5: How I Became a Ballerina at Thirty
5: How I Became a Ballerina at Thirty
How I Became a Ballerina at Thirty
I think it is wonderful for everyone to take ballet classes, at any age. It gives you a discipline, it gives you a place to go. It gives you some control in your life.
In my tomboy youth growing up in Texas, the only dancing I did was line dancing in gym class — brush kick, grapevine, and boot-scootin’ boogie across the basketball courts. And hours of Dance Dance Revolution, if that counts as dancing. In college, I bobbed and swayed through formal dances and participated in some choreographed Bollywood numbers for the fun of it. Freshman year, I met my soulmate. About seven years later, we did a cheesy wedding dance to Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One.”
As I spent more time on the dance floor, two things became apparent: I love to dance and I am a terrible dancer. And I’m not the kind of terrible dancer who has an infectious sense of confidence, who can pull out zany disco moves in a cleared-out circle and people start clapping. I’m awkward, clumsy, and have all the rhythm of a quarter clanking in the dryer.
In 2009, my husband was offered a professorship at McGill, so we moved to Canada that fall. After three years of settling into a new life in Montreal, welcoming two beautiful daughters into my life, and turning thirty, I took my insistent three-year-old to enroll in ballet at a local studio.
Maybe it was the dramatic black-and-white photographs of elegant ballerinas mid-leap on the studio wall and the fantasy that I could look like that one day — perfect, weightless, ethereal. Maybe it was some deep inner, partially formed desire for self-expression suddenly lifted out of the existential miasma of being an expatriate and a mother and a woman no longer in her twenties. But I signed myself up too, and there was no looking back, at least for the next twelve-week paid session.
My daughter and I went shopping for leotards together. The woman at the store brought me two black ones to try on — XL and XXL. (Usually, I’m a small or a medium.) I suddenly felt like quitting before I even started, but my daughter was watching me, so I tried on the leotards and bought the larger size with three-quarter sleeves to hide my arms.
The first class, I desperately tried to copy the person next to me at the barre while deciphering what the instructor said in French about les orteils (toes) and les épaules (shoulders). My frustration prodded me. Instead of feeling discouraged, I became determined to improve outside of class. Something in mon coeur (my heart) shifted, and I was filled with a desire to take dance seriously.
I went home and downloaded Ballet Beautiful workouts from Mary Helen Bowers, who got Natalie Portman in shape for her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan. I tried to eat fewer cookies and did Mary Helen’s bridge series and inner/outer thigh toning exercises until I could actually make it through the whole sixty-minute workout without wimping out in the middle.
By the end of three months, I hadn’t dropped a leotard size, but there was a perceptible change in my physique. It had less to do with muscle tone and more to do with how I carried myself — how I stood up from a chair, how I walked to the park, how I twirled in the grass with my girls.
Even though I enjoyed ballet, it was private, something I did for myself because I felt elegant and “ballet beautiful.” So when my daughter enthusiastically declared to another mom at the playground that I was a ballerina, I smiled politely to hide my embarrassment and quickly dispelled any misconception: “No, no, I’m just in a beginner ballet class.” Not that my Rubenesque form could be mistaken for one of those black-and-white prima ballerinas on the studio wall.
Later, as I was recounting the incident to my husband, I began to wonder why I had such a hard time describing myself in terms of what I like doing. My daughter likes to dance, paint, and play with a plastic light saber. In her mind, she is a dancer, an artist, and a Jedi Knight. The moment at the playground was a reminder that, as a grown-up, I spend time doing things, but I don’t allow myself to be those things. I fear criticism, ridicule, and dismissal. I seek perfection. Why is it that I have to be good at something in order to be that thing?
Yes, I have to coax my body onto wobbly tiptoes — being a long way from en pointe — but there has always been an untapped dimension to my spirit that I didn’t fully explore in my insecure boot-scootin’ boogie days. I’ve always had dance inside me. It may find its expression in weird and awkward ways, but it’s still dance.
My class rehearsed the past three months for a performance to Respighi’s “The Cuckoo.” On the day of the show, my hair tightly pinned into a bun, I put on a purple costume with matching tutu, rose pink tights and slippers. Heart nervously fluttering in my chest, waiting for the music’s opening flutes on stage, I realized that I may not be a professional ballerina — I may not even be a good ballerina — but I am a ballerina.
Then the stage lights rose, and the curtains opened. Suspended in the magic of the performance, arms outstretched like wings, for a moment I saw myself in black and white.
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