Ballet in Bifocals
The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire
is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety…
and to do something without knowing how or why….
The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.
Circles, Ralph Waldo Emerson
The night before my first ballet class, I pace up and down the stairs in my house, living room to bedroom and back again. Now and then I whimper with fear, like a pressure cooker letting off steam to keep from exploding. Inside me, voices shrill relentlessly: “Who are you kidding—even stairs make your knees hurt.” I’m 55 years old, 35 pounds heavier than the weight I used to say I’d never exceed, and terrified of being ridiculous, or of truly injuring my knees, already worn down by decades of backpacking and skiing, or of finding it’s too late to experience even a whisper of the lilt and symmetry of ballet in my own body. Ballet—the shining joy and passion, some even say the obsession, of my middle age.
It’s been seven and a half years since my conversion from regular person to balletomane. I’d been a relatively normal ballet fan for about a year, after a friend overcame my stubborn misconceptions and persuaded me to attend a performance of Oregon Ballet Theatre. One moment dancers swirled across the stage like ocean currents, the next they sprang beyond the bound of gravity, arms outstretched like wings. Ballet wasn’t stuffy and old-fashioned after all.
How did those people train to become such artist-athletes? When OBT set up an outdoor studio, called OBT Exposed, in a tent in Portland’s South Park Blocks, I rode my bike downtown to see what a dancer’s workday was like and pedaled into an improbable epiphany.
The morning was cool, so the dancers were swathed in warm-up clothes as they began their daily company class with a combination of pliés. There was no hint of the glamour and excitement of performance; rather there were 27 supremely skilled young people, a master teacher, and an accompanist as focused as monks in meditation. They flowed in unison, like the flocks of birds which sometimes pulsed past the tent, their concentration unfazed by the crown of kids from the day care center up the street who mimicked pliés in front of the stage.
Who can explain why a human heart sparks to a certain art, as mine caught fire that day? I warmed to ballet’s fusion of movement and melody, to its stretching, yearning symmetry. And to the dancers’ unadorned beauty; their loyalty, sustaining work this hard year after year; their togetherness, lucky pilgrims, to labor in community. As a writer used to struggling in silence and in solitude, I wanted company class. I wanted this beauty to imprint the air forever, the way words stay still upon the page. But it was more ephemeral than frost.
So I did my grocery shopping and laundry in the middle of the night, rearranged appointments, and made it to the tent every morning for the rest of OBT Exposed. Like a tourist discovering a new culture, I was hungry to decipher each mysterious detail. What’s going on when the dancers listen to the instructor’s words, twitch and flap their hands in response, then burst forth with glorious jumps and turns? By the end of the two weeks, I had new purpose in life—I would become the Sister Wendy of dance, the Bill Nye the Science Guy of ballet.
My ignorance demanded a total-immersion course of study:
1. Observe and listen. At birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries, ask for money for a ticket fund to attend ballet performances wherever you travel. Go to all pre-performances wherever you travel. Go to all pre-performance talks and all dance lectures you encounter. Volunteer so many hours at OBT that you can see each program several times, to the extent that the dancers begin to ask, “Whose mother are you, anyway?” Shamelessly copy dance videos from rental stores and libraries. When necessary, buy new videos outright.
2. Read. Begin to work your way through the county library’s excellent collection of dance books. Build your own library, making dance your focus in used book stores.
With each new tidbit of information—dancers are “marking” when they flap their hands like that, beginning to grasp a combination of movement, saving their energy for the real thing—I felt 15 again, often clueless and confused, always excited and boundlessly hopeful.
In 1997, when OBT’s dance historian retires, they invited me to write an “auditions” piece about The Nutcracker. I’ve been writing feature articles for their playbills and newsletters ever since. By January of 2002, when OBT decided to offer an adult ballet class for absolute beginners as part of their ongoing adult outreach program, I had observed hundreds of classes, rehearsals and performances. Seven years of total immersion had made it clear I would never really understand ballet unless I tried it, and James Canfield had agreed to teach OBT’s beginner class. Where would I ever have a better opportunity? Yet I felt far too worn at the joints. How could jumps and pirouettes be possible?
Still. Almost every day I see OBT’s dancers. In the part of company class devoted to strengthening their balance and control, they sometimes do développé. Standing on one leg, they slowly draw the other leg up and extend it into the air. Seemingly without effort they reach equipoise. They are as beautiful as shooting stars, and I am filled with longing.
At 9:30 on the morning of January 16th, in sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt, I overpower the force of resistance and drag myself to OBT. The studio is packed with people and quiet as a church when I arrive. One man and one woman have grayer hair than mine, one woman is thicker of waist and thigh by quite a lot and I think she is the bravest person I have ever seen.
