Return to site

Up a Steep and Very Narrow Stairway

There is life after tango.

No, it's not the same. But that's what you were looking for, wasn't it? Something different. Something that doesn't bring the emotional highs, but doesn't bring the emotional lows either. Something safer, that's still dance.

I mourn for tango the way a fish mourns for water. But when the water's poisoned, sometimes we have no choice but to crawl out onto dry land and learn how to stand on our fins. Sometimes in order to stay true to our most basic needs, we have to adapt.

I hungered for movement, I craved organized energy patterns through time, and I pined for meaningful physical focus. Yoga is great but it's different from dancing, my basic human need. After masquerading as a clumsy child, it turns out I was born under a dancing star, and I get depressed when I don't dance. Finally a friend invited me to join her in an African dance class, and there, sproinging around doing full moon dances from Guinea and witch-doctor dances to drive evil spirits out, I was happy.

But I wanted more. African dance is completely fun and I don't know why it hasn't swept the nation the way yoga and Pilates have, but it's not enough, and just an hour and a half of dancing per week isn't enough. I wanted to dance every day, almost any style would be fine. But I don't live in New York any more. I live in a small town that thinks it's a big city. Wanting something doesn't necessarily make it available out here. Not many dance classes available at the right time and place.

And then I went to Seattle.

I was fortunate to reconvene with a family whom I had befriended en masse back when I was a wee whippersnapper. If I could adopt them all I would, and my heart shone with sunshine to see them again. They told me their middle daughter had become increasingly established as a writer. I would hardly say Catherine had “become” a writer because she always was one, brilliant and keen beyond her years. But now the rest of the world was catching on. I got links to a few online essays she'd written and I glowed with pride. She was the goods! She wrote clearly, simply, and lucidly. The “writing” was invisible. She knew the occult art of staying out of her own way and letting the idea communicate itself.

One of the articles was about her, as a grownup, a nondancer, and a human being, mustering the huevos to take up beginning ballet.

I was inspired. I wanted to do it too. Ordinary people? I could wear my socks? Different shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities? It sounded great. If Catherine said it would be ok, then it would be ok. I trusted her judgment.

And then I put the idea away. Usually when I have a hot new idea, I drop everything and instantly implement it. But I had too much baggage around ballet to “instantly” do anything.

Once upon a time

When I was very, very little, two years old and less, my mother took me with her to the ballet in San Francisco, where apparently I saw a young Baryshnikov and Nureyev in his prime, live. I expect I would get more out of the experience now. But I remember with total clarity a man jumping through a window frame on a darkened stage and pausing for a moment in the air. There was nobody like Nureyev.

When I was ordinary-little I pretended I was a ballerina. That's what little girls did. One Chanukah my mother gave me a fabulous sequined tutu. I remember it particularly, because that was the winter I learned to sneak around hunting for my presents before the holiday actually came, and I found the tutu hiding up on top of my parents' closet. Then I had to pretend to be surprised when the day came. But the tutu itself was lovely and I wore it all the time, dancing around on the living room carpet.

We watched a lot of ballet on PBS. I memorized Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland's Nutcracker. My mother made me paper dolls of the ballet and opera ladies we saw. And one night my parents went to the ballet and brought me back a program, which I saved and studied to shreds, and memorized the pictures inside. I still remember it as a prime possession. It had a red cover with a golden decorated man leaping perfectly. One of the dancers photographed inside was Christine Elliott, who had once been a friend of my Aunt Jenny's and who went on to become a fine dancer with ABT. This was what a woman could be, I thought. Beautiful, proud, poised, full of organized joy.

My Aunt Jenny was a beautiful ballet dancer. She had the gift of dance inside herself and it would have been nice if she had gone farther than she did...but although the good fairies had given her the gift of dance upon her christening, some not-so-good fairies had cursed her with too many eccentricities and quirks to do what she would have had to do to build the career she could have had. But having her around in Iowa, instead of out dancing in New York or California or somewhere big, meant she was available for my noticing. I noticed that ballet dancers ate funny things, like yogurt and V8 juice. (Later I would find out they were more known for not eating....) She had a proper grown-lady's ballet costume and she let me try it on. It had a satin bodice and clasped up the back. I was excited that it was not as much too-big for me as it might have been. In retrospect, a grown woman's clothes should not be reasonably sized for someone less than six, and that aspect of ballet has always bothered me.

And then there were the shoes.

Aunt Jenny let me try on her pointe shoes and I still feel the thrill. After all, there was nothing more beautiful or special than a pointe shoe, with its pale satin and its ribbons and its exclusive air of belonging to a race of fairies. I laced the thick silky ribbons around my ankles and admired my feet. And then I stood up on my pointes and became a fairy myself....

