I confess it’s the clothes that have lured me: soft leather slippers, either blossom-colored or black; leotards that reveal a bare expanse of back; knitted shrugs and warm cocoons for the legs; gossamer skirts that both obscure and highlight the hips; satin pointe shoes married to ribbons by hand-sewn stitches. The trappings of ballet possess a dynamic beauty born of their inherent contrasts. They are practical and ethereal, timeless and ephemeral, functional and beautiful. Delicate and wispy things destined to be embellished with scuffs, holes, and snags, they exist in service of an activity that demands profound athleticism and resilience. Since the age of twelve, I’ve been drawn to ballet-inspired garments that, to me, evoke a world in which these seemingly opposed qualities are forever entangled in a compelling pas de deux: vulnerability and strength, fragility and fortitude.
I buy a pair of pale blush leg warmers to help stave off the cold of another slushy Montana spring. Putting them on, I have an idea—a surprisingly novel one considering how many years I’ve spent donning dance-inspired duds. Why should ballet be something I merely think about when I get dressed? Why shouldn’t ballet be something I do?
There are many possible answers to the latter question. I’m about twice the age of a freshly-fledged, actual ballerina at the beginning of her career. There’s little chance I’ll ever achieve technical greatness—for that I would have needed to start training three decades ago. I won’t be joining a company. I certainly won’t earn any money for it, much less critical admiration. I might even make a fool of myself. But these answers seem as weightless as the bourrées of the great Anna Pavlova as she mimicked a swan’s glide through water while standing on her toes. Maybe there’s some magic woven into the fibers of these leg warmers that infuses me with courage and childlike excitement. My head, heart, and body are unified in their sudden desire, and I can’t resist the thought of entering into that seductive world of dynamic pairings. Be there beauty or bruises, I will do ballet.
I join a class for teens and adults. Beginning ballet during this womanly stage of life is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve attempted, harder even than writing. I can sometimes manage to turn a phrase that moves a reader’s heart, but turning my body in a pirouette is impossible as of yet. I’m accustomed to making art with my mind and hands. Now I’m inspired, and extremely challenged, by the possibility of making art with my whole body.
“You seem to have some natural ability,” my teacher tells me after my first class. I can’t tell if she’s sincere or just sweetly encouraging, but I lap up her kindness and leave the studio feeling happy and high—such different emotions from the ones I associate with my only other stint as a would-be ballerina, which lasted for a month or two when I was twelve. My then-teacher was terrifyingly, tear-inducingly harsh. The family friend who took me leotard shopping subsequently expressed concern to my mother about the nonexistence of my unbloomed breasts. A prototypical mean girl made fun of me in front of everybody for practicing pliés during recess. Beastly instruction, body insecurity, and bullying tainted a pursuit that otherwise thrilled my dreamy pubescent heart, and I abandoned it—too tender to keep going, too romantic to forget my fondness for the clothes.
Possibly I’m so passionate about ballet in the present because every moment I experience in connection with it now—an enthusiastic word from my sprightly teacher, a weepy declaration from my fiancé about how beautiful he finds me in my leotard, a smile unfurling on the face of my best friend when I tell her I’m taking a class—seems to overlay the hurt and disappointment from the past, to lavish them with light and make the twelve-year-old girl who still lives inside me feel not only safe, but giddily joyful. My post-class muscles pulse with the possibility of one day being able to really dance in a true ballet, even if only for a few moments.
In the meantime, there are rudiments to master: pliés, tendus, dégagés, rond de jambs, développés, and other exercises. All of these appear easier than they are. Doing them correctly requires a precise consciousness of parts of my physique to which I’ve hitherto been relatively oblivious, like my core, plus exquisite balance—one’s hand should be barely resting on the barre, not grasping it like it’s the only rooted object in a wild and stormy gale. Hips forward, like headlights, my teacher says. Tailbone tucked. Eyes up, chest open, shoulders down. Pull up, pull up, pull up. Shift your weight. Point your feet ’till they cramp. Keep your legs turned out. Move in time to the music. Remember to breathe.
To synthesize all of these and a dozen other corporeal ideals for one second, much less one minute, is an accomplishment that eludes me. But I’m developing a keen awareness of my body’s subtleties—a degree of concentration that, despite years of hatha yoga and biking and hiking, I’ve rarely experienced. In all of those pursuits, it was possible for me to leave my body and be wholly in my head, to shift my attention from, say, the act of pedaling to the list of bills I had to pay. Maybe it’s because I have a beginner’s mind, but I can’t do this during ballet. I am in my body. Paradoxically, while being so deeply situated in that realm of marrow and muscle, beneath a netting of nerves and a blanket of fascia, I’m free. Far from a prison, the body, when wholly inhabited, is a pathway to paradise. The concentration ballet demands for an earnest beginner like me feels wonderful, meditative, almost as transporting as a tumble in the sheets with a true love, even if my movements aren’t yet pretty, much less perfect.
My clothes aren’t pretty, either. Ironically, apart from the necessary slippers, I feel sheepish about wearing traditional ballet garb in class, including my new leotard. One should really know what she is doing, I feel, before showing up at a dance studio decked out in such attire. Until I’ve earned the pleasure of wearing seamed, shell-pink tights, I stick to old leggings and tank tops and save the dainty things for the privacy of my own bedroom, where I mount a closet rod to my wall to serve as a barre and hang up a mirror. Here, I practice, well aware of my shortcomings and how far I have to go, yet equally aware of my almost-imperceptibly improving technique.
In class my teacher mentions the public recital that’s coming up in a few months. She asks who wants to participate and several of the teens raise their hands along with two women much more experienced than me. She shows us pictures of the costumes she’s picked out: transparent black skirts and leotards with sweetheart necklines. She’ll be choreographing a real dance for us, a true ballet set to a string quartet version of Nirvana’s Come As You Are, a song written by one of the artists who has meant the most to me in my life, Kurt Cobain. As a writer and guitarist, he made art with his mind and hands; as a singer who pulled sound from the depths of his stomach, he engaged his entire body. The song was all over the radio in 1992, the year I was twelve, the year I tried and then turned away from ballet.
I gulp back a lump of longing and fear, and keep my hand hanging at my side. I imagine myself on stage among a flock of flexy fifteen-year-olds, maybe messing up, maybe even falling. My teacher turns to me and asks, “What about you, Rose?” Or maybe I’ll have practiced the steps so tirelessly in my bedroom and learned the dance so well I’ll be able, if only for a few minutes, to make art with my body. I slowly raise my hand. I’ll do it. I’ll be nervous, but no matter what happens, I’ll be what ballet and its trappings have always been for me: I’ll be both vulnerable and strong, a mix of fragility and fortitude. I’ll be wearing something pretty, and there will be a girl, perhaps visible in flashes and flickers, moving across the stage in me.