When I was in high school, I attended a very prestigious dance academy. It was a place designed for ballet dancers that would eventually audition for the Oregon Ballet. I remember that the place looked like a house on the outside, but on the inside it was obviously a machine for making carbon copies of the perfect ballerina: graceful, delicate, and skinny.
One night, I had come to ballet, late as usual. I sat on the floor like I was supposed to, looking at my round face in the expanse of mirrors illuminated by florescent lights. The other girls were changing together, all their small little dancer’s bodies comfortably sheathed in tiny black leotards. As for me, I was precariously packed into mine through the aid of multiple bras and the grace of God.
As I watched them come in, I noted how cute and blonde and streamlined they were. Every last one of them had the finest accoutrements for their ballet costumes: little pink and white translucent skirts that seemed to flow like water when they moved; leg warmers that made their deer-legs look even longer; tiny shoulder wrappings that shimmered with every degli ge and battment.
I sighed and waited for the mental abuse to begin.
I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, this is one of those stories. The ones where the mean pretty girls humiliate the weird girl until she cries.” Nope. The girls in dance class were different than me, aloof even, but they were never cruel. The only enemy in this story is the teacher.
The studio was owned by Madame Frenchie, a former prima ballerina embittered by her relegation to the menial work of teaching untalented high schoolers to dance. Now, I don’t remember if that was actually her name. What I do remember was that she had dark hair like halo around her head and she wore the long flowing purple dresses that ballet teachers all seem to wear. Unlike other teachers, though, she was a professional ballerina and she was French. She didn’t take a lot of crap and she had incredibly high standards, as well as the body of a very leggy 12-year-old boy.
This is not her, but the constant look of watery-bowel disappointment is identical.
Our relationship was…strained. At best.
The usual routine in her class never really changed for me, regardless of whether we were doing floor work, bar work, or stretching. Madame Frenchie would walk around the room assessing us (me) crisply in her muddled french accent. I would be straining to hold a 5thposition attitude in releve or working on mastering the chinese splits and she would come over, poke, push, or pull me into a more painful position while saying one of the following:
“Tuck in your tummy.”
“Straighten your back.”
“Elongate your arms.”
“No, not like that, like this.”
“That’s all wrong.”
“Do it by yourself”
“Go to the back”
“You’re not listening”
“That’s not good enough”
None of these phrases were particularly harmful, but as they accumulated over the course of the hour, the week, and the month, they started to really get under my skin. And there was a bitterness when she criticized me, as well. Like she was doing something disgusting but necessary, like cleaning shit off her shoes.
On this particular occasion, I had been the focus of a lot of negative attention throughout the night, especially as I was working on my arabesque, struggling to get my leg to lift higher in spite of the fact that my butt meat just wasn’t going to allow it. She kept saying, “More, lift higher,” and trying to lift my leg, but it just couldn’t move past the solid mass that is my posterior.
When she told me to just watch the others for a while, I wanted to cry. But I didn’t.
After rehearsal, all the other girls got their things, chatting happily about the things they were all going to do together over the upcoming weekend. Sore and stiff, I shuffled towards the teacher and asked her about whether I should try to take another class to help me improve.
She brushed her dark, curly hair away from her head, smoothed her almost perfectly flat stomach and said, “I don’t think that is really going to help, do you?”
I was stunned. Coming from a family of artists that totally supported me in everything I did, I was having a hard time registering what she was saying. “What do you mean?” I felt my eyes get very hot.
“Well, you have a very difficult time learning the steps. You are very far behind the other girls. And,” She looked at me with pity. “And, you just don’t have a dancer’s body.”
My chest collapsed and I couldn’t stop the sob from coming out. She patted me with one hand, as if I was a small child throwing a tantrum. “It’s better to know now than to waste your time trying.”
I sat down in the dark waiting room, hoping my mom wouldn’t be very late, looking around at all the pictures of the ballerinas that were on the walls. My heart hurt and my body ached, and I was pretty sure I could feel my dreams melting into a cold little pool at the bottom of my stomach. All I wanted to do is throw them up and forget I had ever thought to be a dancer.
When my mom showed up, she asked me what was wrong. I told her I didn’t want to dance anymore, that I was tired of it, that it was too hard. Like a good mother, she tried to coax me into being persistent and following through. It was too late. My French dance teacher has stepped on my fragile sense of self, crushed it into tiny sharp fragments and swept up. I even held the trash bag for her, tying up the loose ends so that her hands remained gracefully clean.
Mom took me out of ballet the next week.
I never stopped loving to dance, but it became easier and easier to believe that I was bad at it naturally. In all my theatrical experiences, I loved to sing and act, but as soon as I had to dance I felt my chest lock and I knew that she had been right. I was never meant to be a dancer.
As I have gotten older, I understand more clearly that she thought she was doing the right thing. She was wrong, but at least she didn’t know it.
Although she was beautiful and graceful, she was only able to see things from her own perspective, one that was more competitive and narrow than any 16-year-old child should be exposed to. If she had stopped herself and allowed me to work harder, to follow my creative dream, I could have found fulfillment in dance the rest of my life. Instead, I murdered that dream, making it much easier for my other dreams of performance to be laid to rest.
Now, I have this excellent opportunity to perform a miracle. In my struggles to find the part of me that is an artist, I have a chance to breathe life into my creative corpses. This is not only in my capacity as a writer, but as a singer, actress, and dancer.
Is it too late to enroll in ballet lessons? Is it too embarrassing to squeeze into a black leotard and jump with girls 20 years younger than me? I guess it depends on your perspective. I may never have the chance to be a professional dancer, and I may never have a dancer’s body. What I do have a chance to do is take back the dreams that were thrown away so long ago.
You Have Time for Just One More: