1707 From Popocatépetl to Salt Spring
A Dancer’s Pilgrimage
by Lolla Devindisch
Salt Spring Island: Rainbow Publishers & Invocation Press, 2022
$20.00 / 9781778160301
Reviewed by Wendy Judith Cutler
I was born beside the smouldering flames of the Mexican volcano Popocatépetl (p. 9).
This was how eight-year-old Lolla Devindisch began her memoir at the time. Decades later she returned to her story in her recently published book — partly a memoir of a child’s loss and longing interwoven with a dancer’s discipline and devotion. A Dancer’s Pilgrimage offers readers a unique and riveting story of her cultural, physical and spiritual journey. Delivered through succulent and luscious prose, her story follows her movements through the contrasting locations of Mexico, Belize, England, New York, South Africa, France, and Canada.
Part One, “Beginnings,” explores her almost idyllic, carefree childhood in the verdant and lush jungles of Belize (known as British Honduras until 1973) in the early 1950s. Readers will fall under the spell of her luxuriant descriptions of the freedom of being at one with nature’s magnificence. Her companions, in addition to her three sisters and local childhood playmates, were the river, the iguanas, the spider monkeys and the expansive wildlife, flora, fauna, foods and creatures that inhabited the jungle.
The river, the Macal, was our teacher and our playground…Much of our time was spent swimming in the river with the iguanas and tarpon, paddling up river in the dory to see the bat caves and even riding downstream on the mahogany logs as they passed our home on their way to Belize City (p. 14).
Her father brought her family to a small farm to create a community dedicated to peace, nutrition and religious devotion. His increased mental instability and growing obsession with cleansing through a highly restricted diet eventually turned into paranoia and religious fervour. “He may have been crazy,” Devindisch writes, “but there was no doubt my father has charisma and a zest for life” (p. 21).
Her mother, worried about her daughters’ well-being, planned an escape from “paradise” without her father’s knowledge. She relocated them to England to live with her mother’s parents. This created immense cultural shock and contrast to her previous life in Belize.
In Part Two, “Becoming a Dancer,” the cultural shock of this move, accompanied by the emotional loss of any contact with her father and her anger towards her mother for wresting them from their previous life, created internal conflicts and froze her heart. She found a spiritual path through the discipline and freedom of dance, especially ballet, which carried her through the rest of her life:
My dancer’s heart sustained me during the years of our training and suppression of our lives and fuelled my sense of purpose. Even now, when I begin to dance, it is as though body and soul are illuminated from within (p. 108).
With the lucidity that only a dancer can provide, she details the physical and emotional training she undertakes in order to advance into the often-exclusive world of dance. At thirteen she won a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Dancing in London and at sixteen she began training at the Academy’s Teaching Training College. She later relocated to New York City and danced with the Radio City Ballet Company.
In her final section, Part Three (“Travels”), she charts her geographic transitions and dance companies between the United States, England, South Africa, France and ultimately settling in Canada. Her relationship with both sets of grandparents provided a sense of security and connection that had been ruptured by the severance of her life in Belize. Her search to learn more about her father propelled her to spend time with her father’s family in the United States in which she received crucial family correspondence which answered some of her questions about her father.
In South Africa, she encountered the indignities and discrimination of racism.
Everywhere we went, the firm hand of apartheid marred the beauty of the country, not only with the signs to the entrance of public places such as, for ‘Whites Only,’ or ‘Slegs Blankes’ but also with the tension and pervasive lack of compassion (p. 151).
She also describes her bout with eating disorders, something that is so prevalent with dancers: “This was a distortion of the mind, in which, though I weighed only ninety-five pounds of muscle and sinew, I was convinced I was fat” (p. 171).
After making her home on Salt Spring Island, she discovered the joy and freedom she experienced as a young girl, running along the jungle in her bare feet. She also found inspiration in the collaboration with like-minded souls in the dance world and creative arts community. Equally fulfilling was working on the publication of her memoir with editor, Lorraine Gane, co-publisher, Diana Hayes of Rainbow Publishers, and designer for the memoir, Christina Heinemann.
During the author’s well-attended book launch at the Salt Spring Island Public Library in November 2022, Devindisch’s often elegant and lyrical prose complemented her grace and fluidity on display as her body swayed to the words she was speaking. When queried about what she was most proud of with the publication of her book, Devindisch remarked that it was how the book seems to touch people about the human condition, encouraging them to discover more of their own joys and sorrows. A Dancer’s Pilgrimage is, at its root, a family story, a dancer’s story, and a spiritual pilgrimage that will move, inspire and delight.
Wendy Judith Cutler is a longtime Jewish Lesbian Feminist, radical teacher, writer, social change and queer activist and, most recently, playwright. She was born in Los Angeles, politically educated in the Bay Area and taught as an Instructor of Writing and Women’s Studies in Portland, Oregon for decades. She co-authored Writing Alone Together: Journalling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion and Connection (2014); edited Finding Home: Collected Stories from Salt Spring Island Circle of Women (2018); and co-edited (in production) Finding Home Within: Sanctuary and Solace During Tumultuous Times (2023), in addition to numerous other published writings. She and her lovergirl-life partner of over thirty-six years immigrated in 2006 to the unsurrendered, ancestral territories of the Coast Salish First Nation Peoples (Salt Spring Island). Her passion is gathering people together, especially women and queers, to write and share their lives. Writing and producing her first play, An UnDutiful Daughter, which premiered in July, 2023 on the island, was one of the most thrilling experiences of her life. Visit her website. Editor’s note: Wendy Cutler adds: “It has been an honour to review Lolla Devindisch’s memoir for the British Columbia Review. I have been in several theatrical productions with Lolla and her warmth and grace fill any environment she inhabits. As a dancer, myself, studying ballet and performing as a young girl for ten years of my life, I was especially moved by her vivid descriptions of the dance world.”
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster