Tag Archives: Ballet

The Heartbreak of Striving

img002I know the heartbreak of striving. If you’re a dancer or a writer or anyone who has ever put your all into something, be it an art or sport or pursuit of a truth—knowing the odds of success might be questionable—you know it too.

It’s the moment “hobby” turns to passion. “Like to” turns to “have to.” “Want to” turns to “my heart will break if I don’t.”

For me, that shift happened in ballet when I was at that pivotal age of eleven. For years my friends and I had danced happily, loving the music, loving the combinations our teachers asked of us. High on childhood and music and ballet, we had a rose-colored view of ourselves. Blind to the work ahead, we could imagine that we were ballerinas already. We were being taught technique in such a loving way, it fed our dreams without building the muscles of self-critique. We soared on our dreams.

But suddenly, around the age of eleven, something dawned on all of us—especially those with talent. Ballet is hard. Really, really hard—even if you have talent for it. It’s a strange phenomenon. As you get closer to being a real dancer, as your teachers demand more of you and you demand more of yourself, you begin to feel the pain of not being good enough. Not yet. Your ability to happy with the pictures you make in the mirror must be delayed. It was a hard realization. To suddenly feel inadequate at the age of eleven. My first heartbreak.

The thing is, in order to become good at ballet, I needed to recognize that there was room for improvement. We all did. We needed to push through to become better at it. Our teachers impressed this upon us. We were not good enough yet. Those of us who truly loved ballet understood that it would take years before we were good enough. And because ballet was what we wanted, we were willing to do the work and to wait. Even though we were just kids. Even though we knew that, even with work and time, some of us might not make it. I hope I do, we’d say. I hope I make it. We were competitors, fellow strivers and fellow sufferers.

One day half the girls in my class had learned they were going on pointe. The other half—myself included— were told we weren’t strong enough and would have to wait one more excruciating year to get our satin pinks. No matter how hard we’d worked, we were not ready. A second heartbreak.

Beginning then, our four-times-per-week ballet class was extended fifteen minutes. Our teacher would clap her hands say the words—ladies, put on your pointe shoes! And the lucky half would run for the corner to wrap their toes in lamb’s wool and slip on their hard-tipped shoes, lace up the gleaming ribbons. The rest of us, with heavy hearts, joined in their special exercises in our normal “flat” ballet slippers—our dreams deferred as our classmates blistered and bled, building callouses they would later show off.

The year passed. I got my shoes, then my callouses. Another year later, no one in our ballet class could remember who had gone on pointe at eleven and who’d had to wait. But now the work of becoming real ballet dancers kicked into high gear. We had ballet class six days per week, knowing that other girls our age danced three classes per day to our one. Still, there was plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Some of us made it.

As a writer, I have revised my novel umpteen times, received great feedback, but also rejections. I will continue to revise and work until my book is good enough. Just as I did with my dancing. If you are to strive for something you love, no matter what the endeavor, there will be heartbreak along the way.

teaching at MAD LOMI saw a germ of this in one of my little ballet students just two weeks ago. I was teaching the class a new skill—a single pirouette from fourth position. We’d been building up to it, working on passé, passé relevé, spotting the head, opening and closing the arms, proper placement. This girl was ready to turn, I thought. So I stayed with her as she worked through the steps and tried the turn. I was patient and encouraging in just the right measures, I thought. She was determined—I could see it—and I would not let her give up.

“That’s it,” I kept saying, between more technical instructions. “You’re there.” I kept pushing, gently, sure I was going to get a result that delighted us both. She’d have that feeling of balance, of landing, of making the illusion of spinning.

“Once more.” As I said it, I realized it was too much. Her brown eyes were welling up, spilling over. Soon she was sobbing, having put her all into something that was not working. Not yet.

I felt awful. So guilty. I had made a child cry. But then I remembered how many times I had cried while I was striving for my dream—sometimes because I was hard on myself, other times because I was scolded by my ballet teachers. Granted, in my day, adults were more openly critical of children in ways that weren’t always good. Today, we have expressions like “It’s all good.”