James Canfield strides in promptly at 10a.m. and asks us to lie on the floor, feet toward the mirrored front wall, and make a T with our arms straight out from our shoulders. He passes among us, squaring our alignment. Soon we are flexing our feet, then pointing with careful articulation through the arch, the ball of the foot, the toes. Flex and point. We turn our legs out at the hips like Charlie Chaplin. James directs us to visualize little tornados spinning in our muscles to help produce turn-out. We flex and point, turn in, turn out, raise and lower one leg, then the other. Though it looks about as strenuous as nap time at day care, I’m sweating hard inside ten minutes. Cramps shoot through my feet. My shins burn.
After “floor barre” we stand with left hands on the real barres and right hands over our hearts like patriots. Standing is more complicated than I thought, with the muscles of our buttocks, backs and abdomens engaged in ways I never before imagined. We try demi-pliés, half bending our knees, keeping our heels on the floor. James is all over the room, correcting nearly all of us as our butts mistakenly tilt out behind us. In grand plié, bending our knees until our heels come off the floor a bit, bright pain jabs my left knee and I must settle for demi. At the end of class James gives us a simple looking exercise consisting of an up and down pattern for one arm, with the other arm repeating the same pattern a beat behind, like singing a round with our hands. “Dancing is all about coordination,” he says, “so practice this while walking.”
For days, muscles in my calves and deep inside my buttocks are sore in places a lifetime of biking, skiing and mountaineering has never touched. An OBT staff member who took pictures of our class brings me a photo. I look stout and sweaty and as happy as an enchanted nine year old. All week I walk around my neighborhood attempting turn out, arms flailing.
By summer, four instructors from the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre rotate teaching the adult beginners. Slowly, we are progressing. I’m losing weight; I can hike steep trails again. I can even do grand pliés, though I often have to ice my knees after class.
Today, with Anne Mueller teaching, we’ll try chaînés turns for the first time. To prepare, Anne has us stand with our hands on our shoulders as if ready for calisthenics. Standing in place on our tip-toes, we rotate round and round like tops, each keeping our eyes on our own image in the mirrored front wall of the studio as long as possible, when shipping our heads around to focus immediately on ourselves again. This technique, called spotting, is essential to all turns.
Now we’re ready for the chaînés. We will keep our backs strong and upright and our thighs squeezed tightly together, and take little steps on out toes, turning half way round with each step, always turning the same way. Anne lines us up to cross the studio four at a time, like lap swimmers. We’re to spot on the wall directly across from us, and I’m lucky to be in a lane that can spot on the fire alarm. We first-time-turners are allowed to go slowly, one step per beat of the music. When you see the Sugar Plum Fairy do these turns in The Nutcracker, she goes about eight times faster and stops on a dime to end with a flourishing balance.
Our foursome starts across the room. In the first turn I lose the fire alarm. Soon I lose my lane altogether, and wobble across John’s lane and Nikki’s lane to bump against the barre along the back of the studio. I shouldn’t be surprised; I can’t stay in my own lane lap swimming either. I hold on to the barre for ages before the room stops spinning in a nauseating way. As often happens in class, I feel like the love song lyric—“bewitched bothered and bewildered.” If Emerson was correct when he wrote, “People wish to be settled: only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” then ballet is working for me. Since I started this, I’m nice to bumblers and beginners everywhere, and I have an entirely new level of respect for the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Anne tells us we’re building muscle memory and new neural pathways on our brains. It takes years, and most dancers begin as children. We can’t expect it to happen over night. Au contraire, it will surely take me longer than the kids, what with my balance being rockier since menopause began. Bifocals make spotting confusing too.
But ballet class is like a 12-step meeting in that there isn’t any cross talk. I can’t offer menopause as an excuse because there isn’t room for excuses. Ballet is a system for the perfection of the body’s inborn symmetry. It is built of the careful layering of skills, taught by demonstration and explanation, in specific sequences that just keep coming. The river of class flows relentlessly on a current of music. We students take in information, try, take corrections, and try again. If you let your mind dwell on what didn’t work for even a moment, you wake up to find that the class has disappeared sown river and you must paddle like mad to catch up. You try your hardest or you don’t, it doesn’t matter, class goes on. Only you, facing yourself, know if you have given everything.