That's why we dance. So that, for a moment, we feel ourselves a bit less of clumsy shackled clod-trodders enmired in the grit and filth of everyday, and a bit more of fairies.

But then when I was a teenager, ballet grew claws.

I had been lucky enough to spend my formative years in a house where food was food, not a crazy obsession, and my mother was a good cook who modelled the idea of eating when hungry and not eating when not hungry. And then my dad had me spend a year living with his new wife and him. She was anorexic, and she wouldn't put food in the two younger girls' lunch boxes (and they got sent to the principal's office for stealing food, a horrible fate for a six year old and an eight year old), and mealtimes were never allowed to take more than five minutes, and she used to yell at me that once my dad and I moved into the house with her and the two younger girls, the food bill doubled, and it was all my fault.

At the time I was about five feet tall and weighed a little more than a hundred pounds. I had not yet gone through puberty, and the trauma of my living situation delayed the process for many years. When they kicked me out and sent me to live with a friend and paid her parents to take care of me, the mother wouldn't look at me or speak to me the entire year I was there and always turned her back to me at the table, and I felt guilty about every bite of food I took out of their house.

With that frame of reference, I then did ballet for a summer at Interlochen Arts Academy. This was when I realized that ballet was not for me. I still had the body of a little boy, but I couldn't remember combinations, which made me feel like I must be missing a piece of brain that everyone else had, and now I was living with a wasp's nest of fifteen-year-old ballet babies, every one of them trying to be the thinnest. Fifteen-year-old girls are not known for their compassion, their self-awareness, or their sensible diet plans.

Then I went to boarding school, which was emotionally massively healthier and more stable than my dad's house or my friend's house, but was a dangerously volatile environment for young girls' self-esteem otherwise. For we were all living on our Lord of the Flies islands known as dorms, with adults essentially nonpresent except to run house meetings and to kick us out when we were running late for class. I had an ordinary body, known up until this point as my body, and now I was living in a pressure-cooker where part of social expectations for the girls was that they had to have extraordinary bodies. Among the boarder girls, I can't think of two other than myself who didn't have eating disorders (and maybe I just didn't know them well enough). I clung to my day-student friends and their families who exhibited healthy eating habits, but back in adult-free boarder-land, the bathrooms always stank with the rusty smell of bulimic vomit, the toilet stalls always had feet pointing the wrong way, and the girls would do coke and black-market Ritalin and Adderall and certain anti-depressants so that they wouldn't eat. Coke was especially popular because it helped them study. And the culture around them rewarded their efforts! Girls who weighed less than 110 pounds regardless of height or build, girls upon whom you could see the knobs of all six medial rib attachments, girls whose elbows were bigger than their biceps, girls who got A's, girls who took too many AP classes, girls who got into Harvard, these were the good girls. Everyone else was failures, and this was a meritocracy, a world where failure was condemned even more harshly than it was in the outside world. —After study hall, there would be competitions in the dorms to see who could make a circle out of their hands, pinky to pinky and thumb to thumb, and draw their circle up their leg the farthest without touching leg. The Alias sisters generally won because they could draw their circles all the way up their leg without touching anything.

Meanwhile school provided apples and peanut butter and crackers at snack time, just like for kindergarteners, and the girls turned these into fetishistic tragic objects of obsession. If only we were the healthy children we could have been.

My first year of boarding school, I roomed with two girls, one of whom was on her way to being a real ballet dancer. She took class in Boston and did her hair in a bun and walked with a turnout and had tights with no feet and everything. She was limpid and leggy. But that year we saw her dream sour, as she left the equal-rights world of little-girl ballet behind and had to test the waters of for-real professional ballet and found out that she was too tall and, although quite slim, too “fat.” Oh Balanchine. She read and reread Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography Dancing on My Grave, a horror story of starvation and hospitalization, and talked about how much she loved how thin Gelsey was on the cover...a photo taken of her at eighty-five pounds, shortly before another hospitalization.

And she became anorexic, like everyone else, and I got to see that even the anorexics had a hierarchy of derisiveness, pettiness, and meanness. It wasn't enough to disease one's mind and starve one's growing body. If one wasn't anorexic enough, it didn't count! ….We had another friend who loved ballet and studied it seriously. But unlike my roommate, she knew she didn't have a chance of doing it “for real,” because she was fat and her face bore an unfortunate resemblance to a cartoon pig's. She was one of these failed anorexics. She wouldn't eat for a week and would be passing out all over the place, but she was still fat.

