Growing up, I was infatuated with ballet and took lots and lots of lessons. And since nothing else ever came along that was more interesting, I just kept doing it. Companies and choreographers hired me to dance for them; I followed jobs from city to city. I had a lot of experiences, rubbed shoulders with a Central Casting-worthy roster of “types,” had successes and disappointments, moments of embarrassment and others of pride. I worked hard relaxed some, injured various body parts over and over, and loved what I did – but also dreaded it more often that you’d think.
Basically, I lived the life of any, and every, professional ballet dancer. At the core, we dancers are all the same. We know what makes each other tick. No matter where or when we’ve lived our dancer lives, we’ve all gone through the bizarrely intuitive system of physical training, learned the same steps, made the same discoveries about our bodies. We all crave limitless range of motion, precision, speed, and grace—with an underlying, unshakable strength of body and will. And through our shared understanding of what we all live for, we have a bond as invisibly tight as the overworked glute medius into which my physical therapist spent so many hours digging his thumbs.
This is the story of how it began.
THE NOISE AND RUSHING CURRENT OF BROADWAY IN MANHATTAN ARE MUTED INSTANTLY AS THE OLD WOODEN DOOR THUDS SHUT—ITS GLASS WINDOW RATTLING ONCE.
Inside, everything is grayscale, muted, dusty, and chilly. A wide wooden staircase leads straight up, enormously high and steep. At the top, far above real life: a hallway, long wooden benches, and on the bare floor, a big, fluffy, white dog acting as a footrest and greeter. The air is hazy and musty, carrying a sweaty, stale smell. Rows of ancient metal lockers fill a dressing room that is unlit and unkempt. Studios with ceilings two stories high, so big their corners disappear into shadows. Rosin dust covers everything. Young children, talking excitedly, bring life to this museum-like space. Their purple leotards are the only color in this movie.
TO AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD, ESPECIALLY ONE THERE FOR THE FIRST TIME, THE NEW YORK SCHOOL OF BALLET WAS CONFUSING.
There were certainly a lot of children, who looked like they were there for ballet class, crowded into the big lobby hallway, but then there were all these adults around—clearly dancers, real ones—who seemed as old as parents (though they were probably late teenagers).
The procedures and expectations were confusing, too, especially to a timid, play-by-the-rules little girl, terrified of doing something wrong. The laid-back attitude of the friendly (and gorgeously tall and glamorous) woman behind the front desk made it all more stressful, not less. Was the handwritten ledger book an attendance sheet? If each page was a class, where was the 8-year-old’s name? Why did the glamorous woman say it didn’t matter and to go in anyway?
Go in? Most confusing of all was where to go and what to do. Nobody pointed her to the right studio. Wanting to get away from the crowd of loud grown-ups milling about by the entrance, she wandered down the long hall and found an almost-hidden studio that felt the safest—the most private—way down the hall, almost out the back door. She could slip in unnoticed and blend in with the bunch of kids already in there, just pretend to know where she belonged.
Pretending became everything, starting with where to stand at the barre. Everyone else knew. A woman, the teacher, strolled in with coffee cup in hand, her casualness only adding anxiety. Class started, suddenly, without preface, introduction, or recognition of the terrified dormouse squeezed into the line of confident kids. Her mind reeled. Pretend to know what the words mean, what the steps are; copy the girl on either side; mimic whatever she does. Blend in; don’t stand out. No one’s being mean, so why so intimidated? Why so scared?
Class is over. She’s asked: How old are you? Eight, she squeaked. Aha. I think you’re in the wrong class. Have you ever taken ballet before? No? Oh, no wonder! But, you know, it’s fine! You kept up so well, and you’ll catch up to everyone else quickly. Just stay here in this class, and come again next week. What? Kept up well? How is that possible? How to catch up to the middle without knowing the beginning?
NOW THAT SHE KNEW WHICH STUDIO TO GO INTO, THE EIGHT-YEAR-OLD DID RETURN THE FOLLOWING WEEK AND THE ONE AFTER AND EVEN MORE AFTER THAT.
