barre off

I haven’t danced in 13 years, but today I went back to class. Not to a modern class, where I would have been more comfortable, but to ballet, where I knew I’d make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to go easy. I needed to see what all had atrophied after two babies and more than a decade away.

My younger self–the teenager who went to a boarding school for professional dancers-in-training–could never have imagined going a week without dancing, let alone a year. Or a decade. Periodically that old self peeks in and tries to ask why I quit. I have closed the door in that me’s face every time.

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In class at the American Dance Festival in 1996

There was nothing special about today, except that I opened the door when my old self came around…because I could. For a long time I couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t scary anymore.

Dance and choreography were my life. I had potential but I always had to fight for technique. I loved the fight. Ballet was my weakest area and my favorite. For years dancing made me happier than I’d ever been. It was ferociously physical and I felt strong and powerful. But eventually poor nutrition took its toll and I broke bones first in one foot, then the other a year later. It stopped being fun.

When I quit, I quit completely without looking back because it was necessary. My favorite dance teacher telling me how lovely and skinny I looked when I was at my sickest was the memory that for years floated to the surface whenever I contemplated going back. I didn’t dance because I was in some combination of mourning and withdrawal. Dancing and I didn’t deserve each other until I could go back with joy.

Later, I was traveling and focused on scholarship. Then I was focused on my marriage. Then my family. I fell in love with gardening and mothering. I make excellent exercise out of both these things, but there were long periods of pregnancy and nursing where I just felt sort of swollen all the time and that was not how I remembered feeling while dancing. I liked the idea of going back sometime when my body felt more my own again and I wouldn’t pee on myself or start leaking milk in the middle of class.

Perhaps I’ve been ready for a while, but I started noticing a new tightness in my hamstrings when I leaned over to pull weeds. I felt the urge to stretch my legs and point my toes. Rocking out with my kids in the living room was suddenly insufficient. I felt this voracious hunger. It surprised me because the feeling was so familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in such a long time. I needed to dance.

But would I have forgotten everything? Would I completely embarrass myself? Would it be miserable because I was so bad? I picked a non-professional studio with drop in classes to minimize the odds of being in a room full of teenagers. I remember what I thought of the saggy middle aged moms in my dance classes when I was that age.

Today was the day, so of course the elder child who sleeps like an angel woke up coughing at 3am and no one ever got back to sleep. I pulled on my slightly musty smelling pink tights, one of the beloved leotards that our seamstress made for us by hand at my dancing school, and my stiff slippers–none of which have seen the light of day since I was in college–and tossed back one more coffee.

And yes, it turns out I had forgotten quite a lot. I was pretty embarrassed. It would be a stretch to say it was fun. But I felt great afterward (even though I can barely walk), and I only fell once. I was almost late because…kids…so I didn’t get to set low expectations with the teacher before the start of class. Being almost late also meant I was at the end of the barre and therefore had no one to stare at when I couldn’t remember what to do every time we switched sides.

But there was some magic, too. I am not the same person that I was the last time I stood in front of a studio mirror. I spent years memorizing every line of my own body, comparing it ruthlessly with what the movement ought to look like, what the instructor looked like, what the better students looked like. I know what I used to look like. But I haven’t put on a leotard and tights in a long time. I don’t look at myself with that kind of scrutiny anymore, thankfully. But it meant I was starting out with no idea what I’d find when I stepped up to the barre.

And there I was, looking just fine. I have a more solid middle than I used to, but I find I like my new shape. I feel sturdy. My arms are stronger and have more definition from carrying heavy children around for 6 years. Those arms that used to be the first part to tire at the end of class didn’t struggle at all today. My body remembered so many little lessons, along with poignant images from amazing teachers and classmates I haven’t thought about in years.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I just didn’t look in the mirror much. I was too busy trying to dance. It was perfect, and I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

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