Then there were the exerciseaholics. The girls who would get on the Stairmaster and still be there, at top speed, four hours later. The girls who exercised five and six hours every day, who studied and did homework while exercising. They had time to do this because they didn't sleep. They didn't sleep because they were full of stimulants, some legal, some less so.

I did ballet for PE my first year of boarding school. I assumed that since boarding school was about smart people, not about professional dancers, that it would be fine. At the beginning of the year we were paired off for partner exercises and were meant to keep the same partner the whole time. We were paired off according to size. I was given a sweet girl named Dot who was a rhythmic gymnast in her pre-boarding school life. (Ribbons and competitions and all.) And at the beginning of the year, we were the same size. Same height. Same width. We weighed about the same.

But then boarding school happened to Dot. She starved and starved and starved away. Soon her elbows were the biggest part of her body and her her dark famished eyes stared out of her skull. Her boyfriend, a delicate, effete young slip of a thing, would carry her to and from class and she looked like a bag of sticks. Then her heart stopped and they rushed her to the ER.

The girls at school enjoyed a warm feeling of pity and compassion for Dot, not because she had briefly died, but because she had failed at the starvation game. They enjoyed a smug glow of pride, for they, so far, had not failed at the game. This meant they were cleverer than she, and in this world, cleverness and slimness were all.

I did not do ballet any more.

I finally went through puberty. I inherited my father's mother's body, with bits of my father and mother thrown in. I spent years undoing the poisonous messages my stepmother and the girl boarders had poured into my ears, and as every year goes by, I become more and more of a fanatic crusader for women's right to love and enjoy the beauty of their own real bodies. Now that I'm a mother, and I see people in high school as children who don't think they're children any more, my heart bleeds for them even more.

I moved to Manhattan and worked in the NYU prop department, which shared a floor with the dance department. So the whole floor smelled like Dancer, and I got to spend my days with them in their native habitat, the Practice Studio. They were always draped over things and each other like excessively limber puppies, and the air was always thick with a miasma of sweat. Living and working amongst them underscored that we had nothing in common.

I spent a lot of time at the ballet because it was usually designed by my teachers, who gave us free tickets. New York was the home of the Balanchine aesthetic, and New York ballerinas, in this pre-Misty-Copeland era, were the most ruthlessly linear of them all. I lost my taste for ballet because all I could see was eating disorders and bloody feet and drug habits and catfights on one hand, and words like “pretty” and “feminine” and “graceful” on the other. And I didn't identify with either of those worlds. Also, ballet in New York, while first-rate, felt stale. Codified. Sometimes we saw the Joffrey or Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris or Merce Cunningham, and that was exciting. But “proper” ballet was stuck in the past, too reverent, too trapped in steel coffins, too highbrow. No.

But then I caught the stagecoach out to the Wild West and stunned myself by admitting, after testing the hypothesis many times, that the San Francisco Ballet company was the best I had ever seen, anywhere in the world. I had seen the Bolshoi, the Kirov, ballet companies from France and Italy and Sweden and all over the world, and I had to admit with embarrassment that this regional company beat the pants off all of them. Ballet came alive with this company and exploded off the stage, a vibrant, living language full of power and joy and expression. Ballet broke through the old codes and the steel-lined coffins and became a brilliant firecracker of smart, balanced storytelling and fresh creative communication for this moment right now.

San Francisco redefined this rediscovered dance for me. Thank you, Helgi Thomasson, for telling viscerally immediate need-to-know stories, and thank you, gay men of the Castro, for sponsoring the ballet so heavily that they had to turn it into an art form full of strong well-developed male roles, thus forcing the work to be about humans, not about suffocating gender stereotypes.

But by now I was as old as Methuselah in ballerina years. It was strange to go to the ballet and know that I was older than everyone onstage, I who had once been little and had considered ballet dancers the epitome of adulthood. I slowly got used to the role reversal and started to enjoy it. Because now, unlike the Boston years and even the New York years, comparison was moot and irrelevant. I could no longer compare myself with the people onstage and fall short, because we came from utterly different planets now. We no longer had anything in common, comparison and consequent self-judgment was impossible, and, after a lifetime, I could finally sit back and enjoythe ballet.

I went to a San Francisco Ballet School open master class. The children taking it were fifteen, sixteen. But I didn't realize how far away from them I had grown until the fat old matron sitting next to me casually said, “so which one is yours?”

At first I was insulted. My insult turned to shock when I realized that one of these teenagers could quite comfortably be my child, and not in any third-world teen-pregnancy way either. Still not over that.

But the master himself was brilliant and he was giving the kids the good stuff. They didn't get it, but I got it. And this transformed my understanding of ballet. Suddenly it was, not anathema to tango, but identical mechanics turned toward different ends. Exact same idea: root root root like crazy, then use all that strong rooting to spring up free and light on top. Why had no one pointed this out before? Once I saw that ballet wasn't about being dainty and airy and up up up, but was rather about dropping your roots down down down like nobody's business to give you power to move freely, I understood that here was a dance I could actually do. I would never understand “graceful” (one of those worn-out adjectives almost always used when describing ballet), but I understood the appeal of grounding exercises!

Now I wanted to do ballet!

I had a couple friendly acquaintances who did ballet as a side dish and one who had been a professional ballet dancer before turning to a life of tango. All of them were too this, too that, and too the other thing to be considered “real” ballet dancers (even the one who really had been a “real” ballet dancer), and yet they all enjoyed it and took class for the pleasure of it and said that grown-up civilian classes were different from the drama I had known as “ballet class.” They did not do ballet because there was any hope of them becoming professional ballet dancers: they did ballet because it was interesting.

I am a big fan of interesting pastimes.

I took my son to a children's afternoon with the ballet, hosted by real ballet dancers, in which they got to explore and dance out ideas and bits of one of the modern ballets currently in the company's repertoire. Adults were not invited to join in but I thought, “damn it, the advertisements clearly said Family, not Children, and I'm family, so I'm going to dance too.” We explored the world of mime, which opened my eyes. I couldn't believe that it had taken me my whole life to get back to something I knew instinctively as a child: if you act the spirit of doing something, the action is real. If you just put your body in the shape of what you think that something's movements look like on the outside, the action is empty and you are self-conscious about pretending. By motivating process with genuine intention, you learn what the process really is and the thing comes out right.

And I kept thinking about what the ballet dancer's body knew, and how it reflexively used its entire self to communicate everything, from head to toe. The pointer for the projector? Is over here! Where are we turning now? To the left! I couldn't get her clean focussed lines out of my head. How she moved while delivering a talk and using a computer blew my mind, how she spoke with her whole body. And how she focussed in and rooted down her bottom self so that her top self had all this open space to be free and proud and take up room and express and move like a leaf, curling and uncurling its sides freely. She reminded me of how the giraffes at the zoo sent ripples of movement all the way through their bodies, from their ears to their hooves, and you could see the waves pass through them.

I wanted to move like that.

Which brings us up to the present day

I was nervous. I had spent so many years recovering from just the kind of social pressure that ballet was poised to reignite around me. I didn't want to lose my hard-earned self-comfort. And I didn't want to be around a bunch of Black Swans. But, I reminded myself, if Catherine could do it I could do it, and if she said it was sane and ok, then it would be sane and ok. So I took a deep breath and headed to class.

I stepped over and around the lounging bodies of dancers stretching everywhere in the old Oddfellows building and the air had the familiar Dancer Funk.  It wasn't Paradise, but it was home. Dancers here weren't quite as emaciated as those in New York, and other than obviously hailing from a different planet than I, I felt less intimidated and more valid than I had expected as a visitor in their realm.

I was curious to see who would be taking my Adult Absolute Beginner Ballet Six Week Workshop with me. They looked like clones of the supporting cast loosely described in Catherine's essay. They were people of every age above 18, of every size and shape and colour. Mostly Asian women, but other people too. It was obvious that some were already dancers of other kinds and just as obvious that some had no dance experience at all. In fact the only thing they had in common was their clothes.

My first day and already I had screwed up. Everybody else was wearing black (except for the pot-bellied old man in the banana yellow tank top, bless him). And not just black. Ballet black. Little skirts. Leotards. Dancerish tights. Or yoga pants but with suspiciously dancerish tops. And everybody was wearing pink ballet slippers. Even the token jock was wearing ballet slippers.

Noblesse oblige required that I hold my head high and wear my screaming-violet yoga pants and my virulently chartreuse socks with sparkly red ladybugs on them and holes in the toes with pride.

Noblesse oblige also required that when we were forced into immediate face-to-face contact with that scary thing, the mirror, I actually look at it. And to my amazement and relief, I did not see at all what I had seen when I was a teenager! Instead of a room full of young girls of approximately the same age, size, and shape, all vying for the titles of Best Dancer and Best Body, I saw a higgledy-piggledy assemblage of humans who were all so different and so real and so uniquely themselves that comparison was impossible and a waste of time. Instead of being a mortal enemy, the mirror became a friend. For the first time in a dance class, it didn't reflect who I wasn't. It reflected who I was.

