“Shoes, Mommy. Shoes.”
My toddler begged me to put on my dirty pink flats. I didn’t want to, but there’s no other way she will watch the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on YouTube.
“Sha-sha-sha-shoes, Mommy,” she whined.
Only once when she was just 17 months old did I show her scenes from The Nutcracker. It was mid-September, and for four months, she insisted that we watch ballerinas and twirl in the living room while I wear those shoes.
My daughter is too young to know that I’m no ballerina and have no business calling myself a dancer. Right now, for her I am the Sugar Plum Fairy who changes her pants and teaches her everything she knows about dance. Eventually, she’ll discover that I know very little. She might even be ashamed of me.
I always wanted to learn how to dance, and by the time I found out that there might have been a chance for me, it was already too late. My first dance teacher said it was a shame.
“You really are a natural,” she told me.
I tried not to cry because I believed her. My emotions choked my gratitude. To fill the silence, she asked me to look in the lost-and-found crate outside the door. For two weeks, she had been trying to convince me to take some shoes that a real ballerina had left behind.
“Take those. I’m sure they would fit you. They’re good shoes. Use them in your classes in Texas.”
I remembered a few of my friends explaining the rite of passage of earning pointe shoes when we were in late grade school. At 23, I received my first good pair of ballet flats. I will never dance on pointe. Like my instructor said, it’s a shame I started when I did.
Being called “a natural” pierced me. The high compliment fell from my instructor’s mouth and shattered at my feet. Like my belated entry to the world of dance, those words were overdue. I turned 30 before I realized that all those hours I spent hours locked in my room stretching and pushing my body to bend made my body feel right. With no one looking, I was free to let my limbs speak through nameless movements with a structure and rhythm of their own. That I could communicate beauty and art with my body never took root, and it should have.
For Christmas, I bought my daughter a pair of powder pink toddler ballet shoes, knowing that within weeks, she could forget all about dancing. She might stop holding her hands in fifth position every time she heard classical music, and if I hid my old shoes, maybe she’d stop asking me to wear them.
Although I told myself that those tiny shoes might be a waste of money, I doubted it. In the two months since Christmas, I have watched her interest wax. We have traded YouTube videos of recitals for our own numbers. We dance and stretch together every morning to “shoes” music. Whenever dramatic music crescendos, she shouts, “Mouse!,” stabs an imaginary sword into the air, runs around the coffee table, and bows. Recently, she presented a “welcome home” number accompanied by Pleyel’s symphonies for her father when he returned from work.
I’m not surprised that she finds new ways of using her body to express herself fun, but the enthusiasm Leona has for classical ballet worries me. Body image issues, however, aren’t my principal concern. I had those long before I ever enrolled in a dance class. As much as I hope she won’t have them, it’s likely that she will no matter how I try to set a good example. My apprehension about my daughter’s fixation comes from not wanting to be one of those parents who live their dreams vicariously through their children.
Every time we dance, I’m unsure if I’m projecting my desires or exorcising my demons. But I also know that there are some things that you must start early and that living with your soul scratching to break loose of your body as I have is unbearable.
I have always believed I was never pretty enough to dance. Reviewing my childhood pictures, I never see a particularly large or ugly girl—at least not as large or ugly as I felt.
It was clear to everyone that I was intelligent, funny, energetic, strong-willed, and concerned with the injustices of the world. The bespectacled girl who read books and wrote stories organized all the neighborhood children in games of war and created clubhouse rules for our backyard fort. When I wasn’t reading, I was riding my bike, searching for treasure at the town creek, and leading expeditions to the nearest construction sites to pilfer building materials to fashion crude shelters I read about in survival guides. Despite my dynamism, I was neither beautiful nor athletic. My lackluster performance on the soccer field earned me more sportsmanship than MVP awards. I impressed my coaches with my attention span and determination, not my foot skills.
I could do anything with practice, I thought, except for anything soft or delicate.
When I discovered that my best friend and the biggest tomboy I knew took ballet classes, I momentarily believed I might slip into this unfamiliar realm of gauze and leotards. In third or fourth grade, I asked her how she got into it and she reminded me about those papers we had gotten at school. If I wanted to, I could still sign up. When I retrieved the forgotten form from my backpack, I asked my parents. They told me we were sticking to playing in the city soccer league for three reasons: I had so many brothers and sisters who had their own extracurriculars and dance took a lot of time; it cost a lot of money as you got older; and activities like that bred even more insecurities about appearance than soccer or basketball. I got the point and never asked again. I knew they were right. Most girls I knew who danced had parents with money or many fewer siblings than I did. They were already thin and didn’t shop at Goodwill either.
Every year, I read those forms and memorized the fees. They were a lot higher than the city soccer league’s. As I got older, the impenetrable boundaries wrecked me. Watching my friends perform, I would find a reason to excuse myself to the bathroom. Sometimes I threw up. Sometimes I cried. I couldn’t believe God would make me so ugly and so uncoordinated. I wished I could punish myself for it.
For years, I suppressed that pitiful dream, trying to forget that I wanted to learn how to dance; but that stupid hope never died no matter how much I humiliated myself. During my freshman year of high school, my friends convinced me to try out for show choir. They paired me with the best dancer and I still did not make the cut. I signed up for a rhythm and dance gym class my senior year, having explained to everyone that I took it because I heard it was the easiest gym class. I would have tricked myself into the lie, too, but the short section covering ballet betrayed me. My teacher and former track coach was shocked with my flexibility and muscle control.