Of course, in ballet, it isn’t all good. As teachers, we have the difficult task of expressing that in a non-damaging way. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be negative with children, to “draw the talent out of them,” as some teachers did when I was growing up. Instead, I think we need to find creative ways to inspire children, to nurture their passion for art or sports or science or music. When they love what they are doing, striving—having a self-imposed standard to meet—comes naturally. And, though there will certainly be heartbreak along the way, hearts are resilient.

To my little, tearful student, to all children moving from play into passion, my advice is as follows:

Whatever your dream—enjoy the journey, keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t give up when it’s tough. You’ll get there.

To Dance Again: Return to Self

teaching at MAD LOM

A few years back, when I started this blog about body image and identity, I was thinking a lot about my relationship to ballet. It defined me from late childhood, though adolescence and into my late twenties. It was my niche, my career, until I left to find out who I was without it.

To recap: some time in 2012, after who-can-even-count how many years of not dancing, a friend lured me back to ballet class. I was flooded with all kinds of emotions—excitement, dread, nostalgia—but most of all, an overpowering sense of return-to-self.

Return-to-self isn’t anything I learned about in social work school, but I’d have to define it as a process of acute identity repair.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a sixty-something-year-old guy on the table next to mine at physical therapy. I was there for my knees—the culprits who’d distanced me from ballet. He was there for a leg or back injury, I never asked what. I should mention that my physical therapist, to distract patients from their agony, has large-screened TVs on every wall, all synced, streaming sit-coms from the 1990’s—Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond. Depending on the hour of your appointment, you can usually predict what will be playing.

At the time of my narrative, Will and Grace was on. After my neighbor and I shared a chuckle over Karen’s alcohol-fueled antics, he mused about how the country had changed since the show had aired.

“You can’t make cracks about alcoholism anymore,” lamented the guy with the back-or-leg injury. “You can’t even say words like Jew or Black on primetime without a lawsuit.”

Whether that’s true or not, I kept listening. Soon, the conversation led to the guy sharing some of his history with me.  He’d been an outdoor sports guy, he said. Hunting, boating, motorcycle racing. Sure, he’d suffered various wounds from these high-risk diversions. He’d been shot Cheney-style more than once (he showed me a shoulder scar), thrown from bikes and boats—all minor events he’d shrugged off at the time. But the injury he faced now (again, he did not specify, but later I saw he walked with a severe limp) had sidelined him from everything he loved to do. Everything.

“But my faith is in him,” he aimed a thumb at our PT, “and Him.” He re-directed said thumb toward the ceiling. “You watch. I’ll get back on that bike if it’s the last thing I do.”

I could see he meant it. Getting back on his motorcycle was worth that much to him. Life just wasn’t life without the thrill-rides he loved. That I understood.

For me, the sine qua non endeavor was ballet, as I wrote back in 2012, when I went back to ballet for the first time. I didn’t stick with it back then; my knees wouldn’t permit it. But I kept ballet in my heart, blogging about it, watching my favorites on YouTube, penning a novel about teenage ballet dancers in New York City. Through my characters, I still lived ballet, still danced in my mind and through my fingers on the keyboard. I kept thinking, should I try dancing again? Or should I let this be enough? I ran for exercise, so it wasn’t like I was completely sedentary. (Running, oddly, has no negative impact on my knees.) But every so often I’d wonder: is it really over? Will I never dance again?  That sounded so sad, so final. I pushed the thought away, rather than try to challenge it.

I still dreamed I was dancing, though. One night I even dreamed I was still good. I got back my arabesque, my turns, my elevation. The very next day, I got an email from a friend, a former dancer who runs a dance, theater and drumming school in town. Would I teach ballet for her one night a week, she wanted to know? Two classes, for ten to twelve year old girls? I thought it over and rose to the challenge. How could I possibly say no? Especially after the dream I’d had.

So back again I went. It’s been over a month. I never thought I’d love teaching children to do something that could be painful and frustrating as well as beautiful. But, guess what? I do. Because I value ballet for its elegance, its purity and the way it lets you merge with the music, I believe I’m giving these children something precious. I’m stricter than I thought I’d be, but also loving, because I can see that they love what I’m sharing with them. I don’t allow them to not point their feet; I don’t allow them to give up. But I do lavish praise on effort and hard work. I say things my teachers used to say—grow taller as you plié, drop the tailbone, roll back your shoulders and keep breathing!—and I mean them.

