A couple of years ago, I flirted with the idea of getting back into ballet as a fun exercise alternative. The Queensland Ballet is near the office, and they have adult classes that are led by a team of two accomplished dancers, and the one in particular who taught the class I attended a few times changed the way I thought of dance, or at least opened me up to a new mindset about it. That is, it’s fun. It’s not a competition, not when you’re attending a recreational adult class it’s not anyway. I’ve had friends who have tried various dance classes for fun and exercise, but ballet is different and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, either to watch or practice. I danced from the ages of 3 to 13, ballet all the way through, but also a few hilarious years of tap and jazz.
Dancing was the main ‘activity’ I had as a child: I had little interest in sport, save for two seasons on a community girls’ soccer team. There were some decent players at one point, but I believe we held whatever title “no wins” gets. Seriously, I can’t remember ever winning once. I was awful, and I hated it, but I give myself credit in retrospect for trying something different, at my request, that I hadn’t previously considered. I have one vivid memory of playing goalkeeper, and we were actually doing quite well that day so the ball rarely came to our side of the field. I got bored, and I was frankly relieved I didn’t have any responsibility for what was probably a loss (so, actually yes I was the key player in that game), so I spent most of the hour dancing with myself, twirling to whatever music was in my head, and I was transported to a much prettier field that surely had some wildflowers in it, not having a care in the world that any of the parents who were also bored enough to glance away from their darling heroes on the offense were indeed laughing at me. I had no idea, and the thought didn’t cross my mind until my friend Katy told me she was not impressed with them. I still didn’t care – I had a much better time that day than probably any other match. Well, once I think I kicked the ball to someone and that felt pretty good. Oh, I also did a season of YMCA swim team, and I was a pretty strong swimmer and I’m still a general lover of being submerged, but I’m glad I didn’t stick with that – didn’t want the shoulders.
At one stage or two, I also felt inclined toward an instrument, and the one in my sights was the piano. We didn’t have a piano, but there are several musicians in my family, on both sides. My parents were not any of them, so the family’s pianos (Papa Larry’s beautiful, white upright Steinway, and Auntie Tami’s pea-soup conversation piece) did not live in my vicinity, as we did not live in the immediate vicinity of those relatives, who were both in Cleveland, and we were a couple hours south in Cincinnati. The Steinway is now in Stonington, CT with Auntie Mo, although it is Uncle Kenny who plays, brilliantly (by my standards) by ear; I still am not sure if he can read music (Ken, if you’re reading, chime in). The green one is far out of tune and only exists as a lovely family memento in my cousin Matt’s West Hills, Los Angeles home. He is a music buff, and works in the music industry, but he is not a musician either. However, I do recall a particularly lovely singing performance dedicated to his bride (“Save the Last Dance for Me”) nearly 20 years ago. There are many others – Papa Larry played, I think it was oboe or something a bit colorful, for a local orchestra in Cleveland, and I have cousins of that generation who went to band camp (yes) as youngsters, where they met and fell in love, and continued to go until the arthritis and travel became too much of a burden (to clarify, Idele is the cousin, Allen is an inlaw, for anyone who might have for some reason thought they were related thanks to my clumsy description). Larry also somehow acquired a church organ, which I remember him playing furiously and sometimes when we visited them in Florida we’d mess around with it – whoever ended up with that is mad and someone I would like to hang out with sometime because that thing was wild. Cousin Laurie was the first female cantor ordained west of the Mississippi. My cousin Evan – my third cousin Evan – who looks uncannily like my Papa Larry who passed in 1991 and his first cousin, Shelley, who recently passed, is quite – no – very talented and practiced and has a band as well as a formidable repertoire of a capella arrangements, which are all done over the incredible Internet with people he’s never met in person (remember this for later). He also performed on one of those talent reality extravaganzas with a group last year, and they won. But my parents were both forced into piano lessons, proceeded to suck, and did not broach the subject with me, although my dad did pick up his guitar now and again and wow me. He refused to teach me anything though, but I should have pressed him because one time he made the chords and I strummed. Their place in the spotlight was ballroom dancing, having come of age during the Dirty Dancing years, and they stole the show at every occasion with a floor.
So, dancing it was for me, and I loved every minute of those ten years. I thought I did, but do not have one of the priceless photos of me at two, in class looking at myself in the mirror, picking my nose (literally) as the youngest little one in baby ballet class. It really is a classic shot, I was the only girl who managed to get away with wearing a very exciting sparkly, leopard-print splashed, teddy-bear adorned getup, in contrast to the room of black leotards and pink tights. But here are some of the highlights I do have on hand (sorry, this visual content is sponsored by Instagram, and I’m forcing you to know about my infrequently brilliant collection of images):
When I made my soft return to the barre, it was a bit disheartening. When I was a kid, I actually got to be pretty good – not good enough for even the studio company where I attended lessons, but I had good coordination, impeccable posture, and I think I was fairly graceful. When it came time for me to progress to pointe training, I quit. My heart wasn’t in it anymore (the studio in Virginia Beach was not quite as encouraging an environment as the one in Cincinnati, or maybe I was just older and they were more seriously scouting the real dancers from the play timers) and I figured I didn’t want to go down the path of no return. I also didn’t think I had the body type for it, and by all accounts I didn’t, but the point is (sigh) I didn’t feel like it and classes were expensive, so I turned my sights elsewhere, which landed in theatre. Another time.
Actually, I was quite good. One year they gave me free tuition because my mom was sometimes late and they saw it in me. So there. That was actually the year before I quit I think, I probably felt guilty about not loving it as much as I once did. That, and it was getting to feel too difficult, as I advanced and the expectations rose.
I found myself in a professional studio, with a professional ballerina showing me moves I learned as a girl, again, and although we were all terrible except for maybe two students who must have been training for something a bit bigger, I didn’t like that I’d lost it. I was unfit and felt uncomfortable. So I stashed the shoes I wore maybe twice and told myself I didn’t want to walk down Montague Rd alone at night anymore, which is fair enough, but there is a bus people.
But I never forgot ballet, and I still think it is a marvelous and dangerous specialized form of art. When I listen to music, could be anything, I still sometimes have impossible choreography fantasies, and get wistful for the big performance I never had.
The thing is, I’m not unfit anymore. I’m pretty fit, getting there anyway, and I recently told my personal trainer (you know it) that what I’m really aiming for is a ballet body, within reason. He gave me a hint: calf raises, and so I shall do them, a part of my body I’ve never really considered. One thing I am not anymore is graceful. But I think that could be unlearned. I think I’m going to find out if it can be. I’m not talking about ever getting to pointe, probably, but I think there may be a space in my life for that performance I’ve been daydreaming of forever. Not sure where I put those shoes.