I have a 2pm phone interview with Suzzanne Ponomarenko, founder of Brooklyn-based SPDance. My cousin.
I sit in my Lakewood duplex working, as she hurries through the subway in New York City, slowed down by a recent knee surgery.
“I’m soooo slow because of my knee,” she texts, letting me know she’s running late.
I tell her it’s OK.
A few minutes later she texts again: “a couple stops away.”
I don’t reply.
“Going to elevator to ground floor,” she updates.
My phone rings.
In a few days, we’ll be leaving on a week-long outreach trip to Guatemala with Suzzanne’s company, a few additional dancers and one of their moms tagging along.
I’ll fly to New York; then to Guatemala City, where a volunteer agency will meet our group of nine women.
From there, we’ll drive three hours by van to Quetzaltenango — or Xela for short — increasing in altitude until we reach a mountainous valley about 8,000 feet above sea level.
Once settled into our host families’ homes, we’ll arrive at the women and children’s shelter, where we’ll spend most of our week working with rape and domestic violence survivors, as well as orphans.
This is SPD’s first international trip. The company’s mission is rooted in empowerment, dance activism and community service.
In Xela, I’ll be soaking up every detail. Wandering, as the dancers choreograph a show to be performed at the end of the week.
On the phone with Suzzanne, I can hear the city behind her. She attempts relaxed small talk, but we’re both overscheduled and stressed. Cars and trucks blare their horns. At one point, it sounds like she’s walking through construction. I just start interviewing her.
SPD launched less than a year ago. Suzzanne’s been dancing since she could walk, though.
Sometimes, when I’m going through tragic boxes of inexplicitly saved clutter stuffed into my parents’ ceilings and walls, a dance recital portrait of her falls onto the floor. Or of me.
In the living room, we’d dance all the time: twirling and making up our own moves. Leaping into walls. Furniture. Singing obnoxiously, and laughing: “The piano has been drinking. My necktie is asleep.”
“The combo went back to New York. The jukebox has to take a leak.”
After more than 13 years in NYC, Suzzanne’s choreography has calmed. It’s less tense and abrupt, her friends and colleagues tell me.
Maybe she’s more centered from her recent travels in the Amazon, where she sought the guidance of Peruvian shamans. Maybe it’s the European tours she’s survived; the shows she’s choreographed; the brilliant artists she works with. Or maybe it’s just age.
“I don’t necessarily focus on Cleveland or childhood,” she says of her artistic self-expression. I pause.
The statement jolts me because I know part of that past is my present in some ways. Then again, we’re grown.
“It’s just, like, a part of who I am, so naturally, it’s always going to be present: that little bit of Cleveland,” she explodes into knowing laughter. “Good old Cleveland.”
I laugh too, aware of my nervousness around leaving my two-year-old son for the first time. And my husband just days after we sign papers to purchase our first home.
I’m exhausted just thinking of all this. I’m always exhausted.
If she’s a finely-tuned machine, I’m a marionette still well-strung, but with limbs that dig into each other at the joints.
The examples of the past she digs up, to me, seem fresh, but for blurred edges where the details escape.
Every time I’m in Old Brooklyn, I look for the giant gorilla at the go-cart place by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo entrance on Broadview Road. I know both the gorilla and the go-carts are long gone, but my mind still searches for them.
Driving down the hill, toward the zoo, I glance up every time, looking for my cousin and myself at her house at the top of the cliff. We’d camp in the back yard; stay awake with flashlights; listen for the zoo animals; cart our matching pet ducks around in a wooden crate.
Every time I pass by for the rest of my life, I’ll look up at that house and daydream a little, but those two little girls aren’t there.
Another car horn blares so loudly, it’s muffled in the earpiece of my phone. Suzzanne starts breaking up as she talks. I can hear people on the street talking in the background. Kids laughing. I can barely understand her.
She’s so pure and humble, the instructor who trained her told me repeatedly, trying to find a way to fit those traits with the leader, taking this initiative and empowering the women around her to use their own voices.
“I’m not doing it for any reason; it’s just me and where my voice is taking me,” Suzzanne says, almost to her nannying job.
She then tells me this trip is about risk.
I agree, already trying to figure out how to tell this story of transformation, and of trusting the world during a politically suffocating time, Cleveland clinging to the strings that link us, anchored to the points at which our stories meet.
“And the piano has been drinking. Not me,” I think.
[Photos by Jaqlin Medlock]