How I almost didn’t go back to ballet

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You stop ballet, you start back up. Life gets in the way. You stop, you start back up. Now here I was in the longest stoppage, ten years, amid an understanding that maybe that was IT for me and ballet. Having a child changes you, changes your body, your priorities, your sense of what you need to do. Your instincts and preferences are wholly realigned. Largely for the better, mind you. But there sits ballet on the other side of the equation. Lost to you. It takes a while before this alarming possibility and its ramifications sink in.

Ballet started appearing in the fiction I wrote. The muse began to whisper once again.

One day during a weekend in San Francisco, I decided to take an intermediate ballet class at the San Francisco Dance Center. I knew I couldn’t waltz back into an advanced class. Likely I never would return to that level again. I arrived, nervous, feeling like a teen at an audition. In the cramped dressing room, others chatted and gossiped; I dressed and pinned up my hair with cold, clumsy fingers. I waited outside the studio in the hallway with the others, feeling in some ways like I’d never left the world, and in other ways like an imposter. The sound of applause following reverence came from the room and a moment later, out swarmed two dozen students from the last class. Inside, barre space began filling up fast for the next class. A sleek, pretty Asian woman with a red sweater and pink leg warmers frowned when I tried to claim a spot behind her. “There’s really not enough space there,” she told me.

I’d never been told such a thing. She was unsmiling, holding her ground. That alone almost made me leave. I slunk away, glancing about, finally latching onto a place when two others had just brought out a portable barre. We exchanged polite greetings and smiles; I was so grateful that they didn’t try and shoo me away.

The worst challenge of the class was my brain. I’ve devoted myself to being a writer for seventeen years. My brain has changed in that time. I analyze, I observe, I speculate, I hypothesize. I’m not as good at processing oral directions as I used to be. I like to see it in writing now. Only ballet doesn’t work that way. So. Listening. Watching. Staying focused. Yikes. Was I always this ADHD, or did it have to do with raising an ADHD son? Or being a writer?

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Like all longtime ballet dancers, I’m well versed in the structure and content of a ballet class,  the familiar routine of it. I know how to fudge it when I don’t know the combination, using instincts and my peripheral vision to latch onto other students who have the combination down rock-solid. But this day it was shaky triumph more than pleasure that defined my mood as we worked through center work: placement, adagio, pirouettes, petit allegro. Finally, grand allegro. And by now, nothing, nothing would stay in my brain.

It’s hard to explain now, in retrospect, why this upset me so. Perhaps because grand allegro is where I can still hold my own as a former performer. Or maybe it’s because in that sweeping movement, you can really dance. I don’t know. I only knew that I was messing up, all of it too much for my brain.

I blundered through right side, left side, berating myself and the situation. This was not fun, there was no joy, it was all intimidation and being mocked (surely only by myself) for what I’d once been and clearly no longer was. The second time across the floor I didn’t even attempt the combination. I don’t think that’s ever happened in my entire life, in my 20-ish years of taking ballet classes. Instead I stood in the back, watching the others, and inside me I wept. Observing the glad smile on one woman’s face as she scurried over to get in one last time to the left, I felt both deeply happy for her and wretched for me. She had it. She had that big thing that dance gives you, this pure joy of movement. And I’d lost it.

I stayed through reverence, of course—it’s unspeakably tactless to leave before reverence unless you’ve made arrangements with the teacher prior, or know him/her well enough to make eye contact and then one of those little juts of the chin to signify “sorry, gotta run.” But the instant class was done, I left, gathered my bag from the corner, huddled with all the other bags (at least the bag still fit in). I hurried to that cramped changing room and amid happy chatter of others, changed as fast as I could, getting out of there as fast as I could, hoping I wouldn’t cry.

Well, I thought, as the brisk outdoor air of San Francisco smacked my face, I can mark that off my list for life. I marched over to a nearby Starbucks and ordered the most decadent thing I could think of, one of those mint chocolate chip Frappucinos that you avoid checking calorie content. With whipped cream, even. I huddled in a corner by the window and peered out at the endless parade of pedestrians that is San Francisco (Market Street can be particularly entertaining), nursing my broken ego, my sadness, my frustration that this grand reunion with ballet did not go as planned. Indeed, it couldn’t have gone worse.

