Sarah L. Kaufman is the author of the new book The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic for The Washington Post, and she lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Q: You write, “I’ve written this book to locate grace and hold it up for examination.” How did you decide on the examples to highlight?
A: The book really grew out of an essay I wrote five or six years ago about Cary Grant. As a dance critic, I’ve always written about concert dance, but also about performance and movement in other ways, not in theaters—the dance of life, celebrities who move well.
I was looking at actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when movement was so important and delivered a lot of information about your character. I became fascinated with what Cary Grant could do with everyday movement, the awareness of what he was doing in every scene.
It boils down to attention, detail, attention to the actors around him. It struck me that this was unusual. I began to read books about him, and discovered that he practiced that elegant ease and attention off screen. He was a good friend. He paid attention to current events. He donated his salary from The Philadelphia Story to the British war effort.
He conducted his life very thoughtfully. He stood up for Ingrid Bergman when she was attacked for her love affair with Roberto Rossellini. The same with McCarthyism. He embodied the idea of inner and outer qualities of grace—physical and behavioral.
Then I wanted to look at where these qualities were found elsewhere—celebrities, ordinary people, political leaders, people we meet in our work life—the everyday and the extraordinary.
Q: I was going to ask you why you started your book with Cary Grant—I guess it’s because the idea for the book started with him!
A: He’s a good jumping-off point. He came through adversity. A lot of the examples [in the book] had rough edges. Grace is not perfection. It’s not prestige. It’s not a quality of your birth. It’s composed of other kinds of qualities that are available to all of us. His rough start in life, his struggles as a performer helped give him that kind of sensitivity.
Q: The book covers so much ground, looking at so many different people and different topics—how did you research it?
A: It was so much fun! The bumblebee flight of this idea was darting here and there, but I was trying to anchor it in the principles of the examples I use.
I did a lot of research at the Library of Congress, going back to very old topics, and not finding very much new at all. One of the oldest texts I used is the oldest text in existence, [from ancient] Egypt, in hieroglyphics. It’s the first book, a set of lessons for [the author’s] son in how to be in the world.
It’s amazing because when you read it, it sounds kind of biblical, or like old books on civility, but it also sounds very modern—not getting angry at the table, listening to other people, if you’re in leadership, listen to what your subordinates are saying. It’s the idea of paying attention. Only by paying attention to one another can we understand each other.
Q: You state that these days, “we’ve lost sight of grace.” Why is that, and what can we do to find more of it?
A: There are so many reasons. There was a big shift in social mores in the mid-20th century as postwar life was so different from everything that came before.
The fragmentation of families, baby boomers rebelling en masse, as every generation does at what their parents are trying to stuff down their throats—but this was the biggest generation.
A lot of good things came out of this—civil rights, women’s rights, the antiwar movement. They all needed to happen. But along with it was the idea of the old ways and behavior [seeming] not very appealing.
Now, there are so many ways our attention is splintered. We’re plugged into electronic devices, checking social media feeds, overwhelmed at work…there are so many ways our attention is fragmented. We are not aware of each other in the same way.
The word “grace” is not very common anymore. It’s a beautiful notion of being with other people, and [taking] care of other people’s feelings. It has become devalued.
Q: Is there a way to get it back?
A: Absolutely, there is a way! We have to turn ourselves outward, and have real conversations where we’re actually listening to someone. It calls for slowing down.
These qualities underlie grace: compassion, care, nonjudgment, and generosity. They are all things that take time to cultivate, and take time to demonstrate. It’s really through slowing down our responses, slowing down our impulses, really focusing on other people, we can get to a point where we are more gracious.
I don’t in any way want to be a scold. The book is really about pleasure, and how it’s a delight and joy to experience moments of grace.
The way to experience them is to pay attention, the way…the people in the book all managed to do—through a sense of humor, stopping and attending to people. The notion of taking care, of giving people space. We all must live together—we can’t if we’re thinking of ourselves first.
Q: As a dance critic, what role do you think dance, or training as a dancer, plays in achieving grace?
A: This isn’t a dance book, although I do have a chapter on dancers. There is a dance sensibility weaving through it. Dancers, from the point of view of physical grace—they’ve got that down! They’ve devoted their lives to it.
I would love to inspire people to achieve a measure of that by moving in their life—you don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym every day. You can simply take a walk, and feel how wonderful that is, without being glued to your headphones.
The thing dancers do really well—they have to pay attention to one another. They develop empathy in being a dancer. They feel what the other dancers are [feeling]. They need to be aware of the audience and the other dancers around them.
The notion of awareness and paying attention is very heightened among dancers. It had a very profound influence on me, as a serious dance student in my younger days, and as a dance critic. It made an impact on me—the deep empathy that arises when you’re paying attention to your surroundings.
Q: Are you planning to write another book?
A: I would love to! I’m thinking of ideas. I have two ideas I’m tossing around in my mind….I loved the process of writing this book. It was a complete and utter joy, beginning to end, and it hasn’t ended yet. The continuing conversations are extremely exciting.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As we move into the holiday season, where dining rooms around the country can become very fraught, tinderboxes of contrasting opinions and claims of territory, I love to put out the idea that grace is [the way] different people can exist together.
We don’t have to respond to every perceived slight…we can do something about our own reactions, if we focus on what brought us all together. In a holiday setting, that’s usually family, friends, love. If we keep focused on that and let the other stuff drop away, we can have a nice time together.
In big ways and small, there are so many things you see around the world, so many bad things—people are not able to transcend rigid positions. In a situation with other people, rigidity is not helpful. You have to bend.
The epigraph [in] the book is, “In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.” I love the idea of curving—curving to accommodate. The curve is a graceful path, not a straight line. It’s smoother, gentler, with smoother edges and a more accommodating position.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb