The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

October 18, 2011

Balance and turns

I danced ballet for six years, until I was 14 and didn’t want to anymore. I had taken classes several times a week, danced in Nutrackers and Coppelia and Giselle, in pointe shoes and tutus, with girls both mean and sweet. Some of those girls had stiff flappy arms and “feet like milquetoast,” as my larger-than-life teacher would say. Others got better and better until they were whipping out double pirouettes and leaping through solos, their svelte bodies completely under their command. I was in the middle, not bad but not the best. I had graceful arms and good feet, but not a remarkable amount of strength or precision. I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t the slenderest. Middling.

When I joined the company as an apprentice and graduated to dancing pointe, everything became harder. I couldn’t seem to keep up as well as I had before. The competition among the girls was more blatant. I started dreading class. I looked at my body in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors and was disappointed. I imagined doing other things after school. And I decided to stop.

It was a big decision for a 14-year-old, and I can still remember my mom standing in my bedroom doorway, motionless and stricken, as I told her the news. It was the right thing for me to do, and I didn’t regret it, but it closed the door on a big part of my life. I nudged it open once in awhile by dancing in a school play, or writing about my experiences in a college workshop, or attending Joffrey performances here in Chicago. But I never took another class until a few weeks ago.

I actually can’t remember now where I got the idea. I still love the art form, and I think I suddenly realized that I could be part of it in that physical way again—put on ballet shoes and practice tendues and developés, follow my hand with my eyes as I Iift it to first position. What did I have to lose? If I didn’t like dancing, I could just stop. So I looked for a low-key adult beginner class and found a well-regarded studio right in my neighborhood. I Googled whether you need to wear a bra with a leotard. (Seriously, I could not remember how I used to handle that. The answer for me: no.) I went to a dance shop and bought a leotard, footless tights, and canvas shoes. I had strange, angsty dreams. And then I showed up on a Saturday morning, and I danced ballet for an hour.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for the past few weeks, now that I’ve taken four classes. The surrealness is wearing off a bit. That first class was alternately amazing and conflicting and just beautifully strange. I could not believe how much my mind and body remembered. I could hear my old teacher’s voice in my head, guiding us through the steps. My feet could still point the way they always had, and my legs felt strong and sharp, my arms and hands graceful. My balance, though—good lord. You’d think my core was made of Jello. And could it be that at 35, my memory’s starting to fuzz around the edges? Or was it always this tough to memorize the combinations?

My classmates were mostly women, some younger and some older. Most of them had danced at a young age like me. One of the things I noticed right away was this beautiful open space where the judging used to be—we weren’t sizing each other up, dividing the good and the bad and the middling, bringing the politics of popularity into the mix. We were just spending our Saturday morning doing something that we enjoyed, getting some exercise, admiring and listening to our lithe, petite 50-something teacher who has obviously been a professional ballerina all her life.

So much is different. Instead of an actual piano or a scratchy record player, the music comes from an iPod. My hand that holds the barre has a wedding ring on it. My hair isn’t in a bun, studded with bobby pins and secured with a net; I need my mom for that, so a ponytail does the job. It feels unnatural to turn out my feet, to balance in a passé relevé. Have I mentioned the lack of balance?

So much is the same. I take an inordinate amount of pleasure in doing barre work, just like I always did. Thanks to running and strength training, I’m in decent shape, much as I was back when I was dancing several days a week. My grand battements look pretty darn good. I know how to hold my head, and I don’t sickle my feet. I think my body’s proportions are pretty much the same. Also, newsflash: It still takes a healthy dose of courage to watch yourself move around in a leotard and tights.

My body still doesn’t do what real dancers’ bodies should do. I still am not one of the best. And see, there’s the thing, one of the reasons I’m especially glad to be taking this class. I have always been a perfectionist, a child who abhorred coloring outside the lines, who became accustomed to getting A’s, who was a good writer, a group leader, someone who got the job, who got promoted. Who set goal times for races and then, almost always, achieved them.

The first winter that John and I were dating, he bought me a pair of ice skates so we could go skating together. I didn’t know how to skate. A few turns around the crowded rink, clutching an orange road cone for dear life while 10-year-olds soared past, turned me off completely. I didn’t feel like I could do it, and that embarrassed me greatly, and I put the ice skates away and never used them again.

Being a perfectionist is both a good and a bad thing, of course, and I’ve always felt bad about those skates. So for the past four Saturdays, as I’ve faced myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror and realized I am not the best or thinnest dancer in the room, nor will I ever be, I’ve also told myself that that’s OK. I am not there to be the best and thinnest dancer in the room. I am not there to spin double pirouettes and be cast in the right parts. I am there because I love ballet, and I want to work my body, and it feels good to get in touch with that long-ago part of myself that danced these same steps.

If I can learn that, really learn that, along with balance and turns and combinations, I think this will be one of the best decisions I’ve yet to make for myself. My teacher says that balance can be strengthened simply by standing on one foot as you wait for the train. It can become second nature. I’m going to believe that’s true.

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Blogger Pix said...

Oh this sounds so lovely! I started gymnastics at 2, competed until 14, and coached until I was 35. A lifetime in the gym and I really miss it. But hell no, you wouldn't catch me in a leo again! I think this is such a great way to do something good for yourself during the wait. As for the perfectionism thing...I'm right there with ya!

8:41 AM  
Blogger Jessamyn said...

I just want to say that every time I see you have a new entry that it's a wonderful treat - something I always look forward to and enjoy. I'm glad you're taking ballet again - the class and the new adult perspective on it sound excellent!

As for the perfectionism, have you read this article? I found it really spoke to me and my own life - the way I react to things that are difficult for me, and it sounds like it might resonate with you, too. See, in particular: "No matter the ability - whether it's intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism - studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a Bright Girl, it's time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago." (And also this shocker: "the higher the girls' IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel." Wow.)

8:48 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Amy, I loved reading this. Though I have zero dance experience, taking a ballet class is on my life list, and this makes me want to do it sooner than later. So glad you're enjoying it.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Kellie said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm so excited for you! What an awesome learning experience.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Birdie said...

Oh Amy, this was just so peaceful and beautifully written! What an awesome experience, it sounds like a great Saturday morning ritual that will only grow richer as you continue with it...and look back on it.

I love it when you post!

9:50 PM  

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