Slowly she began to gain, if not real confidence, a familiarity with how things worked. She watched and copied, but just when she started to think she knew everything that she and the other students would be told to do during class, the teacher called for a step or movement that was foreign. As before, momentary panic, that fear of looking stupid, would strike. She wanted to wear a sign that reminded everyone she was new.
The curse of being a good faker is that people begin to think you’re for real, and then they expect things. She was trying and listening hard, very hard. A straight knee had to be very, very straight. “Shoulders down” meant really, really down. “Point your toes” meant make your foot as strong as a dagger. “Stomach in” meant bellybutton touching backbone.
Here’s what she learned:
1. FIRST POSITION: heels together, toes pointing left-right.
2. SECOND POSITION: same as first, but heels apart.
3. THIRD POSITION: doesn’t exist.
4. FOURTH POSITION: one foot in front of the other, toes pointing left-right.
5. FIFTH POSITION: same as fourth, but feet smushed together, toes of one touching heel of the other.
6. PLIÉ: bend your knees.
7. RELEVÉ: tiptoe, like when you reach for a glass on a high cabinet shelf.
8. KNEES: over toes at all times.
9. STOMACH: sucked IN at all times. ALL times.
Beyond that, it was still mostly a game of quick-eyed copycat.
Even so, she began to fit in a little bit. She made friends with the other girls as much as one could during the few minutes before class and after when they were scrambling for socks and jeans to pull on over their tights in the hallway outside.
After a while, there was a new teacher. Or an old teacher, new to the eight-year-old who was now nine. He seemed to be ancient, with a disfigured foot and a severe limp, very thin wisps of silver hair barely covering a balding head, and huge, sparkling blue eyes that betrayed the soft character inside his large, bellowing exterior. He didn’t really know or care what had happened in any class or time before he arrived to teach, only that these girls should, at this point, by his judgment, know certain things. He was Greek, as he loved to remind everyone, and had a Greek temper and a Greek shouting voice that he used often.
One day, after he had the class do a tendu exercise, the old Greek teacher said to do a pirouette. And he pointed at the nine-year-old.
She had never been taught a pirouette—let alone done one—and had only a vague idea of what it was. The image in her head came from photos or drawings in her collection of ballet books at home, or maybe from having seen Baryshnikov spin endlessly— amazingly—in a PBS broadcast of Dance in America. She knew it was a turn of some sort, and that the dancers in the pictures had their legs in passé (and, luckily, she did know that position by now). Thinking of the ballerina on top of a music box someone had given her, she desperately guessed at where to position her arms.
The old terror and fear surged again. Reflexively and without hesitating, she did some sort of spin with her arms over her head, and the Greek wrath thundered.
What on earth is that? Someone else—YOU! And he gestured angrily at another girl in the group. The old Greek teacher never did come back to the nine-year-old and teach her how to do a pirouette.
THE NEXT YEAR, THE GIRL, NOW TEN, WAS MOVED UP INTO THE NEXT LEVEL OF CLASSES.
She’d faked it well enough, worked harder than regular eight- or nine-year-olds would, and seriously came to love going to class. Her family, a foursome, escorted her down- town quite early on Saturday mornings, where they all encamped at a table inside Burger King half a block away from the rattly, wooden front doors of the ballet school. They’d get cheese danishes wrapped in air- tight plastic bags or Styrofoam plates of scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, and maple syrup. Her parents would drink coffee.
When it was time, she was sent off to walk by herself the half block to the ballet school, open those front doors, and leave Broadway behind to climb the mountainous flight of stairs. Her parents, pretending to be calm and casual, watched anxiously until she’d crossed the street, passed the candy store, and disappeared through the doors.
The fun of the Saturday morning ritual, though, was only that it was leading up to the dancing-time. And it wasn’t just that the dancing was less terrifying or less hard. It was that the harder she worked, the more she learned, the more exciting it became. Without realizing it, she’d been sucked into the universe of ballet, and there was no turning back.