I am a recovering bunhead.
I spent a good amount of my youth stretching in musty ballet studios, feet black with sweat, dirt and resin. It was perfectly normal to spend an entire Saturday in a leotard being yelled at by foreigners.
I remember those teachers fondly, and there were many. The new mother with the Southern drawl and no toenails; the strapping, sharp-tongued Russian that was quoted in an LA Times article about the bizarre dangers of tutu-induced finger sprains; a petite Norma Desmond-like woman that had a diaeresis in her name that made us 12-year-olds dance mime requests to use the restroom during rehearsal.
They each had such wonderful stories of raked stages and tours gone wrong, and the behind the scenes of Disneyland parades; of costumes ripping in between arabesques. They dictated beats with the strangest sounds:
“Ra ta tee, ra ta ta!”
“Boom, ka dessa dessa. Cossa cossa ka, boom ka ka BOOM!”
They spoke of Covent Garden; they snuck outside to smoke; they obsessed over the whiteness of their sneakers. I remember the ones that barely spoke English but instead relied on strategic pokes and gestures and French-ish sounding grunts.
They relied on metaphors and imagery.
“Imagine a man sitting on the roof has a string connected to the middle of your head, and he’s pulling, pulling hard!”
“You are an infinite line in the universe - your back, your arms, your calves: they are infinite and straight and irreversible.”
Sometimes they were a little more blunt.
“Dance from your secret place. You know. Your VAGINA.”
“There is only one certainty in this world, girls, and it’s how you feel about you. The things you leave behind, the friends you make, these are nothing. It’s about who you see in the mirror, how you talk to her.”
They taught me so many things, and now - as a mere mortal that used to dance, and has recently returned to the hallowed way of the baltog - I value so much the bits of wisdom they passed down to me. Here are some of my favorite bits.
1. “When my husband died, my world went dark. But I kept on going. I kept on teaching. I had to for my children and for the studio.”
2. “You’re not always going to get a costume that fits you. Learn to sew or just be so good they don’t care what the hell you’re wearing.”
3. “Every class is an opportunity to get better. Besides, you never know when you’re going to run out of money and not be able to take class anymore, so try. You’re here already.”
4. “People have a good way of sensing when something is phony. Don’t be the phony one.”
5. “Do it out of love. No one liked to watch someone do something miserably.”
I recently started dancing again because I didn’t know what else to do. I awoke lost one day and needed a recalibration of my head. I was distracted, wanting, off balance. I needed to do some plies.
I decided on taking something lyrical, contemporary, leotard free, because I heard a teacher once tell me that when you’re old and lost and aren’t used to tights anymore, bare feet and contractions from a place of pain and a place of age and a place of bunions was the only thing that could heal.
The class I took was an interesting mix: 40 people crammed into a sweaty, mirrored room; some young girls in the studio’s company, racking in their afterschool activity points for college applications. Lithe, chatty, teeth covered in braces. They laughed as they kicked themselves in the face on accident, naive with the ease of 16-year-old muscles and seemingly limitless flexibility.
Then there were older women continuing a hobby or perhaps profession they once knew, with rust on the periphery but each turn and kick well-earned.They mingle, coexist as one travelling, moving, pointing and flexing machine. I vacillated in the middle and in the back, unfamiliar with the warmup routine and about 2 counts behind everyone else. I perhaps was more pleased with myself than i should have been whenever I discovered I still “had it” and completed a turn in second, or a decent balance.
They had been working on a long and complicated piece, set to Unchained Melody, and I watched. And I remembered how intimate, how lovely, how assaulting it is to watch someone dance beyond steps and counts.
I remembered very suddenly this was something that I’ve always loved doing, truly and without question. I’ve never regretted taking a class and pointing my feet.
I never regret being part of an art that takes everything human about being a human and carves it into something at once somatic and psychic and universal and invidual. It’s a celebration of the body’s capacity to be more than just a medium. Dancing isn’t about the perfect turnout and executing eight turns in a row - though those are great feats, they’re tricks.
It’s about seeing the inside of someone by just sensing. It’s about talking in the most ancient of languages, visible, tangible, fluid and flowing. It’s watching the dark, sad parts of God play out with every bending, then stretching knee and extended ankle. It’s feeling how choreography looks on different shapes, parallel and lovely and warped ever so slightly, like the way a poem can be read with different accents and interpretations. It’s giving tiny, sinewy people the power to create space and shake the whole building with their might. It’s experiencing music on a whole different level, becoming its temporary vessel to float and carry it into the wind.
It’s flying the best way we, the ones who call themselves dancers, know how.