TWYLA THARP appeared at 6:03 a.m. on a recent Wednesday wrapped in a brown DKNY trench coat, her mop of silver-white hair bristling with energy in the predawn torpor of East 91st Street. At 6:04 a.m., she tripped over the prong of a forklift parked in front of Eli's Bread. Her newspaper lurched out of her hands. A fan of credit cards spilled from her wallet. She tumbled onto the street, hitting the ground hands first, executing a near-perfect forward roll and landing in a reasonable semblance of the splits.
Then she got up, and without comment, proceeded into the Pumping Iron Gym.
Lesson One: Accidents will happen.
Pumping Iron is not a nice gym. It has dirty gray carpet, mean-looking machines that clank, metal on metal, dour fluorescent lighting and, on prominent display, a framed poster of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, oiled and nearly naked, standing triumphal atop a boulder.
It's a bone-crushing scene, not the least bit frou-frou, and the last place you would expect to find a modern dance choreographer, especially a petite 62-year-old one. But Twyla Tharp is no ordinary woman.
She has received the dubious honor of being invited by the guys at Pumping Iron to steak night at Peter Luger. "Every now and then, large men eat raw beef just to stay large," said Sean Kelleher, a barrel-chested man who has been Ms. Tharp's trainer for 14 years. "It's just the guys. Twyla is the only woman ever invited."
In the last 35 years, Ms. Tharp has created 126 dances, choreographed 5 movies (including Milos Forman's "Hair" and "Amadeus"), won two Emmys for her television special "Baryshnikov by Tharp," written an autobiography, worked on four Broadway shows and, this year, won a Tony for "Movin' Out," a narrative ballet set to Billy Joel's music.
Now she has completed her second book, "The Creative Habit." And she wants to be very clear that it is not about dance.
"It's not about explaining dance," Ms. Tharp said tersely. "I could care less about that."
The book, she said, is about thinking. It's a wide-ranging self-help book for creative people. (Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, notes on the cover flap that this population includes painters, composers, writers, directors and choreographers, as well as anyone working on a business deal, a chef developing a new dish and a mother who wants her child to see the world anew.)
"It's not just me and the damn gym," Ms. Tharp said. "It could be Beethoven at the damn keyboard. It could be Rembrandt with the damn paints. It could be Hemingway with the goddamned typewriter. Why sit there every morning? Why the frustration? Why come back to it day in and day out? It's because that's where you do your work."
The book is bombastically anti-Romantic. Do not wait for inspiration, she advises, for it will not come. You must exercise your muse. "Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits," she writes. "That's it in a nutshell."
Ms. Tharp is certainly not the first to suggest that practice is the lifeblood of inspiration, but her emphasis on routine and asceticism can make creativity seem downright lawyerly. The word "fun" does not appear until Page 201 of the 243-page book. Most dancers have a somewhat dubious relationship to fun -- having a high threshold for pain is a prerequisite for the job -- and Ms. Tharp's message, while broadly applicable, has very clearly been forged in the world of dance.
While practice may be important to other disciplines, it is the very fabric of dance. At the end of the day, novelists have their books, painters their canvases and playwrights their scripts. Choreographers have dances, and unless a dance is being done -- at rehearsal or on the stage -- it does not exist.
The book is also an attempt to rescue dance from its bum rap as a mute, childlike irrelevance unworthy of sustained intellectual inquiry (or a steep ticket price) and bring it back into dialogue with the posher arts, like literature and film.
(It is worth noting that the book was, in part, a financial necessity. "I worked on developing a Broadway show for two years for $40,000," Ms. Tharp said. "I had to pay my bills. This is called an advance, O.K.?")
Movement, she insists, has a lot to offer other disciplines. "Proust writes, he remembers, physically," she said. "He depends on his body to give him the information that will bring him to the past. His book is called 'In Search of Lost Time,' and he does it through the senses. He does it through smell. He does it through feeling. He does it through texture. It is all physically driven, that language."
Six minutes after her run-in with the forklift, Ms. Tharp, unscathed, began 30 minutes of stretching. "If you've done enough falls, you know exactly what to do when you hit the ground," she said.
"Stretching" consisted of a series of baroque curls, thrusts and bounces, mixed with pistonlike leg lifts and sit-ups. "It is a series of exercises I've compounded since I was 3 years old," she said. "It's like an interior massage."
At 6:24 a.m., she was doing side splits, her nose bowed down toward the blue mat.
Next came 40 minutes on an elliptical cross-trainer. By 7:20 a.m., she was upstairs in the weight room. She and her trainer moved in tandem, without speaking. They knew the routine: 15 shoulder sets, 12 abdominal sets, 3 leg sets, with no rest in between, all done in 35 minutes.
"People always say, 'Why do fighters keep coming back?' " Mr. Kelleher said. "Well, fighters fight. Twyla's a dancer. Dancers dance."
It was 8 a.m.
Lesson Two: No matter what, keep practicing.