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As my fiction writing featured, at that time, a story about a former dancer turned arts administrator who had to watch the young dancers and continually process what she’d lost out on, it sort of worked to my benefit to have this vanquished, hurting attitude. Over the ensuing weeks, I nursed my wounds, reciting my never again mantra, and eventually the shame of it ebbed. But it saddened me. I continued to mourn what I’d lost. Or was the loss of the illusion that I could return, unchanged, impervious to the march of time?

But life, one learns, gives and takes. And it’s all a cycle. All of it. I should have understood that. Because, in that wonderful way the ballet muse does to people it has chosen to inhabit, it began to whisper to me again. Not right away. Not very loudly. And I was wary, remembering that pain, the personal sense of shame and defeat. I completed the ballet dancer novel, and while my agent shopped that to editors, I moved onto another project. Another year passed. (No book contract; that’s another story.) The whisper became more urgent. My body longed to move in the way it could only do in dance. I also take yoga classes, kickboxing classes. I used to tell myself that was enough, that I could “dance” my way through them. The latter was, and continues to be, true. The former was not.

I chose the ballet world as a subject for my next novel again (no book contract on the newest completed novel; that’s another story) this time featuring dancers who danced, dancers whose careers, whose livelihoods, were at risk. I went back to a ballet class because I physically could. To a smaller studio, more local, one with a regular following and wonderful teachers. And here I am, still. Fighting the demons in class still, off course. Ever struggling to deal with my lack of focus, my preference for reading and thinking and analyzing, rather than listening, observing, repeating. Struggling with my aging body, my lower extensions, my reduced sense of balance. But to have dance back, to have the muse there within me again, is worth the struggle.

© 2013 Terez Rose

Want to read more of my writing? OFF BALANCE, Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles is now out in stores! http://www.amazon.com/Balance-Ballet-Theatre-Chronicles-Book-ebook/dp/B00WB224IQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1429554592&sr=1-1&keywords=off+balance+Terez

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11 thoughts on “How I almost didn’t go back to ballet

  1. Kathleen

    Your determination not to leave dance behind is a beautiful, if painful, story. There’s new research that shows that persistence is far more important to success in life than previously thought. (Well, except for what the aging body can be expected to do!) How nice that you didn’t walk away but instead found a way to build on your success of earlier years. So glad too that you took a chance with a smaller studio and continue to find the inspiration that dancing provides.

    Reply
  2. admin Post author

    Thank you for your lovely comments, Kathleen! I like that new research about persistence, to boot.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    It sounds to me as if you might not have liked the first studio no matter what age you were when you went to it–unfriendly people, too fast a pace. I guess I just wouldn’t be so quick to blame yourself when it didn’t go well.

    This blog made me feel as if I must have never have achieved a very high level in anything, because I haven’t experienced feelings like that when I’ve gone back to something in adulthood. I played the violin as a child and teen and then quit for a long time and went back at age 40, and it was as if I had never left. If anything, the years away were *good* for me, and the growing ability to be observant and analytical that you describe coming with adulthood was an asset rather than a liability. Almost everything seems better, richer now than it did back then.

    I’m so glad you found a better situation and kept at it!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Karen, the studio is actually lovely and thrilling to go to. It’s in the heart of San Francisco, it’s affiliated with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, and they offer something like 80 classes a week, with 4 or 5 studio rooms. It was the wrong level for me, that’s what I’ll surmise. And sometimes an intermediate class will attract advanced students and sometimes it’s comfortably in the middle. (This one was the former.) I actually went back to that studio two years later, on another SF trip, and took an advanced beginner class, and had a much better experience. Like I said, it’s a thrilling experience to be in a big city, in a big city studio. And they had live accompaniment. But what I have now is the continuity and a teacher who knows me, and that’s worth a lot.

