Ballet Lessons in Life
I love my dance school. So many of my best memories are from the large studio where I’ve danced every day for hours the past 7 years. I love plie’ing while I feel the sun working with my body to warm up, or backing up as far into the corner as possible so I can jete across the room, jumping right into that setting sun. I feel the energy and purpose of the other dancers while we tendue to the front, side, and back as though we’re all one dancer while our teacher walks around the room, pausing to demonstrate proper placement when she sees something amiss. I’m a turner, and my studio is the size of a stage where I can pique turn 16 times across the room. The floor to ceiling wall mirrors stretch from one side of the studio to the other, long enough to see my whole body the entire length of the room or for me to spot my eyes as I turn.
It was an ordinary Thursday, and I wasn’t feeling any of this love. So much of life is lived in the moment. I’d come to dance already tired and hungry. I’d forgotten to bring a snack to eat between classes and had an hour before I could go home. My big toes were numb from dancing on pointe, and I was finally taking off my pointe shoes so that I could finish the rest of rehearsal in bare feet. The studio was hot and stuffy and smelled from the sweat and feet of twenty dancers. The next rehearsal was for a piece of non-stop hard-hitting choreography and all I could think of was how hard the floor was going to feel when we all Battle Dropped to the ground. I didn’t see the setting sun and wasn’t imagining a stage. I was tired, I was hungry, and I was ready to go home.
That was the last night of what I think of as pre-Covid life. Of course, Covid had already killed and impacted so many in other countries, but for me it was almost as remote as the struggles that so many had faced battling Yellow Fever. My cousins were sheltering in place in Italy as thousands were dying around them, but it didn’t seem real to me. The next day it slipped into the back of my mind as I worried about studying for my AP exams and sewing my pointe shoes. It was hard for any of it to seem real or to truly understand the magnitude of what was happening to us when it wasn’t happening in front of my eyes. I was so busy living.
"It's all about perspective"
Zoom was my gateway to understanding. My house is small, and, now, with Covid, a part of my tiny living room is my studio. I can barely extend my leg without hitting something, and I definitely can’t jete. My arms touch the ceiling when I go on pointe, my teacher is a small box on Zoom, and there isn’t any sun because the shades are pulled so that I’m not backlit on the screen. It’s like when I was little and sleeping in blanket forts in the living room. At first, It’s fun and you don’t really notice the discomfort of the floor. But, after my spring performance was canceled, my summer intensive at Boston Ballet was converted to Zoom, and we were told there might not be a Nutcracker in December, I felt like everything I counted on might never happen. Everything was in flux.
There was no chicken at the grocery store, my dad parked next to the refrigerated containers that were a temporary morgue outside the lab where he works and my sister had been sent home from college.
“All dancers have the option to take turns using the studio for one day a week for class.”
The state of CT said that we still couldn’t dance together in the same studio, but I could take our zoom class in a space where I could finally move. It was amazing! Until it wasn’t. Halfway through class I was out of breath. And when I jumped I almost cried. So much technique had been lost from not taking class in the studio. I felt like I’d been robbed. I’d been putting in the work and yet it didn’t show. It was like a bad audition, but there were only two dancers in the room, me pre-Covid and me post-Covid.
Grit. That’s what they say I need to get into college, to be a dancer, to pass AP Bio, to deal with the changes Covid has brought. What they don’t spend time on is describing how terrible you feel before you reach the other side where you’ve developed your grit. Going from gritless to gritted and not spending each day gritting your teeth or crying. Or maybe you are, and they’re just not telling.
"In ballet, as in life, it's all about balance"
In ballet, nothing draws applause like turns. Pirouettes require inward focus, balance, and precision. Spins are like the devil on your shoulder encouraging you to forget all that because it’s just too difficult and to just use momentum to get around. But, they’re never satisfying to the dancer or to the audience, even when they clap. It’s like eating fast food compared to my mom’s Sunday dinner.
Balance...opposing forces...turning out...inward focus, outward spot...balancing inward and outward, up and down….balance. A growth spurt, a pony tail, a bad day, a month in zoom. They all upset that precarious balance day to day. But there’s nothing like it, when a dancer has it. It's a moment of feeling perfectly right for those who see it and those who execute it.
"Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, and order and rhythm and harmony." - Thomas Merton
Thomas didn’t need to explain this to a dancer because there’s nothing happy or harmonious for a dancer without balance.
Balance in life? How does one balance the different parts of their lives as they’re sheltering in place during Covid? Failed pirouettes and Thomas Merton reminded me why we were failing in both.
"It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?"
Parts of the whole
Little boxes of just feet, the bottom half of a torso, one side of a torso, I took zoom class imagining I was in the studio, not looking at the boxes and using my energy to block out the visuals I was seeing. Inward focused, trying to mentally recreate what wasn’t.
During my turn at the studio my teacher casually mentions, “the way your camera is set up gives me a different perspective of you than usual”, and I feel like my world of little boxes has become so much larger. It’s magnified. Just feet become feet. Arms become elbows and hands. I can see the little changes she asks me to make in position, and I can see the difference it makes in executing the larger steps. Perhaps class pre-Covid was the dress rehearsal and now this is the performance. Perhaps this perspective is what my teachers were striving for all along. Perhaps the little boxes made the big picture. Parts of the whole where before we were the whole without the parts.
Before there were gatherings of friends and family. Now there are individual texts and zoom calls. Loved ones say goodbye as a nurse holds a phone up. Holding hands through a window inspires tears where before we didn’t think twice of holding hands in person. Love is more intentional and meaningful as each action is magnified as if it’s the only box on a zoom screen.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional - Dalai Lama
"Life is about choices"
Pointe shoes hurt. Dancers know pain. Sore arms, bruised knees, bleeding feet. We feel it, but we don’t. Pain without suffering.
It was my first Nutcracker performance. I was five years old and lead angel with the heavy responsibility of executing a circle around the Sugar Plum Fairy. Right before going on stage, a fellow dancer yelled at me for playing with someone else. I was so overwhelmed and surprised that I started sobbing and said I couldn’t go out on stage. Dancers in the wings sympathized and tried to console me. My teacher looked me in the eyes and said, “I know you're sad, Tatiana, but there are going to be a lot of sad things that happen in life, and you’re going to have to decide if you’re going to let them keep you from happy things and the things that you want.” Later on, she would expand this same theme by saying, “life is about choices”.
This was the summer I would go away to Boston Ballet to train. It was the most excited I’d been in my life. I was going to train with others who loved ballet as much as me all day for five weeks. Until I wasn’t.
Five weeks over zoom with teachers and dancers I didn’t know. In class you know when a teacher pauses to look at you, and you can sense from their body language if they’ve stopped to admire or to question. Zoom can feel more like the single spot light of an interrogation room flipping on. You know you’re in there, but until the spot light goes on, you didn’t realize they were watching. But, every dancer knows that corrections are what you seek. It can be hard to reconcile wanting to be called out in front of strangers, but that’s what we all chose when we decided to attend.
"How you start is how you end"
Each teacher has a different tone and a different emphasis. We develop a muscle memory so that our body remembers their corrections and accents without being told, with the hope that we eventually blend it all together, synthesizing their knowledge on how to be the best dancer we can be. One of my teachers always stressed that not only did we need to be ready to begin each combination but that we had to begin each with a tight fifth. Every part of our body needed to be engaged before beginning the combination. The preparation is part of the combination, not what comes before it. You will end as you begin, and if you don’t begin correctly, you’re giving your body the message that it’s okay not to do your best.
My five weeks with Boston Ballet were amazing. Of course I learned different things than if I had gone in person, but different is just that, different. I made lifelong friends and saw the results of changing my training emphasis. My turns are better than pre-Covid, Now there's a new audition with those two versions of me. My pre-Covid self is inspired by the dancer who I’ve become, wondering how she learned to do what she does.
Nutcracker will be different. But, different is just that, different. I don’t know what new ways of seeing things that I’ll emerge with, but I know that every experience brings ways to grow. It’s about applying those new lessons to the greater goal. All the time in the studio, I thought I was practicing for the next performance, and now I know that the performance is every day.
And, I have my answer. There is no grit without gritting. And, just like in ballet, when you've lost your balance, the only way to save the pirouette is to focus on spotting, not on the clenching of your teeth.