Monday, December 11, 2006

Hold me closer, Tony Danza

I took my first ballet class when I was three years old.

I remember the butterflies in my belly, walking up to the studio (an old grange hall) wearing my pink half sleeved leotard and tights and my pretty pink shoes. My mom had put my long hair up in a bun, and several of my friends from preschool were going to be in the class. I can still remember "practicing" beforehand, telling myself that if I could balance on the knuckles of my toes or twirl around that I'd be recognized as an instant prodigy.

My first ballet teacher's name was Lori, and she taught the little ones. Ballet for very small children consists primarily of tumbling and movement and not much in the way of technique, because children that small and young don't yet have the necessary coordination. I remember my first barre exercises, learning even then that I have short achilles tendons and so my heels pop up after a very shallow plie. (I came to curse that shortcoming of my anatomy later on, when the lady who started the studio, old and white haired, would slap my ankles with her cane when my heels popped up too early. This also meant that my already genetically-blessed large calves were far larger than they might have been otherwise.)

For my first recital, I was a baby swan, and wore a white sparkly costume with a tutu and feathered headpiece. It was a beautiful cosutme and I loved every minute of being on the stage.

After a few years, most of my preschool (and later, elementary school) friends stopped taking ballet classes; either they lost interest, found things they liked better, or realized they'd never be very good. I, on the other hand, loved my classes, pushed myself as hard as I could, and realized when I got skipped up a level that I *was* quite good. Watching other girls in my class dance, some of whom were two or three years older than I was, made me feel good - because I could recognize who was really good, who had good technique, and who would never make it. The worst girl in the class was named Katherine, and she kept on for years longer than she should have; most girls in that studio were put en pointe (got to use toe shoes) around age 12 or 13, but Katherine wasn't good enough at that point. I even felt kind of sorry for her.

Our recitals were so much fun; the practicing for hours after school got out in June, our moms sewing our costumes, the music and the excitement and the photos. I was an oompa loompa (striped jumper, side ponytails, little caps)(Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), a court child and daughter of the air (Little Mermaid), Little Miss Muffett (Babes in Toyland), a flower in the garden (Alice in Wonderland). Every year I looked forward to reading the program after the show, idolizing the older girls who got to do the solos.

I was put en pointe when I was 11 years old. That's pretty early as far as those things go, but my turnout was good, my extension was good, my arches were fantastic, and I had the drive. My feet were women's size six and after I got my first pair of pointe shoes they stopped growing for over a year. I found that not only was I good at ballet in general, I was very good en pointe - unlike most people, my wide foot and narrow heel meant that my foot was suspended in the toe box and my toes didn't actually touch the ground. While I got blisters occasionally, and my toes got all warped from being smashed together and holding all my weight, it was never a painful experience for me like it was for so many of my classmates. The next year I was told I'd have to start taking classes four times a week (the town was 15 miles away) and once a week to another town even farther away in order to step up my game. I'd started middle school at this point and was totally exhausted, burnt out. I had also started my growing sideways before I grew taller phase, and by looking at my parents and relatives I could tell I'd never have the body necessary to dance professionally - too muscular, too curvy, feet and hands too big.

So I quit. My feet grew two sizes in six months. I did well in school and desperately missed ballet. I checked out the local school when I made a friend in the new town we'd moved to who also danced - but this was a much more laid-back, dance-for-fun sort of place, and the most advanced class was still not dancing en pointe. So I waited, pulling out my too-small shoes and practicing in my tiny bedroom, doing my barre exercises and watching my form in my mirrored closet doors.

Six months later they all got their shoes, and I started up with the local studio. There were no bigger, older girls to look up to - we were the bigger and older girls. My class was the first, since the studio was so young, to have ever danced en pointe. And I couldn't just take ballet - I had to take jazz, which I was never very comfortable with. I continued with ballet, experiencing increasing pain in my hips that had started when I was 9 or 10, sometimes miserable all day from the pain. My teacher didn't know what it was, but recommended I take things easier, not emphasize my turnout quite so much. But I couldn't dance half-assed, I had to do things the RIGHT way, even though it hurt so much. My hips started popping in and out of their sockets, and sometimes when I was standing still in place I could pop them just using my hip flexors. It didn't matter; I loved dancing, loved performing, could not imagine stopping.