      And I don’t believe you must never have achieved a very high level at anything! I’m thinking I’m just one of those people who careens around, very high, very low, trying too many things, never just consistently plugging away at it for years and years.Fire and passion and strong feelings about it all. Ugh. That said, in my heart I’m all performer, and my personality seems to define that, huh?

      Thanks for sharing your comments; glad to have you posting here!

      Reply
  4. Kathy

    Terez, I just tracked down this posting based on a comment you left on my posting at Dance Advantage 🙂 This is such a beautiful piece, and I can completely empathize with the self-inflicted self-doubt, and the pain of actually standing by during a combination. I was just thinking the other day that it’s funny how intimidating any new ballet class can feel, even if it’s at a familiar studio. And, of course, that feeling is compounded when one is returning to ballet after a long time away. I was only half-joking in my own article about gaining confidence from “knowing exactly where to drop my bag”: I think that “knowing” little things like that actually do make a difference to one’s own sense of comfort and belonging; knowing how the free-standing bars are arranged is another…

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Kathy,

      I’m so pleased you came over here to comment, and thank you so much for your continued wisdom here. Oh, yes on the free-standing barre thing! Being a newbie in any class is such an off-balancing feeling, but I have to say, those are the kind of thing a middle-aging adult needs in their lives, to, paradoxically, maintain a balanced life. (Yikes, did that make any sense?!)

      I went in and linked your excellent article at the bottom of my own article. Would love for others to see what you wrote. Thanks for the article, and thanks again for the response here. Do you maintain a dance blog? I’d love to check out more of your dance writing – feel free to share a link here with me and my readers!

      Reply
  5. admin Post author

    Alison, you are sooooo welcome, and dance away in that living room. Bet your babies love it!

    Keep up that dance spirit; it’s yours to keep forever.

    Reply
  6. Andrea

    Hello, I tracked down this post after your reply to a post I made on the article of a similar nature on Dance Advantage. I took my first class tonight, an intermediate class, and was appalled by how much I’ve lost in the 20 years since I was last in a ballet class. I’d signed up for that level at the encouragement of the dance coordinator but everyone else in the class has been taking regularly for a while. Needless to say, I can totally relate to the feeling that your brain can’t process everything for the center combinations anymore. There is actually an odd coincidence between my circumstances and yours in that I too have gotten used to relying on the written word since I’m the editor in chief for a magazine. At any rate, I made it through the hour and 15 minute class, I didn’t fall down, and while I feel that I did abysmally at everything once we left the barre, I did manage one almost decent pirouette and only screwed up one barre exercise. Still it was very humbling. The class was almost at the level I was at when I quit ballet minus the pointe work. The instructor said I did fine and is okay with me staying in the class but because of my own self-doubt encouraged me to check out the ballet I class too so that I can judge for myself. I guess the good news is that it is a very warm, friendly atmosphere and not at all the strict perfectionism of those bygone years. My apologies for the very long message, but I think one can only understand the mixture of emotion after that first class back if one has had her own experience. Thanks for having shared yours.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Oh, Andrea, I am soooo there! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here – I read your post over at Dance Advantage, and I was practically hopping in my seat in empathy. Boy. Pat yourself on the back, a LOT. It’s so tough what you did, and so tough emotionally. You read this post, so you know how awful I felt (or maybe I didn’t even aptly describe the lowness of the low…). I will heartily agree with this philosophy, though: it gets better. You start picking up on the teacher’s groove, their style, you see the patterns in the choreography. But, really, for me, it was two years before I was at that nice state of not getting all anxious about keeping the combinations in my mind. Well, and this: I chose, after a year, to go a step down, to a class that was more advanced beginner meets intermediate. The other, which was intermediate meets advanced, just proved too stressful. Sometimes I think I should return to that tougher one from time to time, to challenge myself, but when it makes something in me seize up with anxiety, I think, why bother? I’m really looking for a “fun” and even “relaxing” experience at this point in my life.

      So. BIG CONGRATS to you, thanks so much for sharing your experience – I LOVE hearing these stories, and wishing you the best. Oh. And keep going at it. ; )

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Ballet class in Paris: I dare you - The Classical Girl

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