a tray and dropped them in some water. It was then that she was at her loveliest.