I have begun taking a weekly ballet class in addition to the ones I teach. What has happened is curious and hard to describe. I don’t do everything full-out, but as I dance, I can almost hear my soul clicking into place.

I still have my psychotherapy practice; I am still writing fiction—both of which I love. But now, the dancer in me is back from hibernation.

So what about you? How many years has it been since you did that thing you used to live for? It might have been a hobby or a passion—dirt-biking, fly fishing or found-object sculpting—any activity that completed you, that was your dessert after a hard work week. Maybe you performed with a band whose members all had day jobs. Maybe you wrote poetry you never shared with anyone, but that sustained you nevertheless. Or maybe you were one of the lucky few whose passion—be it acting or football—was once your career.

What took you away from that passion? An injury? The practical reality of needing to make more money? Lack of time? Maybe you can’t immerse yourself in the activity like you once did, but there might be a way to reconnect yourself with it. For example, one woman I danced with years ago, benched by a back injury, became a dance photographer. A friend and former performer—another psychotherapist—writes plays in her “spare time.”

If you ever look back on the days when that activity was part of your life, and think: That was when I was most fully me, you deserve this. Dust off your old passion and find a way to take it back, in any way you still can. Whatever it is, I wish you hope, courage, and a safe return to your Self.

Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help.  Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem.   I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.

I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural.  (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.)  And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work.  As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens.  So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?

I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes.  As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?

The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting.  Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race.  The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families.  What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption?  These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.

For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity.   Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company.  For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel.  She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body.  She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.

Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference.  This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.”  How was I different from the rest of BB II?

*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)

*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company.  I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)

*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II.  The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)

*I had real boobs.  (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D.  This disqualified me from being considered thin.  I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.)  Oh, I have a photograph:

Me in the center. Lying about my age, weight and cup size.

Me in the center. Lying about my age, height, weight and cup size.

So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous.  Which of these differences do I write about now?  Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.

My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds.  In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time.  Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company.  (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)

The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse.  In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage.  Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day).  But gain weight and all bets are off.

There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there.  Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge.  This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.

Hermes on the Path

As noted in an earlier post, I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams. 

Hermes on the Path

I happen to be the sort of writer who loves the onslaught of ideas that hits me daily, who feels trapped by outlines.   Yet that very onslaught makes me the sort of writer who MUST have an outline.  I know this because the first draft of my completed adult novel weighed in at 711 pages.  It took me five years and sixteen revisions to get it down to 300 pages.  I just don’t have that kind of time any more (not that I did then either).

This time, I started by envisioning a query letter, went ahead and wrote the “plot summary paragraph,” and used that as inspiration.  I allowed myself to write fifty pages, just enough to get a sense of my twins, their family and relationships, then forced myself to write an outline.  As you’d expect, this was when the process really started to take off.

I’m following my outline in the same way you follow the path on a hike through the woods.  Sometimes the path is clear; sometimes there’s a fallen tree across it.  When you go around the tree, you discover another path, partly covered by moss and vines, but leading somewhere nevertheless.  You check it out, because you’ve got a feeling it might be something worth exploring.  Five times out of ten, you’re glad you did.

There’s a big difference between planning and doing. Who hasn’t traveled somewhere new and arrived to discover that the weather is warmer, colder, or wetter than they expected?  Who hasn’t had to buy an emergency raincoat or Infant Tylenol?  Who hasn’t arrived home and unpacked a heavy sweater or swimsuit that never got worn?  Packing for the journey, you take informed leaps of faith, but only when you get there do you see what’s practical, plausible.

It’s the same way with plot points in an unfinished novel.  My outline keeps me grounded in my knowledge of how the book ends as well as some Big Deal Events that will transpire along the way.  For example, Dad and Oliver have a huge row–over his dancing and orientation–which leads Oliver to leave home (Big Deal Event).  Later Oliver is taken in by a Brooklyn couple in exchange for cleaning their home–which he considers eons beneath him, but does because he has no where else to go (also a Big Deal Event).   But why–in a city full of friends and family–does he have no where else to go?  How is it that there’s no alternative for a budding ballet star but becoming a houseboy?

