To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 1

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting my return to ballet class.

Sunday: The Night Before.

You’re a forty-five year old suburban mom, writer and therapist.  Put down those pointe shoes at once!!!

This is just one of the thoughts racing through my mind as I embark on this madcap misadventure.   At a dinner party last night, over our third glass of shiraz, my friend—also an ex- dancer—happened to mention that she’d started taking ballet class on Monday mornings.  Adults only, low-key, no pressure, just an hour, and did I want to join her?

Snapshot of long ago: 1984 Performing Arts High School. I was 18.

Are you kidding me?   I said.   She laughed.  She can laugh.  She was a modern dancer back in the day, not a ballet dancer like I was.  (Two entirely different mentalities.  They were healthier, less extreme in the way they treated their bodies.  Never smoked, ate alfalfa sprouts and granola … yes, ate.  Not us.)  Not to mention that my friend lost weight when she stopped dancing, “I guess because I wasn’t carrying all that extra muscle anymore.”  When I stopped dancing (which actually coincided with quitting smoking and getting pregnant) my real-woman body emerged faster than you could say frappucino.

So, more than the fear of knee pain or reactivating the dormant stress fractures in my metatarsals, more than the anticipated embarrassment at how my technique has drained away over the years,  I cringe at the thought of putting on tights and facing the mirror again.   Sure, I look in the full length mirror in my bedroom every day, with the harsh self-scrutiny of an ex-ballet dancer.  I break my body down part by part, staring down the rounded regions, willing them away, just as I used to when I was a dancer (old habits die hard).  But the difference between now and then is that I can put on my jeans, zip them up (tight or not) and walk away from the mirror for the rest of the day.  If I gain three pounds or even five, no one is going to take a role away from me or send me to the back line of the corps de ballet.  I won’t have to put on a white Lycra unitard and stand on a stage before five hundred people.  I’ll go to a PTA meeting, drive my kids to tennis, swing by Shop-rite on the way home.  And no one will notice my thighs.  Not even my husband, who is appreciative of my body in all its minor fluctuations.

Frankly, as bodies go, mine is pretty good for its age and station.  In the real world, I’m thin.  Reasonably fit and lean for a suburban mom.  But not for ballet.  Once, at a time when I was dancing, weighing ten pounds less than I do today, I was called into the office and given a weight warning—told gently that I “was not looking my best,” which I knew was code for lose weight or else.  So I know that for a ballet dancer, especially a ballet dancer from the 1980s and 1990s, I’m chunky.  Really.  If you know what Natalie Portman, an already-thin young actress went through, how she starved herself, for her role in Black Swan, you’ll have an inkling of what’s involved in maintaining a ballet dancer’s physique.  I once starved myself, chain smoked to avoid eating, threw up what little I did eat, all for that physique.  I was shortish (still am) with real live boobs (read: localized fat), so it was harder.  Even if I was thin, I would look bulky on stage compared to the other girls.    Learning to live with and respect my body was a long time coming.  (Part of me is wondering: Will I mess that up if I start dancing again?)

But the more I thought about my friend’s suggestion (draining glass number three of Shiraz), the more I decided taking a ballet class was something I had to do.  As an experiment, a study in what I can take.   But more than that.  The truth is that I miss it.  I yearn for the pleasure of physicalizing some of the most incredible music ever composed.  Ballet is magical, transcendent, spiritual.  If you’ve ever done it seriously, Ballet is a religion complete with rituals, dress codes, dietary laws.  It’s a way of life that becomes part of your identity.  So when you quit, you feel as if you’ve left home and can’t go back.  Ballet is so demanding, the exercises so specific, that in no time, you’re too out of shape to do them anymore.   You no longer look like or feel like you.  You move on, learn to love other things, but you never lose the sense that you’ve left a piece of yourself behind.  So I am going back.

It will hurt in more ways than one, but I’m doing it.  Full disclosure: my incentive was to have something new to write about.  Something that was deep and personal that wasn’t in the past.  Because I know this will be raw and emotional and the curious therapist and writer in me wants to document it as it’s happening.*

Tomorrow I start.  So tonight I am signing off and going to dig up some de-shanked pointe shoes and a leotard.  I will wear as much “junk” as I want (sweats, legwarmers, t-shirt, etc: hiding clothes).  I will not lift my leg above 45 degrees unless I want to.  If something hurts, I will stop.  But I’m going.

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13 responses to “To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 1

  1. I’m excited to see what happens next! Thanks for the inspiration — I danced for years, nothing serious, nothing even closing resembling a stage — I just love to dance, and haven’t danced for awhile. On Monday nights, there’s an ecstatic group that meets to dance — and you’ve inspired me to get in motion.

    Thanks!

  2. What a brave, interesting journey to embark on! As a former dancer (though never professional as you were), I was especially interested in your description of ballet as a religion. I’d never thought of it that way, but you really hit on something. Can’t wait to hear more! And love the photo!

    • Thanks for your comment, Cate. I always felt, at the beginning of dance class when everyone comes together for plies, it’s like joining in prayer somehow. Especially if I’d been out of class for a while, it was a return to the fold.

  3. It will be like going to a class reunion and realizing that the mean girls have no power over you anymore—that’s my prediction. You will finally be able to enjoy dance without all the attendant baggage. So glad and thrilled for you!

    I appreciated the metaphor of ballet as a religion. Truthfully, I am relieved that my little-girl aspiration to be a dancer was never realized. As they say, God sometimes doesn’t answer your prayer with a Yes because He knows better. I’m glad I fulfilled my passion for dance in my 40s.

  4. Lisa, I’m so glad I came upon your blog (SheWrites). My experience as a dancer was in the middle of Africa (Zambia), um, quite awhile ago and then when I came to the States at 23, I tried to get into teaching. But with two kids and a lot of other obstacles it never came about. I often wonder what would’ve happened if I’d managed to stick to it in some form. Yoga has been a good replacement. Will be keeping an eye how you do. Check out my blog on a dancing “experience” if you like. http://rossandrawhite.com/2011/12/cinderella-dances-away/

  5. Thanks for your comment Rossandra. Just read the Cindarella-dances-away post and commented.

  6. Good for you! Ballet was one of those wistful things through the window glass – I’m 5’9″, was tall even as a child – and big-boned. I was guided to Other Activities.

    I think returning to things we once loved is important in reclaiming who we are NOW. Dance for me, please! 🙂

  7. I love the way this essay is developed from that moment over a glass of Shiraz and your brave and thrilling decision to study ballet, for the love, and freed of your youthful anxieties and insecurities. Did we play a small part by watching the kids that night?

  8. I must give credit where it’s due! 🙂

    Lisa

  9. Pingback: To Dance Again: Return to Self | Lisa W. Rosenberg

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