To be a dancer, you must practice pointing your toes every day, for years. Training the body -- whether to perform surgery, play baseball or do ballet -- requires repetition. You can't just think about it, you have to do it. Over and over. Classical dancers return to the same ritualized set of physical exercises -- plies, frappes, battements -- every day, not only to train their bodies, but also to figure things out. Ballet barre can be an exercise in problem solving: understanding why you keep falling off balance today, while you didn't yesterday, is the best way to learn what balance is all about. And once you can balance, you are free to fall.
"Nothing is more terrifying to me, really, than the status quo," Ms. Tharp said. "I'll make mistakes before I keep doing something the same way. And you're saying, 'But wait a minute, aren't you the person who goes into the gym for 14 years?' Yeah. I am, but I don't use it as status quo. I use it as something that allows me to propel myself out in a different way. It gives me the authority and the confidence to do that."
After breakfast at home (three egg whites, coffee) and morning phone calls, Ms. Tharp rehearsed with her company at City Center, from 12:30 to 4 p.m., for the next day's performance. At 4:30, she was sitting in the empty house of the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street, overseeing an audition for the touring company of "Movin' Out."
"You're a loser, boy, and you'll always be a loser -- am I right?" shouted Scott Wise, an assistant director of the show.
"Yes," said the dancer.
"What?" spat Mr. Wise.
They ran the lines over and over.
Ms. Tharp intently sipped a large skim latte from Dean & Deluca. "Is he doing it yet?" she asked. "No. But is the potential there? Yes."
She asked the young man to dance. He ran through a short phrase of movement from the show -- a sweeping, exuberant series of jumps and turns -- five times. "Try to let yourself go," Ms. Tharp said. "All right?"
He did it again.
"It still looks cautious," she said. "It's like: 'Hallelujah, brother! The spirit speaks!' "
He did it again, and this time the spirit spoke.
"What were you thinking then?" Ms. Tharp said.
"How much I love to dance," he said, flashing a big, embarrassed grin.
"Yeah! Yeah!" Ms. Tharp roared. "Try it one more time," she said. "There's always one more time in my repertory."
He got the part.
Mozart, she notes in her book, practiced so much he deformed his hands, and Marcel Proust spent 12 years translating the works of the 19th-century British art historian John Ruskin. That practice, she said, "gave him a scaffolding for his thinking."
"And then he could take that scaffolding away because he had built his own muscles and he could go out on his own," she added. "But it took that discipline and that commitment to accomplish that kind of massive freedom."
Lesson Three: Repetition can set you free. (It can also land you a job.)
"The Creative Habit" is laced with exercises, which range from the physical to the metaphysical, designed to jump-start flagging muses. "Chaos and Coins" helps you practice drawing order out of chaos: toss a handful of coins on a table, see how they fall, and fiddle with them until the pattern makes sense. Stuck in a creative rut? "Do a verb," Ms. Tharp advises; that is, pick a verb and act it out physically. The idea is that the exercise will get you moving, which can be stimulating all on its own, and may spark a new idea.
Great theory, mildly embarrassing in practice. It's hard to imagine the sedentary masses experimenting with some of the physical tools Ms. Tharp offers, though they might be better off if they did. Her advice is to turn the phone off, make sure the maid isn't coming, avoid looking in the mirror, and "Get over it."
The exercises come from Ms. Tharp's own repertory, but some may strike practicing artists, who have their own rituals and tics, as a bit pedantic. Richard Avedon, Ms. Tharp's friend of 30 years, liked the book so much he made his entire staff read it aloud, from 8 to 10 each morning for a week, but said he himself didn't need to read the whole thing. He has, however, been tossing coins around a lot lately.
"I just love what you can do with them," he said at his East 75th Street photography studio. There were no coins on hand, so he picked up a handful of cookies and scattered them. "Uh-huh," he said, "I've never seen that before," and began to rearrange the cookies on the tabletop.
The exercises are best for those open-minded, young or lost enough to accept some hand-holding. "These are all just suggestions," Ms. Tharp said.
Her deeper point -- and the reason she includes physical exercises along with visual and existential ones -- is that mining the body is useful not only for choreographers, but also writers, photographers and the occasional businessman. That's the most compelling, if elusive, insight of the book.
When Ms. Tharp stopped by Mr. Avedon's studios in September to discuss the book, "it became immediately a therapy session," he said.
Michael Wright, a 22-year-old assistant to Mr. Avedon, confessed, "My problem is I have a hard time getting to the point."
Ms. Tharp advised him, "Jump."
Dance didn't come up once.
"There is nothing you can do without moving," Ms. Tharp said. "To me, the fact that dance has been pushed into this fringe position is baffling."
That insight hit her while she was giving birth to her son, Jesse, now 32. (Thirty-four hours of labor, no anesthetic. "My body knows how to take care of itself," she said, by way of explanation.)
"You come out squirming before you come out squalling," she said. "That is the definition of life: it moves."
That Wednesday's audition ended around 6 p.m. She considers the rest of her day her private time at home. Dinner -- a bacon salad, a steak, and a glass of water -- at 7, and a bath, left an hour for reading. (Proust requires commitment. Ask her how she finds the time to read, and she'll tell you, "I hack it out of the marble of the day.") Lights out by 9:30.
"That's my day, every day," she writes in her book. "A dancer's life is all about repetition."