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One day five years ago, Lucien Wulsin was walking down the hallway at the Naropa Institute. By then his white hair had grown out into a ponytail, and he'd abandoned the suits that had seen him through several distinguished roles: attorney, CEO of Baldwin United Corporation, chairman of the board of the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities. Instead, he was wearing tights, which simply made more sense in a workplace where just about everyone meditated daily.
For the second time in his life, he was chairman of an institute of higher education. The first had been at the University of Denver, where he headed the board from 1978 through 1982. But Naropa was a very different learning experience--a fact made abundantly clear when visiting dance instructor Jeff Bliss stopped Lucien in the hallway.
"He told me he was doing an intergenerational dance thing," Lucien remembers. "He said, `I'd like you to be a senior in one of my dances.'"
At 72, Lucien was certainly senior enough for the job, but he wasn't going to take it without some prompting. "I'd never done anything like that in my life," he says. "Are you kidding?" asks Lucien's oldest son, also named Lucien. "My father is a dancer, all right, and he has always gloried in it. Back in the late Fifties, when the parties started happening, he just plunged in and started doing the twist. I was probably 13, he was 42 or 43. I remember being regularly embarrassed."
Despite a fondness for the frug and square dancing displayed on summer vacations, the elder Lucien still thought intergenerational modern dance was beyond his abilities. Luckily, he had no choice in the matter.
"Part of the Naropa tradition is, you're on the spot," Lucien explains. "If someone asks you to do something, you do it." Even if you're chairman of the board.
So the next day Lucien reported for rehearsal, where Jeff asked him to reflect on this question: Have you ever had a confrontation with an inanimate object?
"I said, `Yes, I ran over a German tank in World War II and it blew up and I was injured,'" Lucien remembers. "`Is that what you mean?'"
"Yes," Jeff replied, "and that's your dance."
Although the war left Lucien's ankle all but frozen, over the intervening decades he'd rarely mentioned his injury. Now Jeff wanted him to convey the tenor of those times through a very simple body motion--a process that turned out to be far from simple. "Actually, it was very painful," Lucien says. "It took quite a while before I could make it through rehearsal without crying."
Then came his stage debut in Jeff's dance concert, which Lucien remembers mainly for the "moment of terror when I finished my dance and stood and waited to see what the audience would do." What the audience did was applaud, as Lucien is happy to tell you.
"It was very powerful," he says, "so powerful that I had a family reunion for my five children and did my dance for them."
"I sure remember that," says Lucien's second-oldest son, Harry. "He put on his Balinese costume--but then, my father always loved dressing up; he could have been the original cross-dresser. I sat there thinking, Now what's he going to do? But he began to talk and dance, and it meant so much to him that I got a great deal out of it. He's always been different, but this was the first time the spiritual side of him was brought out."
"I guess no one expects his father to put on a Balinese crane costume and dance," says the younger Lucien, "but with my father, you take whatever happens. He began to relive the experience of the war, and the sense that he almost died came across so poignantly it brought me nearly to tears. And then I felt a great deal of joy for who he is and what he's been through."
"I had a wonderful time," Lucien says simply. "I felt as if I were opening several different parts of my past and could talk to my children about it."
Another man might have seen this as reason to delve further into his past--with three ex-wives, eleven offspring (his own, as well as current and former stepchildren) and multiple careers, there was plenty of material to explore--but what Lucien really wanted to do was dance. Instead of introspecting, he got a gig as an extra at the Colorado Dance Festival. There he met Alana Shaw, whose Turning the Wheel dance company would become his home troupe. By then Lucien had decided that "body movement is an inherent part of how humans express themselves, and just because you're aged doesn't mean you shouldn't."
In fact, Alana says, if her company recognized the star system at all, Lucien would be at its zenith. "I knew instantly that he was a powerful, powerful performance energy," she recalls. "I mean, he was a 72-year-old man trying to keep learning with every pore of his body."
Joining Alana's company was Lucien's final step away from what he calls his "old, conventional world." His new world--Boulder, Naropa and dance--was young, too young to have many conventions. Here he was recognized not for his business acumen but for the "part of me that really wants to express itself and has nothing to do with how I look."