Walking on Knives

In 2000, I choreographed a piece of dance theatre based on themes and ideas from the story of the Little Mermaid. I called the performance ‘Walking on Knives’, as in the story, when the mermaid gave up her tail to get legs, she experienced terrible pain through her middle, and ‘every step she took was like walking on knives’. Little did I know that a year later I would start experiencing pain in my hips that would make me feel like I was walking on knives, and that this would become my everyday reality. Having lived with increasing pain and lack of mobility for 18 years, I am finally having a double hip replacement on August 8th at the RDE hospital in Exeter.

I feel nervous – not so much about the operation, that’ll be done with an epidural and sedation, and is in the hands of the surgeon. But about afterwards – how will I feel? Will there be pain? Will I be able to move? How long before I stand up? How different will it be? The surgeon is correcting the dysplasia in my hips, and adjusting my legs to be the same length. So when I first stand up, it will be with a new, unfamiliar body. I have no idea what it will be like to live and move in that body. I also have no memory of what it is like to not be in pain. How will it be to have an absence of pain, an absence of stiffness, an absence of limping? What is the experience of absence?

As I move through this experience, I want to try to feel a sense of creativity in the unravelling of the story and my body. So this blog will also be a place to share poetry and other forms of art, perhaps even performance, a little further down the line of healing. For me, as a performer, having spent years tuning into my body, and the relationship of body to mind, this process is not just medical, or social, it is one of identity, and of (re?)discovery. It is also about the experience of time, and how time is experienced differently during the process. Now, in m pre-op life, my sense of time is concerned with how long it takes me to get from one side of the room to the other, or how long the daily struggle of putting on trousers and socks will last. Post-op, time may be experienced differently, as I move differently, think differently.

In anticipation, I’ve written a poem drawing on themes and ideas from the story of the little mermaid, through my interpretation of her experience, and mine. It’s left deliberately unfinished, open, at the end in the last line, because I don’t know what the experience will be after the operation. Will I feel freedom, movement, fluidity, and an absence of pain? Or will it still feel like walking on knives?

Walking on Knives


A glimpse.
It becomes a gaze.
How beautiful he is and moves.
He hears her but cannot see,
Cannot touch.
Yet his eyes beseech her,
Desire her,
Fasten her with a hook
That draws her to the surface
Of another world.
Give up the tail
Give up the voice
Give up the known life.
Pain, pain, pain rips through her middle
As the singular is sliced in two.
A woman is born and emerges to hope.
 
And every step she took
Was like walking on knives.
 
 
Tailless, the unfamiliar feet
Touch the dry texture of stone and wood.
Balance is harder on two than one,
Trying to float in sky, not water,
Chained to the earth.
Singing inside -
Never heard.
Bleeding from the middle –
Never seen.
Dancing and smiling –
Never loved.
A sacrifice formed vainly from vanity,
Hopelessly from desire.
 
And every step she took
Was like walking on knives.
 
 
The story shapes a mirror
That presents my own body and song.
Looking down into and beyond the water’s surface,
Deep into the dark green world beneath
I see her face.
We look at each other,
Reflections
Glimpsed through shadows.
And we still believe
Still hope
Still love.
The water that floats and breathes
Shows glints of the harsh sky above
Which silences and bleeds.
 
And every step we take
Is like walking on knives.
 

I move into the beckoning water,
Feeling its gentle resistance around me.
I can swirl and extend and bend
In a way not possible on the dryness of land.
Who needs two legs, anyway.
Fusion of limbs forms a tail
Which swishes and guides
And moves with pleasure
As I sing sweetly of freedom.
 
And every step I take