Tag Archives: Pointe Shoes

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: 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.