An aspiring ballerina returns to the studio after a very long intermission
BY AMY DENESON
I was 31 before it hit me that I wasn’t going to grow up to be a ballerina. Performing center stage was a dream I nurtured as a little girl, but unlike many other kids’ dreams — to be a rock star, president or astronaut — mine had endured to the present day, wholly undiminished by the fact that I hadn’t actually done ballet for more than 20 years.
Instead, it was the object of obsessive thought. Growing up, most of my treasured memories revolved around ballet: the grueling rehearsals, the excited tension of the recitals and the joy of going to see professional productions. As I got older, I made it a goal to see as many ballet companies in the Western Hemisphere as I could. I moved to New York after college, and on the odd occasion that I had a spare $20, I’d unfold the bill and slide it through the golden Lincoln Center ticket window in exchange for a standing-room ticket in the last row of the New York City Ballet. The cascading curtains, bejeweled lights and the soft blur of the company floating in step with the orchestra were exhilarating. On the slog home, I would sink into a slump. Could that have been me? Better still, could that be me?
That was the dream I somehow held on to for more than two decades, though one I never acted upon — until I went to a raucous, ineffably stirring performance of Swan Lake by the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In the third act, Paul Ghiselin, “Ida Nevasayneva,” chassé-d across the stage as the Dying Swan. Feathers fell from his tutu like a midnight snow, and he swooped down, scooped up handfuls of those melting feathers and stuffed them back in his costume’s bodice, tail and armpits. I felt his desperate, futile wish for the dance to never end.
The performance inspired a New Year’s resolution to attempt a return to a life en pointe. So there I was, 31 years old, tiptoeing into the gym studio one Saturday afternoon for a beginners ballet class, certain it was my first step back into the dancing life I’d left behind in 1988, when my family moved to Wisconsin, and I quit out of protest at having been compelled to part ways with my beloved teacher, Richard, he of the all-black wardrobe and year-round Versace tan.
In the class, the women ranged from 20 to 60. A few were already front-and-center, twirling about on craggy feet, holey ballet company T-shirts swirling around their slim hips; others sauntered in wearing electric-hued leotards with accompanying headscarves. One donned a chiffon tutu and pink slippers, exactly like the ones I wore as a girl.
As I pulled my hair back into a bun, the instructor breezed in past the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, clapping. She had sleek bobbed hair, beautiful skin and the most refined body lines I had ever seen up close. On cue, classical piano music pounded from the speakers, rattling the glass. The others began swirling around, hopping in eager anticipation. I stood still, unsure of what to do with myself. “Bonjour, I’m Winter,” the instructor said to me. “What brings you here today?”
“I used to take ballet, and I miss it,” I told her.
“Très bien. You’ve had some training!” But before I could address the matter of my two-decade intermission, Winter turned on her heel and commanded, “Aaaand first position!” with a clap. “Second position! Effacé!” Winter motioned that I face her. “Third!” I was barely in first before they were in third, and we still had 45 minutes to go. As the class stretched on, I was always a full glissade behind. My arms were never where they were supposed to be. My toes were never pointed; au contraire, they were splayed out in 10 directions, clawlike, as if clinging to the floor for dear life.
That was just the warm-up. The worst was yet to come.
Winter lined us up parallel to the mirror with our left hands on the glass as a makeshift barre. “Up! Up! Up!” she said, timing our leaps. “Don’t thud! You’ll know you’re doing your sissonne correctly if you land silently!” She said this as the soles of my feet slapped against the shellacked wooden fioor, sending ripples up my thighs. While Winter switched back and forth from French to English, I flushed red. I began to sweat. My palm print smeared down the mirror. I panted at myself in my own streaked reflection. Nothing could have distanced me further from the child I remembered leaping effortlessly like a cartoon than the sight of the lumpy, overtaxed adult heaving before me now.
And so went the dream. What was I thinking? For years, I’d tormented myself for failing to live up to my childhood expectations. But then again, I had set my heart on growing up to be a ballerina back when I took my career cues from Barbie. Thud. Back when I didn’t know how hard it was to grow up to become anything, much less a world-class artist. Thud. Back when I looked forward to recitals so I could wear gobs of makeup and sequins and eat out with Mom and Dad at Country Kitchen. Perhaps if I had kept going I could’ve been something. People did grow up to be dancers, after all. Clearly some of my graceful classmates had. But after watching myself hulk about the studio, still the tallest in class and, as they say in the Midwest, stockier, I was okay with myself. I leaped and landed a little more quietly.
“Yes, yes. C’est magnifique!” Winter praised, giving me a sympathetic look. She caught my eye, dropped the French, and muttered, “We’ll get ya outta here in five.”
I laughed, smoothed a flyaway hair back into my bun and landed even more lightly. Almost sprightly. As the symphony drums gave way to fluttering flutes on Winter’s iPod play list, the years of heavy regret dwindled. It was time to start enjoying ballet solely as a spectator — from afar. I would usher in this second act of my life at the New York City Ballet’s opening gala, to which I could afford tickets that actually came with seats, thanks to a successful career that has nothing to do with ballet. As the class wrapped up, I found myself looking forward to that night. My final sissonne was silent.
Writer AMY DENESON, who works in advertising in New York City, still enjoys the occasional sissonne.
Three watershed moments in ballet history
1832 • Marie Taglioni becomes the first ballerina to dance an entire performance en pointe in La Sylphide. Rumor has it that she shortened her tutu to scandalous heights to show off her revolutionary talent.
1892 • Tchaikovsky unveils The Nutcracker in St. Petersburg on Dec. 18. It flops. But by the time it gets to the San Francisco Ballet for the 1944 U.S. debut, it’s well on its way to becoming one of the most beloved, enduring ballets in the world.
2010 • Black Swan, equal parts art, horror and camp, takes its place among the greatest ballet movies of all time (beside The Turning Point and The Red Shoes), fetching an Oscar for Natalie Portman for her performance as a dancer whose obsession consumes her.