I recently started taking ballet class again for the first time in eighteen years. By “taking ballet class” I mean I have taken the first thirty minutes of a ballet class, which consists of about half of the barre portion. This means that I had at least one hand on a steel support the entire time, and there were but a few occurrences when I lifted either foot more than an inch or two off the ground. It sounds terribly unimpressive, but anyone who has attempted to bring back ballet magic in their late thirties knows that even this much of a class is more trying than it has any business to be.
As a child and teenager, I was accomplished in ballet. There is no way for me to prove this to you now without digging out old photos and VHS cassettes, as on the surface I have little to show for it, but it is true. I was not a perfect dancer, I did not have an easy time of it, but I was decent. I gave up dancing for college because I was bored with the routine (not because it was easy but because it was so consistently hard) and because it frustrated me that I was never going to be among the best. Obviously, my adult self realizes that this was stupid, that to desire to be among “the best” at anything is a sure recipe for frustration and misery, but, also obviously, my adult self doesn’t care and I still like to imagine that I’m just a late bloomer who will end up being discovered as an ageing prodigy in something or other, I just have to find “the thing.” Despite my introversion, I have always had a strong desire for recognition, and maybe—okay, not maybe, definitely, but embarrassingly—a wish for minor fame? The right amount. Enough for a Terry Gross interview, but not nearly enough to be dating Pete Davidson. There is no discernible reason for this desire other than my subconscious knows I’m going to die someday and is misguidedly hoping to create some sort of legacy. Anyway, the stupidest part of this whole paragraph is that after quitting dancing because I would never be among the best I decided that piano was a good college major. As if trading in one finicky, grueling pursuit for another in which I was even less likely to ascend to the top made sense. My decision making never has made a lot of sense.
So, these days I am a pianist (decent, not among the best), and I regularly accompany ballet classes, which, in my life, is one of those tiny joys that happens when for once all the puzzle pieces line up right, because I am somehow perfectly fitted for this mostly obsolete job, and I have somehow found a place where it is not yet obsolete. I’ve been doing this for many years, so I have not been a stranger to ballet class, though my body certainly has. Because while I have often toyed with idea of taking a class, the timing never worked out until this year, when the class my daughter is taking runs one half hour later than a simultaneous class I play for, meaning I am able to take the first thirty minutes of an open class while I wait for her to be dismissed.
Back when I was a moderately gifted teenage dancer, I thought little about the lives of the “old ladies” (in my book anyone who was over the age of twenty-five) who took open classes purely for the sake of taking them. In teenager fashion, I saw only their in-class personas and thought them somewhat clueless, or pathetic, when in reality they most likely had careers, and families, and lives that far surpassed my own in depth and scope. So now that I find myself to be the old lady muddling through half of barre in the corner, I try to think of my current status as a badge of honor, rather than wondering how much the fourteen-year-old standing behind me pities me. Her pity is misplaced, after all–I may appear to be doddering and unaware of my lack of turnout and extensions—but I own a whole house, damn it! And I pay the mortgage on time 85% of the time! Plus, I have the power to assign grades to college students—which seems to be the only thing I do that my own daughter is remotely impressed by—and can drive without supervision. Of course, even the most accomplished adults stand to lose all dignity once they’ve assembled some sort of dance “outfit” and are attempting a grand plié in fifth position. Most of the young ballerinas have the decency to look away at this point.
Dignity aside, returning to ballet feels different than I had imagined. The loss of strength and flexibility is to be expected—with each pregnancy it seems my tendons loosened, then tightened again twofold, leaving my legs hopelessly grounded, far from soaring into the Gumby-like extensions I willed my body to produce as a young dancer. But I was surprised to find that the order of the exercises is harder to process, too, be it because the muscle memory is not there, or because my mind is not as sharp, or because I now own an i-phone and have given up on maintaining an attention span, I do not know. The feelings I have in class are different than what I had imagined, as well. I thought that, as a “mature” adult, I would be able to leave behind my competitiveness, my desire to be the best or throw everything out, behind me, and “enjoy dancing.” To some degree, this is true, but the frustration is still frustratingly there. Why do my feet suck so bad these days? Why is my arabesque stuck at 50 degrees? Why do my legs feel so heavy and slow? Still, there is a bit of the freedom I was hoping for—my body and I both know not to take this seriously, that it is pretend, a lark with no expected results except to perhaps find a moment or two of flow in the doing.
That mental flow is what I fantasize about finding. Because if there is anything that remains of the ballerina in me, it is this: the desire to make a quest for pointless beauty part of the quotidian. The gradual build up of the class, the repetition of the same movements in different combinations for weeks, seasons, years, decades—it is hard to imagine that something so profoundly repetitive and boring can also be profoundly beautiful and inspiring, but it is. In that ballet class has more in common with real life—kids, marriage, the chores and work of the day—than I thought. That’s the secret of the old lady ballerinas. They keep showing up, knowing that if they do, there’s a chance that the magic will start to emerge from the mundane. They keep showing up, and in that there is a whisper of the sublime.