To answer that, I had to look for off-path tools.  One example is a beautiful Persian cat named Hermes–the pet of a friend Oliver stays with–who triggers an unforseen but severe allergic reaction.  Hermes is not in my outline, but Oliver’s handling of the situation is essential to the plot.

As Oliver’s image grows sharper, so do my instincts as to how he should grapple with the specific obstacles in his path.   Regarding Hermes (pronounced like the designer, not the Greek god), Oliver toughs it out for as long as he can, consuming large quantities of antihistimines, refusing to admit how much he’s suffering.

‘After three days, I’ve found some solace in the right dose of Benadryl and Advil Cold and Sinus.  The sneezing subsides, though I’m wired now, twenty-four hours a day.  The mania helps my dancing.  I’m back on top in terms of jumps and turns and attention too, though my heart is usually racing to beat the band.  When I do sleep, I awaken with my eyes glued shut, the cat’s tail languishing against my neck like the scarves that bear his name …

‘Hermes the Cat becomes a metaphor.  If I admit how he affects me, if I admit I’m allergic, then I’ve admitted defeat.  My father wins …’

Oliver is starting to flow for me, more quickly than Olivia, partly because he is less like me than she is.  I’ve spent so much time writing as him, trying to learn him (speaking to and remembering those who have inspired me to create him).   It’s Olivia I’m working on now.  Today’s task will be to flesh out the story of the twins’ mother, who is very ill.  I have yet to determine her ailment, only that she is largely incapacitated as a parent.  I’ll use Olivia’s narration for this, which should help me refine her voice and character.

In any event, as long as I know I can revise my outline as needed, sticking in devices like Hermes along the way, I’ll never feel constrained by it.

License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.

Blog Vs. Book

One of the things I like best about blogging is the other bloggers I’ve met this way.   Wonderful writers, women and men, who live all over the globe, some of whom share my day-to-day routines of parenting, writing, house-maintenence (or house-neglect which is more apt these days), others whose schedules do not revolve around carpools, pick-ups and drop-offs.  I look forward to reading the blogs of the people I follow, many of whom follow me.  Through my followees (and followers) I am exposed to lives I’d never have discovered on my own.

There’s responsibility in blogging, though.  Your blog is more than an expression of yourself and your take on the world.  As it gains an audience, your blog becomes a thing of its own.  When I am asleep, someone on the other side of the planet might be reading, sharing, commenting on my blog.  When I check it again, it’s got new growth.   Like a garden, you have to care for your blog, feed it, nurture it, recognize when it’s stagnating and then do something about that.

When the bloggers I follow are silent for a while, I might miss them, but I won’t judge them.   I know we all have to live our lives and that often the blog is the piece we can leave unattended while we’re caring for a sick relative, working, hosting the in-laws or, what was that other one?–writing a novel.   For me it’s that last one I’m having trouble balancing with the blog, though it seems like everyone else online manages to do it.

(Yes I know, everyone chooses what they reveal of themselves online; some let it all hang out, others show only their most glowing selves.  Recently I read a great article about social-network envy–the perception that everyone on the internet is accomplishing more than you and having more fun doing it!)  I am sure everyone struggles balancing blog and life, or in my case, blog and book, but I find myself occasionally overwhelmed with guilt for choosing one over the other.  Not that I believe there’s a galaxy of fans who would be devastated if I took a hiatus to power through my novel.

The most regular of my followers and commenters happen to be kind and supportive and understanding (and yes, I feel like I know you and wish I could have coffee with you sometime!).   But I’m not worried about letting other people down.  Instead, I’m concerned about missing out, which I know is a piece of my character that stems directly from being an only child.  What was the sibling world doing while I was home with my parents?   With all their brothers and sisters around, would they forget about me?

If I took a month off from my blog, what would happen?  If I abandoned Twitter?  Would I have to start from scratch?  Would people remember me and still be my friends–I mean followers?  I don’t know, but I have decided not to find out, not yet.   I will slow down here, though.  I’ve actually slowed down already.   I’m giving myself until June to finish a draft of the new WIP, and will post here only about once a week for now.  (Don’t worry: I’ll still read your blogs because they are often so wonderful and mentally sustaining.)