Our maestra is a good teacher. She has good technique and emphasizes things that weren't talked about when I was a kid. Or perhaps they were talked about and I ignored them. When I was a kid, I paid attention to the red flag at the wrong end of the ballet sword. But now it's like I've been to the Penn & Teller ballet show. I know how the magic works.

Now all I have to do is learn how to make that magic come out of myself, and we're set.

It's humbling to try to do ballet with good body mechanics, as opposed to ballet that looks like what I think ballet ought to look like. I remember, as a child, making my feet into a straight line in first position. Now, my version of first position looks like a right angle. But I'm turning out from my hip sockets. Who knows what I was doing before. And I remember, as a child, just standing around in first position quite whateverishly, no effort at all. Now, when I stood in first position, I was reaching for breath within seconds and my heart was pounding and every muscle from my inner knees to my diaphragm was all-hands-on-deck. But I was correctly aligned and everything was passively working to provide stability, support, and grounded upright energy.

We did things I've done a thousand times before, but they were the same in external appearance only. On the inside, it was a whole new world. Because I now came to the table with so much somatic knowledge, as well as the ability to see what I still didn't see/couldn't feel, I realized that whatever I had been doing in the past was almost not ballet at all! And yet this was how people were taught, rote, no explanation of what was really going on, basing technique on appearance.

My brain busted its arse for the full class. If you want to do something truly challenging, try standing on two feet, slowly pointing one foot (on the ground), and then slowly unpointing it. Just thinking about it fries my circuits. Everything was working, and I could feel all the little tendencies in me wanting to pop up. Why draw yourself up to make room for that leg when you could so much more easily dump into your lower vertebral discs and slump your pelvis and have room that way? Why root with your lower body to stand up when you could instead hunch your shoulders and collapse your diaphragm? Feels so much more habitual! And why work with your legs when instead you could clutch this barre in a death-grip?

The teacher noticed me doing That Thing I Do...and I hope ballet will help with this continual tendency. The tendency to clench the top half and overrelax the bottom half, instead of focussing and using the bottom half so that the top half can be relaxed and free. “Just relax,” she said, tapping my rock-hard fast-wearying shoulder, adamantly clenched into what it considered a shoulderish shape. I promptly relaxed my...butt. So often we know what we're supposed to do but our bodies will not do it. “Not there,” she said. Eventually, maestra.

I realized my neck was trying to do the whole dance for me. The more I wanted the bottom part to be full of fire and the top half full of air, the more my neck and jaw gripped like iron grippers of grippingness. “We've got this, ma'am! We'll do the WHOLE DANCE for you!”

When our teacher talked about Ballet Hands, and how you use your hands, not your arms, to make your arms move, and that arms move with bones, not muscles, I realized how hard I had been holding on to my arms and making sure they were arm-shaped and taking up the right kind of space.

I realized that ballet was one more visit to Alexander Technique Land. It was one more opportunity to see life as a series of switches, find out how many of those switches you could set to “off,” and see how much better everything works every time you turn another thing off.

We did tendus. Battements. Pliés. Port de bras. All in first, second, and third. No fourth and fifth, deemed too advanced for us at this point—and I was grateful for that! I could not possibly have managed. My eight-year-old self would have sneered while tossing off a fifth position with feet pointing in opposite directions. But my eight-year-old self would have been turning out from the knees and making the stance possible via an anterior pelvic tilt, and there would have been no sense of the inner muscles drawing up while the outer muscles dropped down. My eight-year-old self had it easy because my eight-year-old self wasn't doing the work.

We leapt. Our leaps were jerky, aborted, stilted, unsupported, and heavy. We sounded like a herd of elephants that was certainly going to come crashing through the floor. It's good to start low down on the totem pole—there's so much room for improvement!

We learned how to reverence. We did it like ugly stepsisters. It was a start.

As I walked down the street after class, my body thought over what it had been doing and decided that the street translation of ballet turnout was—and I had never understood this before—that turning out is a heightened way of reminding our bodies how to recruit the muscles we need to stand up and move effectively and powerfully. Turnout, I realized, is a way of drawing the body's attention to how muscle groups engage automatically if everything is properly aligned. Then when we're walking down the street with our feet facing forward (like good tanguer@s), the lazy muscles that like to foist work off on other muscles instead of doing their job remember what they're supposed to do and, begrudgingly, at least try to do it. And then we're standing up straight and stepping with power, focus, and efficiency.

I realized that I didn't have anything to be worried about, in re: prettiness. This wasn't going to be a pretty dance at all. This was going to be a journey into discovering my favourite things. Ease. Power. And, surprisingly, harmony with the natural dictates of the body. I who scorn prettiness and yearn for beauty was going to feel right at home.

Yes—everything was beautiful at the ballet.