I graduated high school, went to college, and took a ballet class there. My hips got progressively worse, and, after waking up 3 times in one night in tears, went to a university doctor in the spring. He took some x-rays, listened to my story, and told me, "Either quit ballet now or get new hips by the time you're 30. You don't have any cartiledge left, and nothing will get better until you quit." I left the health clinic in tears, miserable, not wanting to imagine what life would be like without dancing.

That summer I moved home and worked two jobs and helped out at the dance studio, where my teacher choreographed my final hurrah for the June recital and sent me home with a tutu to starch. I knew it would be the last time I ever danced, and I was right. There's a picture of me somewhere, holding flowers, with my makeup a little runny from the stage lights and hot dressing rooms, with an enormous grin on my face. I didn't start crying until we got home.

While dancing was such an enormous part of my life for so long, I've mostly managed to move on and find other things I enjoy doing. I am so grateful to my parents for driving me to and from lessons for years, for volunteering at the studios to pay for lessons, to the dance teacher I had in high school for giving me a scholarship so my parents didn't have to pay for three sets of lessons. Some of my life's best memories took place in that studio. No thanks to that lady for hitting my ankles, to that first studio for pushing me so hard ("Oh, you can turn out so well! Here, try to go farther. And let's put you on toe shoes when your feet are still growing."), or to my genetic predisposition to that hip thing. My sisters both took ballet as well, and they both ended up with it, though neither had it as bad as I did.

I look at ballet as such a positive influence on my life. It taught me hard work, discipline, memorization skills, rhythm, how to feel centered in myself. It allowed me to work out the frustrations of life on the dance floor, letting my aggression, anger, sadness, to flow out of the tips of my fingers and the ends of my toes. I learned to work through pain, to appreciate that things that were worth doing took a lot of dedication, practice, and missteps along the way. I learned how to fall (I used to fall a lot in class, but it was OK because I knew how to do it without hurting myself. My teacher would always praise me, because it meant I'd pushed the envelope; I'd taken a risk rather than played it safe. Sometimes it worked and sometimes I fell).

Every once in a while, I try to do the splits again, and I make it most but not all of the way. Hulk has surprised me with ballet tickets on more than one occasion, and I no longer get teary with longing watching other people dance (even though I will admit that my toes still move in my shoes along with the music). I can never dance again, at least, not ballet, jazz, or modern - nothing that requires turnout because my hips just can't take it. I could maybe try tap, and I can do a variety of ballroom dances. But I'll never dance ballet again, and now, nearly 10 years later, I've finally made peace with that. If I ever have a daughter (or son!) who wants to take ballet, I'll do what my mom did - give her (or him!) the opportunity and then make her/his own choices with how far to take things. Despite the hip thing, there were so many good things I learned from taking ballet for 15 years that I can't imagine not allowing a child to experience the same.


Monkey McWearingChaps said...

oh gods, I was miserable at ballet. I was definitely "that kid", the one they passed every year just for pity.

I neither have the build for it (having been requested to bind my breasts at an early mortification central developing C cups overnight...though they never advanced beyond that much is the pity...and then being told you "bounce too much" after class when every freaking kid is already looking at your advanced 12 year old chest) nor the grace.

You might like bharat natyam though I'm not sure about the hip thing. There is a lot of stamping.

-qir said...


EEK! said...

I never took dance classes, but had some regrettable show choir ish types of scenarios in high school. I still secretly harbor ballerina fantasies. Oh wow, as I typed that, I'm listening to this song "Karen" by The National and the line "ballerina on the coffee table" came on. Freako. I won't quote the whole lyric 'cause it's pretty much a dirty song. Rock.

Anonymous said...

Aw, it's so hard to give up something you love like that. Hugs. Glad you have made peace with it.
I too grew sideways before sprouting upwards. I well remember age 12, my new hips banging into doorways. What an odd feeling.

Anonymous said...

Yep, me too.

Anonymous said...

Theres always break dancing. Your hips may be done, but I bet you can still spin on your head.

MLE said...

My mom always did say I have a hard head. I'll consider it.

(also, hi wheels!)