Ballet Brought Me Back To My Body

Everything hurt after my first ballet class: my arms, my feet, my legs, my thighs, my butt. Everything. It made me think about how many muscles I have been neglecting for the past three decades. And how much I don’t remember it hurting before. How much ballet seemed more of a difficulty of positioning than a difficulty of strength. Either way, for those many years I did it as a child up until I was 13, I do not remember any pain. Not physical pain, anyway. Nor could I remember why I quit, though my mother did. She said I didn’t like that ballet refused to work with my body. “Stick your popo in,” I remember the teacher saying over and over and over again. “Popo” being the infantile term in ballet for butt (short for the equally cutesy “popotin,” apparently). My butt, which I could stick in only so much. My butt, which is not the butt of a ballerina. Breasts can flatten into a leotard; a butt is harder to hide. The fact that I was expected to, apparently, was the reason I left.

I joined for a child’s reason. A girl’s, specifically. I thought my mother had enrolled me in ballet of her own volition, but no. She said I saw The Nutcracker and then I wanted to do it. Of course I wanted to do it. Ballet was designed this way. It was designed to present femininity at its most innocent, its most primordial. Its most romantic. Literally. Blame Filippo Taglioni, the 19th-century version of a stage mom, who is responsible for the original choreography of La Sylphide, the tragic tale of a man who falls for a sylph (an air spirit), which crystallized the diaphanous aesthetic associated with the art form to this day. Filippo specifically fashioned the ballet for his daughter, Marie, and you could not find a more idealized expression of romantic femininity than this: a weightless, innocent, but also sensual, almost supernatural siren ultimately destroyed by a man unable to resist her. Filippo put his daughter in pointe shoes not to show off her artistry, but to make it appear like she was floating. The tutu served a similar purpose: Despite Marie shortening it to show off her toe work, her father exalted its modesty. This idea of an enchantress who must be overcome, but who also must be protected, conjures paternalism more than romanticism.

Considering how successful and how revolutionary the Taglionis were, I wondered why I was reading that Marie died in poverty. There, too, her father could be found. He grew old and mad and lost her fortune. In ballet, men lift women up, but they also pull them back down again.

More than the dancing itself, I remember the mothers like Filippo. All those women crammed into the waiting room at every one of my ballet lessons, knitting, talking. I remember them talking about us, a bunch of kids, a bunch of barely adolescents. They talked about us more than we did. And it always felt like we never really mattered to them, like what we were mattered less than what we could be. Or maybe what they could be. I remember one girl, maybe the best in the class, maybe the hardest working, but maybe also the heaviest. Her weight didn’t seem to matter to her dancing, and yet it was all these women could see. It was all the teacher could see. I remember putting my arm around that girl for a pas de deux, and feeling that chunk of flesh around her waist, and thanking god I was nothing but bone. Maybe that’s when I decided I had to go. When those women had moved into my head.

I never had the classic ballet body. I was thin, with the small head and the long neck, but that’s it. I have a long torso (it’s supposed to be short or medium). I have short legs (they are supposed to be long). I have unexceptional feet (they are supposed to be arched). I was never particularly flexible: My feet were never turned out quite right, my stretches never stretchy enough. In the childhood photos of me dancing, I look exuberant, but also a little out of place, like a person who would never quite fall in line. I guess it’s fitting that I can only really remember the details around the dancing, rather than the dancing itself. Like those large gauze and sequin butterfly wings I got to wear for one performance. Or sitting on the stage, feeling very alone, waiting for my mother, who was late again. Or the disappointment at not being chosen for the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the resentment at having to play a handmaiden instead. 

I must have swallowed some grace somewhere, though. There’s a painting of me as a teenager by one of our family friends. It’s impressionistic. I’m eating ice cream, my fingers elegantly holding the spoon aloft. I’m notably a lot longer and more slender in this painting than I actually am, which suggests that along with my neck, my torso, my posture, what grace was instilled into me by ballet from such a young age had in fact taken hold, if only in the background. The distant shadow of a ballerina haunts that image, if not the ballerina herself.

Maybe that was why I was never particularly serious about ballet. Because it never stopped being an idea for me. An abstraction. A series of symbols, but never a fully functioning art form. Ballet was a peachy pink pointe shoe I never got to wear, a voluminous tutu that I also never got to wear. It was distant names like Karen Kain and Rudolf Nureyev and huge chandeliered concert halls and classical music. It was Flashdance. It was not hard work, it was not discipline, it was not punishment, it was not the body being pushed, it was not me being crushed. It was feminine perfection, with nothing that implied.

I think I quit ballet when the implications became impossible to overlook. It’s not that I got my period and immediately left, but it’s not entirely not that. I must have known even as a kid that coming of age and ballet’s refusal to allow for age could not be reconciled. It’s a good thing I did. Within a couple of years, both my grandmothers’ hourglass figures would land on my body like some horrible inheritance I never asked for. Ballet, an art which historically requires its women to be virtually invisible, was not made for this conspicuous expression of womanhood. A curvy body does not imply chastity, or levity. It cannot be subdued, diminished, disappeared. 

So why go back, then? I think, strangely, I felt unburdened enough to return—maybe not lighter in body, but lighter in spirit. Like all the demands I had felt from ballet for all of those years had evaporated. You would think that would make it more abstract, but in fact it turned ballet into more of a full-bodied art than ever before. It feels tangible to me now. And because of that, it feels harder. I don’t remember ballet ever requiring this much work. I don’t remember all this strength, all this power. Some things recall the past—the vanity-demanding mirrors everywhere, the very specific muted canvas tap of pink slippers on the wood floor—but mostly I am amazed at how physically taxing it all is. My core is underdeveloped, so I wobble more than the younger students around me. And yet all I hear is praise. The atmosphere of competition I remember so well is absent. I ignore the clock that I used to watch so steadily. Instead, I hear the Irish dance class next door. The music in our studio floats between classical and jazzy and beat-filled. One class, the teacher apologized for playing an instrumental version of “Under the Sea”—residue from one of her much younger groups—but we told her to keep it. It was still workable.

The most fascinating part of ballet now is fully feeling the boundaries of my body: what it can do, but, more often, what it can’t. I have never thought about my feet so much in my life, how out of shape they are. They cramp up constantly. Whether I point them, arch them, extend them, whatever, they seize. Consequently, I am always bending and stretching my toes during class like I have been handed a new pair of feet and been forced to break them in. My flexibility was never good, but it’s egregious now. When I bend down, I can’t quite reach my toes, nor can I hold up my arms for extended periods before they feel inflamed. Anything that requires balance commands a massive amount of concentration. Second position (feet akimbo) feels better. And thank god for the barre. At the end of each class, we are given a sliver of choreography to perform in groups. I can never get it right. I once thought it was just me. Then I looked around and saw a constellation of various levels of not-quiteness.

At the end of my most recent class, when asking for advice on all the cramping, I admitted to the teacher that I had danced years ago and I thought I would remember more. She sized me up while arranging away her things. She squinted. “I can see it in there,” she said. “It’s still in there.”

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