Giving Ballet a Whirl at Keshet

Printed by ABQ Free Press: April 6, 2016

Night has fallen by the time I arrive at Keshet Center for the Arts (4121 Cutler Ave NE), but the building is still brightly lit and echoing with activity.

Most of the noise comes muffled from the far side of the lobby — music, shuffling, a teacher’s commanding voice. The volunteer who checks me in at reception area catches me eyeing the closed doors: “That’s the teen ballet class. They’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Sure enough, a flurry of adolescents pours forth just before 7 p.m., clearing Studio C-3 for the next class, Adult Ballet II. This is my first ballet class in 20 years, and as a new student, I’m sure of what to expect.

Keshet’s website reveals that I’m about to “train rigorously, mastering the plié [and] quickly memorizing complicated battement tendu, battement degagé, rond de jambe à terre, and battement frappé patterns.”

For an hour-and-a-half class, that seems like a lot of ground to cover. I’ll be happy if I master the plié.

A dozen of us gather around barres at the center of the studio, where a wall of mirrors reveals how well I if in (or don’t) with the more experienced dancers.

My hair is pinned into an appropriate bun, but from the neck down, I’m dressed in the stretchy neon garb of a casual runner, hot pink socks and all. The outfit pops among the other students’ mix of black leotards, white tights, sheer skirts and ballet slippers.

In kindergarten, I owned a miniature version of those slippers: pale pink, thin leather, snapped into place at the ankle with an elastic strap. Back then, my mother took me to my Saturday morning classes. I recall her sighs as I clung to her legs throughout the hour, sobbing in terror.

Remembering those days on the drive over, I had to laugh. Frightened by a ballet class? What’s so scary about pointing your toes and taking a few leaps? That’s what I figured when I decided dance lessons would be a fun way to shake up my stale exercise regimen.

After all, Keshet’s mission statement includes “fostering unlimited possibilities through dance” and increasing “health and self-esteem.” The center offers some 80 classes a week, adapted to students of all ages and abilities. This must be the place where an amateur adult can give ballet a judgment-free whirl.

None of these be-slippered ballerinas seem to mind my socked feet or awkward arrival. I smile and consider making small talk, but I don’t get a chance. The teacher appears without warning and starts issuing instructions: “Five and six and seven and eight, demi-plié, relevé…”

As if by magic, everyone falls into line at the barre, their legs dipping and lifting unison. I stand paralyzed for an instant. Off on the wrong foot, I scurry to insert myself behind an elegant older woman.

“Starting in first, left hand barre-side,” she continues. “And stretch and seven and eight, grand plié, big big plié, all the way down — and one and two, up on three and four.”

Our instructor is Sarah Williams, director of Keshet’s Pre-Professional Program and their core teacher of ballet. She earned a master’s degree in theater and dance from the University of New Mexico and has trained in several styles of instruction, including Russian Vaganova, Italian Cecchetti and the French methods. Williams is the only ballet teacher in Albuquerque who’s certified in the American Ballet Theater’s National Training Curriculum.

As she demonstrates each sequence, counting us in with recorded piano music, I try not to feel intimidated. Despite the unbroken stream of instruction, I steal frequent glances at other students to check my steps.

I tell myself, point, flex, find your balance. From 16-year-olds to equally-lithe 80-year-olds, I’m surrounded by good examples to follow. Everyone seems to know what she’s doing, and they’re all so focused on their own form that my slip-ups go unnoticed. Mostly.

Williams paces around the studio, offering terse corrections as needed. Each time she passes, a twinge of kindergarten fear ripples through me. The teacher is terrifying and I’m terrible and I’m going to be punished.

Thing is, I’ve come a long way in 20 years. In terms of dancerly technique, I flub a lot of frappé patterns, wobble when on one foot and consistently leap with the wrong leg when we transition from the barre to allegro floor combinations. But in terms of courage and persistence, I’ve advanced by leaps and bounds. Every time the fear flutters in, I remind myself that missteps aren’t a punishable offense. They’re a part of life. So I take the leap, wrong leg and all.

When the class ends, I’m breathless and pretty sure I’ll be sore the next day, but I’m also happy to know I kept up. Each ballerina curtsies to the teacher in turn before changing out of her slippers. I hang back to ask Williams how I did for a first-timer.

Overall, it seems I did fine.

“There’s nothing that is a mistake,” Williams assures me. “Really, there’s not. As long as you’re trying, there are no mistakes.”

“Even though I leapt with the wrong foot?”

Williams stands firm: “You’ll learn, and next time, you’ll leap with the right foot.”

“That’s a good life philosophy.”

Nodding, she assents. “There are a lot of good life philosophies in ballet.”

As I pull chunky gym sneakers over my socks and head out into the night, I consider her parting words. There’s a lot to learn here. Maybe it’s time I invest in adult-sized ballet slippers. I’ll see how sore I am in the morning.