But, as much as I don’t like to blog about blogging or write about writing, I’m going to temporarily let go of that to make this blog a better partner for my fiction.  Actually, that shouldn’t be hard, because my new WIP is all about body image and identity, which is the tagline for this blog.

I’m almost done for tonight, but first I’m going to share something about my WIP’s protagonists and why I think their struggles are relevant here.  They’re seventeen year old twins, both pre-professional ballet dancers, one male and one female.  Here I’ll just call them GT for girl twin and BT for boy twin.  Here are their conflicts:

  • BT is bullied by his homophobic father who suspects (correctly) that BT is gay.  BT’s father makes BT promise to give up dancing, but BT continues behind his back.
  • GT is bullied by the directors of their pre-professional ballet company because of her weight.  GT is a normal, healthy weight for a seventeen year old girl and the powers-that-be find this unacceptable.

I’m not going to share plot details because, though I’ve written over seventy pages, I haven’t yet finished the outline.  But these twins will face major obstacles to their dream of succeeding in ballet–all directly or indirectly related to the themes of body image and identity.  (See?  There’s my blog tie in.)

Anyway I hope to finish a draft, possibly a second draft, by the end of the school year, when I will lose a good chunk of writing time (as my angelic children will be home).  Please root for me!  Thanks!

Stay tuned …

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist, Part 5

Today I forgot my knee brace, the thing I call my ‘external connective tissue.’  I didn’t notice it was missing until the class was three quarters over, and only then because I bent to stretch with my hands on my knees.  Instead of thick, industrial elastic and nylon I felt … a knee, and one that didn’t hurt.   A not-so-small victory.

But let’s not push our luck, my mind said, let’s not jump.  My heart countered: But why not just try? Because now the music had started; my muscles were aching for a crack at petit allegro.  Just this once.  So I wound up jumping, carefully, but not tentatively.  Not too high, but boldly, and with épaulement—loads of épaulement!  My knee, miraculously, went along with the program.  No ginching, no sharp pain, no kidding.  Is it possible that I’ve learned to dance for maintenance and longevity after all?  That this dancing-again thing isn’t just a flash in the pan, a backward glance in an old, cracked mirror?

I think I get to keep you, after all, Ballet.  You’re part of my routine again—tights, leotard, pink satin shoes.  When people say, “Do you dance?” the answer is no longer, “Back in the day I did,” but “Yes.”  A simple question with a simple answer.

Sure, my sense of triumph is tempered slightly when I acknowledge that, at my age, this probably as good as it gets.  Performing Swan Lake, Agon, Concerto Barocco—all my favorite balletsthat part is over.  But I feel like I’ve come home to myself.

Granted, when I look in the mirror to check my line—really look, not glance or squint—what I see is something that only vaguely resembles what I once looked like.  That discrepancy could be pretty painful if I let it get to me.  But since that first day, when I chose to waste precious moments of my life obsessing about my thigh-width, I’ve banished that sort of thinking from this process.  Regardless of how I measure up to the old, professional-dancing me, I won’t hate this me or her non-twenty-year-old-sylph body.  The fact that I can still do this on any level is too thrilling to lament a loss of extension, or a gain of pounds.   So I won’t.  (Okay maybe I will sometimes but I vow to stop when I catch myself.)  When I leave ballet class each week, regardless of how my jeans are fitting that day, I’m less hard on myself, less judgmental.  One reason is the confidence that comes from being true to who I am—by letting dance back into my life.

This return to ballet class began as an experiment, something to write about.  It wound up healing a part of me that I didn’t know was wounded.

Now that ballet no longer hurts so much, I can’t call myself a masochist anymore, which is why this is the final post in the “To Dance Again” series.  Nevertheless, all this writing about dance has inspired me to dust off something I’ve had in ‘My Documents’ for some time now.  A ballet novel, for which I’ve already got a cast of characters I’m in love with, a setting and even a few chapters.  (My first novel, Birch Wood Doll, is about a ballet dancer, but it’s not a ballet novel).  I won’t say more about the new work here, but it’s calling me.  I’ll put the “Dissociative Identity Disorder” novel on hold for now, pace myself with this blog, stop worrying about my newish Twitter account and let this new book happen.