Adult beginning ballet is so popular that OBT adds a Saturday morning class, so we can study twice a week. After class, drenched with sweat and having expended every calorie of energy available to us, we plop down in OBT’s carpeted foyer to stretch together. Some of us have become friends, a band of nuts who forego sleeping in on Saturday mornings to work incredibly hard at something we have no hope of ever doing proficiently in the eyes of the world. Part of our comradery is this: It is nearly impossible to explain to someone who has never tried it why even ballet’s simplest skills, like stretching the foot in tendu or circling the leg in rond de jambe, are so rewarding. Can you say to the spouse you leave alone in bed, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I’m off to try to tap into the order of the universe?”
When we watch through the studio door for a moment, we realize that the eight- and nine-year-old kids who have class after us are doing pretty much what we were doing, only better. A year later, those kids are nine and ten and have progressed to Level II at the School of OBT. We have progressed somewhat in parallel, and OBT has had to start another class for absolute beginners.
Twenty-three people are in class today, the usual Saturday morning blend of regulars, some folks who used to dance and are excitedly returning to class, a few modern dancers adding ballet to their training, and two brave souls promoted from the absolute beginner class. Though ballet classes all follow the same format, there is room for endless complexity within the framework. Tracey Katona, our Saturday instructor, gives us more complicated exercises at the barre with offbeat rhythmic accents. What with holding all the basic structure we’ve been building—lifted muscles everywhere, abs, backs, butts and legs, turnout, strong arms—and grasping when to move what—which foot and how, the arm when and how, the tilt of the head—and striving for a graceful and musical execution which honors the pianist and the Chopin she plays, and adding the different accents, it makes for the kind of morning we love. We are so engaged just keeping track of everything that we don’t notice we’re exercising. And it goes well, too. I remember the combination. My feet cooperate.
At the end of class, Tracey gives a combination of jetés, glissades, and a pas de chat—the step of the cat. These are jumps from one foot to the other, and we have to launch ourselves sideways. My left knee has only become strong enough to attempt things like this in the last month, and I can’t begin to follow the steps Tracey shows us. Where moments ago I was confident, suddenly I am lost. I throw myself to the right with the first glissade. Maybe my feet do what is required, I’m not sure, but I have no clue what to do with my arms. Tracey gives me corrections and she might as well be speaking to a brick; I can’t absorb the information.
I anticipated that I wouldn’t be strong enough for ballet, but I’m finding that “strong enough” is a wire always hovering just a fraction of an inch above you and you keep rising toward it. What I didn’t appreciate, not even remotely, was how coordinated dancers are, though James did warn us back in our very first class that dancing was all about coordination.
Tracey directs us to repeat the set of jumps, and I flail at them again. No longer can I keep track of my body parts, let alone get them where they should be going. One of the new women from the absolute beginners class is equally confused. She wants to go to the front of the studio and watch, and I yearn to bail out with her. I’m aware that ll the months my knee was weak gave me a release valve. In the very real need to protect myself from injury—an injury at 56 years old could take me out of this forever—I held back.
Tracey encourages the new students to keep trying. “I’d like to have one day where I felt like I really got it,” another student says. “But that’s the beauty of ballet,” Tracey urges, “you always have something to work towards and something to lose yourself in.”
There it is. If I want ballet inside me, I can hold back no longer. We are building good foundations, learning how the system works, layering memory into our muscles at the barre. Now the jumps are waiting in the air like wishes. We may bumble and fall, we may make pas de chats that look more like pas d’elephants—but if we want to dance, the only way is by abandonment. With the most experienced of us in the front line, and the still-bewildered in the lines behind them, we fling ourselves again into glissades and jetés.
I want to celebrate today, wearing the new dance clothes I purchased this week at Goodwill—a t-shirt that isn’t baggy, and size 12 (down from 16) not-quite-tights, but on this particular morning, one of us has just had news that her father is seriously ill, and another has lost a best friend to cancer. Our mood is quiet. Lavinia Magliocco is instructing. We had learned so much, the muscles of our abdomens and backs are so much stronger than they used to be, that Lavinia can give us a long, slow développé combination at the barre. It requires endless balance on the standing leg, and sustained extension of the lifted leg in front of us, to the side, to the back, and to the side. The accompanist plays O Mio Babbino Caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which perfectly suits our fragile mood, and our efforts rise to the melody. I can feel the counterbalance between grounding my standing leg and lifting my torso, and the energy, awake and trembling through my lifted leg and clear out my toes. In the studio mirror, I see that my développé is not thrilling, and with my limited flexibility, it never will be. But that doesn’t matter. Within the structure of my body, at this stage of life, it is right. I hold the balance for a tiny extra breath, suspended in a kind of harmony, like standing inside a chambered nautilus shell or flying in the midst of a flock of geese. Outside, it has begun to snow. The swirl of soft flakes against the windows cocoons us in a subtle intimacy. We are at once elated and sad and grateful to be together, reaching for life.
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