The First Class
I get there early to warm up, but mostly to buy black tights. I could not find any at home, and though I’m planning to wear sweatpants over the tights, I still need tights—not for the look, but to hold everything in place. I buy the tights and put them on over the only leotard I could find (black, of course). Next I stand facing the full-wall mirror in the dressing room, as my formerly anorexic mind swings in out of nowhere to process the image. Unacceptable, is what it comes up with. Which is how the then me would judge the now me. How can you possibly expect to lift those legs? I fight these thoughts; I know better but I have to fight hard. Here is what my recovered, evolved mom-and-shrink mind counters with: So your legs are thicker than your unrealistic mental ideal? Who gives a shit when there are people starving in the world? People losing their children to gunfire and famine? You are taking an adult ballet class on a Monday morning when other people are at work. You didn’t get to preview your thighs before you came here because the cleaning lady was washing the mirror at home. You have no right to kvetch. About anything.
Now in comes my friend, who reinforces how ridiculous I’m being. What are you wearing tights for? It turns out, not only is everyone in the class around my age, everyone is a mom I know, either from the pool, from my kids’ school or activities. Everyone looks like themselves, not the twenty year old images of sylphlike perfection I used to compare myself to. Yet everyone looks beautiful in a way they probably don’t realize. They are self-accepting and grateful to be where we are, doing this Monday morning moms’ ballet class. They glow with anticipation. I forget all about my thighs and stretch, getting excited about the music.
The teacher—a man whose name I’d heard when I was dancing but whom I’ve never met until now—is a flexible sort. He can teach professionals, little ones or even aging soccer moms, depending on who’s asking. I speak to him in advance, warn him: I haven’t danced in … my left knee doesn’t really bend so well, I’ll have to take it easy. He nods with a smile; we’re all in the same boat. This is not an audition.
As in every ballet class, every level, everywhere, we begin with grand plies. The music swells and I’m transported back home to myself. The very, very last thing on my mind is what my body looks like. I have little actual ballet technique left, only muscle memory, but how well my muscles remember. When you’re a ballet child, you learn your tendus, frappés and petit battements; your feet and legs internalize the technique. But the fun part is when your upper body—chest, head, shoulders and arms—learns to dance, really dance. We call it épaulement (loosely translated: tilt of the shoulders) and port de bras (the carriage of the arms). These are what you use to translate music into movement; it’s the one thing you never lose. It’s what still feels wonderful.
My knee, on the other hand, not so much. We all have battle wounds and mine is the left knee, my trick knee, which is chronologically the same age I am, but in terms of hard knocks, is more like seventy. The original injury took place when I was nineteen years old. It was the first day of my professional dance career. I had just joined the corps of the Cincinnati New Orleans City Ballet (those companies merged briefly during the 1980s) under the executive direction of Ivan Nagy, a well known Hungarian danseur. The director swept in halfway through company class to inspect his new crop of dancers. During an exuberant across-the-floor waltz combination, I managed to catch his eye. I was so young, so nervous, so desperate to make a splendid first impression that I paid more attention to performance and épaulement than to where my feet were in relationship to the floor. Mid-combination, there was a big, split-leg temps de flèche (read: hitch kick) into which I threw myself with gusto. I was smiling—a classic closed-lipped, raised-eyebrow ballet smile (look how easy this is!)—and sprang into the air, switching my legs brilliantly. Ivan saw me! Smiled! Victory! Then I landed. I went one way; my left kneecap seemed to go the other. Following this, the rest of the corps began rehearsing Les Sylphides, I began a long course of physical therapy.
I was young, as I said. I’d heal quickly. I’d even perform in Les Sylphides. But my knee, which had aged twenty years in one fateful moment, would never be the same again. Now it’s on the bulbous side, takes a wacky spiral track whenever I bend my leg. And pain? I’ll feel it in unsupportive shoes but as long as I stick to my Dansko clogs, the pain goes away. Also, I run. Slowly but consistently, three miles every day which, counter-intuitively, seems to strengthen the knee. (Whenever I take a break from running, like when I had hernia surgery, my knee got worse.) But ballet is another story.
Today, during the very first tendu combination, my knee goes ginch! The teacher sees my eyebrows knit in pain.
“Lisa,” he says, “take the turn-out down a notch.”
Is he kidding? Turn-out—the balletic state of being gloriously, naturally duck-toed—has always been my claim to fame. If you’re not turned out, it’s not ballet. This was drilled into my head for more than twenty years.
“But why now?” says the teacher. “If it’s not a performance, not an audition, who cares about perfection?”
I let my toes come closer together, form a ninety degree “v” with my feet rather than my “usual” one-eighty line from toe to toe. Then I dance, using the right muscles, but no straining. Surprise! Nothing hurts. Though this is harder, oddly enough: to remember not to force anything. But for the rest of the barre, I work as hard as I can not to work as hard as I can, though that does not come naturally. Every time I space out and just enjoy the music and the muscle memory, I force, I wack, I ginch. And ouch! Easy, the teacher says, Easy.
Now we move the bars aside to dance. Adagio: slow and sensual, allegro: small jumps; then pirouettes to a fun and “dancy” waltz. Here, there’s nothing to hold onto, so I’m not forcing anything; I’m too busy trying to remember how not to fall down. I hold a memory in my head of how ballet felt; I project the image in my mind onto my reflection in the mirror, which is managing admirably for an out of shape (for ballet) forty-five year old. Miraculously, nothing, not even the knee, hurts badly enough for me to stop. So I don’t stop. I finish. Victoriously, I thank the teacher, hug my friend and buy a ten class card.
At night I make sure to roll out the knots in my calves using a wooden device I bought for this purpose years ago at the health food store. I ice my knee with my turbo-super-duper icepack from a medical supply store. I fall asleep with the icepack on and wake up frostbitten, which has happened before, but once my knee thaws, it seems okay. In the morning, and for two mornings after that, I wake up stiff and sore. But I can still hear the music, still feel the dancing inside me, the way you have that flying, rocking sensation the day after you’ve been to an amusement park and braved the big rides. I am glad I have a week to recover between classes. But I can’t wait until Monday.