Stay tuned.

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.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 3

The Second Class

It’s today.  I’m actually so excited about going to class, I can’t think straight.  Okay, my knee already hurts and I have a butt spasm because I didn’t stretch enough after running yesterday.  Not to mention that I fell down half a flight of stairs last night, landing on my hip, under the full laundry basket I’d been carrying.  But this is why God made Ibuprofen.   Medicated, caffeinated, I’m standing strong and ready to go.

Like Murphy’s law, both kids (aged eight and ten) are home sick today, but I persuade my sweet, supportive husband to telecommute for the first part of the day.  I make everyone lunch, stick it in the fridge and go find my new black tights.   (Oh, yeah, gorged on Thai food yesterday at a friend’s birthday celebration but who’s looking at my thighs??  Not even me.)

And now that I’m gathering my dance clothes, a word on footwear.  After the first ballet class, I noticed that the balls of my feet felt bruised.  It had been so many years, it took me a moment to remember why.   From my father, I inherited a strange (painless in itself) foot condition which involves the absence of a few ligaments.  This has been confirmed by X-rays.  You’d only notice if you decided to squeeze my feet; you’d find that they’re not tough and thick like, well, feet—but bony and too-pliable, more like hands (no thumb, though; they look human).  I solved this issue—once it was diagnosed—by wearing pointe shoes to dance whenever I could.  (Not a hardship; pointe shoes were required at all times in the ballet companies I danced with.)  Pointe shoes have hard boxes and kept my feet nicely—bound is the only word for it.  Regular shoes also work, as do sneakers, but regular ballet slippers lack support.  When I was in my very young, pre-pointe shoes days, my little feet were padded enough for none of this to bother me.  Later, I was prone to stress fractures.

So, for today’s class I bring a pair of pointe shoes with the shank torn out.  They still look like pointe shoes, but the sole is soft so I couldn’t dance on pointe even if I wanted to.  I worry about what the other moms will think.  Am I showing off? Being a “little trina?”  No.  This is about physical maintenance and longevity.  I won’t wear down the bones in my feet just to avoid coming off like a princess.   Aren’t we all too old for such judgments anyway?  I put on the shoes.  Tie the ribbons (which I must have sewn on about sixteen years ago.)  It feels good.  The shoes say, We’ve got ya old girl.  Go ahead and dance.   I say, I remember you guys, and catch a glimpse of my feet in the mirror, a gleaming flash of pink.  I flex and point my right foot just a little and it feels like ballet—in a good way.

Some of the other women do make comments: Wow, you’re brave, and the like.  I feel a desperate need to explain—you don’t understand: it hurts less like this—really! But I don’t need to bother.  It’s a very live and let live crowd.  If living means reliving a long-retired version of yourself, so be it.

The knee pain isn’t so bad this time.  From the start I remember not to care how turned-out I am, to focus on enjoying the music, being as indulgent as I want in terms of épaulement (defined in Part 2), milking those lush crescendos.  The class goes longer today, I’m told.  We’ll be doing more turns and bigger jumps in the center.  I’m wary of the latter.  The idea of leaping, given my knee issue, is one reason I ruled out dancing again up until now.  But after the adagio, I’m up for the waltzing pirouettes, adrenaline providing a nice analgesic.  Grande Allegro (big jumps and leaps) is next.  I go for it.   Soon I’m doing it: a real grande jeté!  If I squint at myself in the mirror, or better yet, don’t look at all, I can imagine sailing through the air, just as if nothing’s changed.

But when it’s time to try the combination on the left side, I grow sober.  Sense comes into play, overriding Ibuprofen.  No, we won’t go this direction, won’t do something as foolhardy as a big leap landing on my left leg—home to my long-suffering left knee.  I mark the combination, skip the steps but join in for épaulement.  I’m taking a bold step, dancing again like this, but I know my limits.  Most of them, anyway.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 2

The First Class

at home in my current identity

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 withWhich 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.