To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 4

In the Sleeping Beauty Pas de Trois, 1984

About that shoulder injury I mentioned in my last post.  I skipped last week’s ballet class because of one silly maneuver I tried to pull off during the class before.  There’s an exercise known as grand battement en cloche: the standing leg remains straight while the working leg swings from a high front kick to a high back kick, then repeats: front and back and front and back, like a pendulum or a real swing (your foot is the kid going higher and higher, you’re the tree and the mirror is the fence over which your foot can see the whole world).  Just as there’s some give to the rope of a swing, it’s okay to bend your leg in attitude as you cloche.  The idea is to free your hip and get a great stretch without straining.  Grand battement en cloche happens toward the end of barre when your body is pretty warm and at its most flexible.  When nothing particularly hurts it’s kind of fun, especially if you’re sixteen and each leg weighs about ten pounds.  When I was younger, my favorite thing to do was grab my foot at the end of the combination and pull it down over my head to touch my nose.

Doing the exercise two weeks ago, I experienced a warm surge of nostalgia, wacked my leg as high as it could go in back and lifted my chin.  Yes!  I could see my foot!  Just like in the old days!  On the next pass I kicked just as high to see if I’d been dreaming.  I hadn’t been: there was my foot, just inches from my forehead.  Then I pushed my luck.  On the last swing, I kicked with total abandon, arm in fifth overhead, turned my face toward the mirror to see if I looked just as fabulous as I felt, and heard a loud snap.   It was the head-turn that did it.  My leg came down, but my arm would not.  Nor would my head comfortably return to the front-facing position.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this had happened before.  I can usually recall the origin of my dance injuries—where I was when they started (my Cincinnati Ballet Knee-Blow-Out), what I missed, how my psyche was holding up.  Each old battle wound comes with its emotional baggage (my Pacific Northwest Ballet stress fracture, the subsequent weight gain and depression).  As for this shoulder thing, its era was high school.

So as I stood there, massaging my shoulder blade—two weeks ago, in January, 2012—1983 descended upon me.  Performing Arts High School, Dance Studio A: longer than it was deep, sticky with resin, rank with the bodies of energetic teenagers, of whom only a handful were fastidious about deodorant.  I see my friends in the mirror, dressed in tights, cut-neck t-shirts (we predated Flashdance with that, by the way), chiffon skirts, bunchy leg warmers.  Someone is out on the fire escape smoking a cigarette under the assumption that the teachers can’t see him.  There’s music playing, of course, and there’s me.  Tiny, hyperactive, even for a dancer, dressed all in slimming black, though I don’t quite weigh ninety pounds.  I’m making people laugh with a Gelsey Kirkland imitation,  now an imitation of the teacher himself.  I look like I’m having a blast until I look in the mirror, which I used to do often.  Checking, always checking.  That was how I got the trick shoulder.                                                                                                                                                                                                              I’d take a grande jete  ( a big leap) with my arms overhead, go as high as I could, split my legs 180 degrees, arch my back.  Then I’d toss back my head to look in the mirror.  When I came down, my left arm would stick in place and I’d have to get someone to help me release it.   The teacher would scold me; I shouldn’t turn my head at such a crazy, unnatural angle.  It wasn’t choreographed; it broke the line; it didn’t look right.  But I’d do it again the next time.  Just to see myself fly.  To see a joyous version of me when the real one was anything but.

The mirror was fickle.  Sometimes it showed me the best of me; other times the worst.  It was a crystal ball who reveled in the lies it could make me believe.  It held what I needed: a positive answer to the question on my mind—on the minds of all my friends: Will I make it?  Will I ever get to dance with a ballet company?  That was all that mattered.  We grew up hearing that out of a thousand little girls in pink tights and leotards, only one makes it as a ballet dancer.  But we’d worked so hard for so many years.  We’d passed auditions; we’d performed.  At this point, we all felt we were that one in a thousand.  Not making it would be the end of the world as far as we were concerned.

But Ballet is hard.  If you go to the ballet, look at the girls, the women.  The intricate moves they pull off with superhuman strength and delicacy.  It takes years of daily training, hours and hours each day.  Ballet technique is based on a series of geometric lines that describe impossible images of beauty.   A human body simply cannot do it perfectly, but to be a professional you must come close.

Now take ballet, add teenage girls, and you have a dangerous mix.  Our fear of failure was paralyzing; the likelihood of failure ridiculously high.  Many of us smoked, starved, purged and engaged in other “unhealthy coping behaviors.”  Still, we’d never quit because we loved ballet too much.

There were moments when everything came together.  You’d hit your balance in a pirouette and sail around six times, or take off  in a leap and defy gravity.  When the moment was over, you’d look around hoping someone saw.  But we were often too focused on ourselves to notice one another.  So you’d peak in the mirror as you danced, trying to record those split seconds of success for the darkest hours of self-flagellation.  Those times when you stood in front of the mirror alone, listening to your inner voice tell you how fat you were, how far from being a true dancer.   Compared to you, it said, your friends are perfect.   Then, a small, quiet voice might break through your private torture, whispering: yes, but you can fly.  Yes, but you did six pirouettes.  And you’d survive.

That was long ago, and how I’ve survived.  Suffering only a little from the aftermath of that wild kick and inopportune head turn.  When I was sixteen, a short massage from a friend was all I needed to pop my arm and neck back into alignment.  Since I am not sixteen, this shoulder episode takes several massages from my husband, a week and a half of hot baths and compresses and a whole lot of Ibuprofen to work itself out.   While I am healing, I find a moment to stand in front of the mirror in tights and try to remember what it was that I loathed so much.  I am not perfect—in fact I’m way less perfect than I was at sixteen.  But when I take in my form, the darkness doesn’t come back.  I think of my kids, how special they are, how this body made them, how lucky that I recovered from my eating disorders in time to have them.  I think how cool it is that I get to dance again.

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6 responses to “To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 4

  1. And from within that slimming black leotard, you radiate the beauty of your spirit. Beautiful to witness in flight.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Louise for the kind words.

  3. How much you make me feel what it was like for you as a young dancer–the pain, the joy, I love the picture of the 22 year old Lisa, bright eyed, chin up, leg thrust. I feel tender toward her and her dreams, see her still very much alive in you.

  4. Lisa, it was painful to read about the torture young dancers put themselves through. And yet it’s a good ache, like the way one feels after a workout. I have more empathy now for a 20-something acquaintance at the ballroom dance studio where I teach. For the last couple of weeks, I’d been simmering about how critical, how superior, how lacking in compassion she seemed in her nitpicking of our technique. Getting inside your head at that age unlocked something in my heart. As hard as she comes across, she is harder on herself. I am glad I came to dance in my 40s, minus the burden of perfectionism that plagues younger women. I only hope I can recall this newfound understanding and bite my tongue the next time she kvetches!

  5. Thanks Scrollwork, though I have so say, being put in your place by a 40 year old is not the worst thing to happen to a 20 year old. If it’s done with empathy … sometimes hearing someone else’s perspective shakes you up–in a good way.

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