All that time I never knew I was preparing to be confronted. I continued to hide my secret very well until I got into a terrible car accident at 21. The first thing I remember when I awoke strapped to the gurney was an emergency room nurse asking me if I were a dancer. I laughed. When I got T-boned on my driver’s side, I had been eating pizza and a slushie on my lunch break from mowing the lawn. I was wearing cargo pants and an athletic tank top, and my hands were still stained with motor oil.
I asked her why she would think that as she got my IV ready, and she said I was built like one. I couldn’t believe what she was saying and decided she was trying to keep me from moaning about the pain in my head. She told me I’d been screaming about that from the ambulance. I took the compliment and then complained about the board underneath my back instead.
Somehow, I got out of that crash alive. When we went to the tow impound, my father told me he was thankful he got to see me before my sturdy 1983 Lincoln Mark VI that had folded in half. For the next year, I decided that if I weren’t going to be dead, I’d like to live. I thought a lot about letting my spirit out to roam, and I started skateboarding. That summer, I learned how to fall hard and still land well. That kind of reckless persistence in the face of embarrassing inexperience would help me later.
While I was working for a local paper a year after that car crash, my boss told me she wanted me to feature a tap dance class for seniors held at the local art center. During our conversation, she asked me if I’d ever danced. It was happening again. Nervous, I finally admitted aloud that I had always wanted to but never had.
“You should do it!” she said.
I thought of what that nurse had said. I thought of the guy who didn’t come to see me in the hospital and the romantically busy life I always imagined living in New York or Chicago. I thought of everything I wanted and didn’t have all because I feared failure. The memory of that nurse’s face hovering over mine in the emergency room returned to me. In the bright lights, she asked me if I were a dancer, and I wished I could have said “yes.” That wreck should have killed me but didn’t.
Signing up for a dance class sounded like torture, but I didn’t put it out of the question because continuing to live cowering under the oppression of my own self-loathing seemed much worse.
At the time, I ate lunch once a month with a good friend of mine who lived in a nursing home. We sat at tables full of old women, most of them widows. Some could talk, and others attended quietly. Usually, they didn’t speak because they couldn’t, not because they didn’t want to. Some women cracked scandalous jokes about the woman at the table wearing a sheer top that showed her shoulders while the other more proper ones (like my friend Ruth) talked above the prattle, focusing on the upcoming puppet show or the renovation to the exercise room. They asked me what I did and cheered when they heard I was working at a paper. All of them supported a working woman. One of them even lent me a copy of her hand-typed memoir about raising five kids in the 1940s.
When the group dispersed one afternoon, one of the quieter women grabbed my arm and leaned over.
“Now,” she said. “Don’t waste your time hating your body. I never appreciated mine and now I am old. Look at me.”
The woman told me she had been beautiful and strong but very ungrateful. She left the room and I never saw her at lunch again. I didn’t know if she were the ghost of feminist past, present, or to come, but she must be right and I couldn’t waste my body anymore.
Back at work, I decided that after interviewing everyone for the tap dance article, I would enquire about the classical ballet class with the art center office manager. She said their enrollment was a bit low to justify the cost of a teacher, but if I put my money down and the class were canceled, they’d let me know and return it or give me a credit toward another class. I left my money and waited for the call.
On the night the receptionist called me with the affirmative, I ordered dance gear on the Internet so I wouldn’t have to suffer the mortification of being seen in any stores where I could be spotted as an impostor. My tights and leotard looked so small when I pulled them from the packaging. When I tried them on, all I could see were my healthy tree trunk legs meant for running or lifting weights, not leaping. I was crazy for doing this.
At the first class, I met Madonna. She wore sheer floral skirts with her purple leotard and legwarmers over her tights. She might have been one of the oldest in the class, but no one could match her gracefulness. Christina was the tallest ballerina I’d ever seen. With big eyes, long dark hair, and much longer legs, I remembered why I shuddered when I thought of signing up for the class. The new city planner joined later. Having danced in college, she could execute a perfect grand jeté right over my sorry carcass. A kind matronly recent divorcee took the class to boost her self-esteem. Though it had been years since she danced, she knew all the terms I did not. And then there was Beth. Beth had danced for a long time and then had kids. She came to class looking more like Flashdance than the Nutcracker, with her torn gray sweatshirt and messy hair. She talked too much and carried herself like she was bad. Beth only came to a couple of classes, but she demonstrated fierceness in her finesse across that slick wooden floor.
I wanted to be every one of these women. They could do anything.
For months, my instructor, along with the rest of the class, showed me so much patience. They didn’t judge me for confusing a pas de chat and a pas de bourrée. It seemed unfair that that they could have been working on much higher-level things and instead they were rescuing me every time they saw my paper-thin ego stretched to its limits when I tried to glissade. My humiliation worsened when I thought of how much more impressive they must have been when they were still performing at my age.
Eventually, I caught on to the positions at the barre. Yet when it came to putting together short sequences where I had to combine a chassé with a pas de chat and a coupé and a pas de basque, I tried, lost my footing, and broke down when I ran into someone. I walked to the corner of the room and faced the wall in shame and struggled to hide my tears.
Standing there, I thought my fears true. I couldn’t dance. I was only playing a game and I didn’t know anything. Before I started hyperventilating, the instructor called me back into line and placed Madonna and Christina on either side of me. We danced that sequence at least five times.
So many nights after working at the newspaper, sometimes after driving through three or four different counties for stories, I wondered why I put myself through such torment. Every time I changed into those pink tights and black leotard, I pretended to be someone else, not an overtired and awkward reporter just to get myself through that art center door. I didn’t know that I wasn’t becoming someone else; I was waking, letting that part of myself out to play for the first time.
I didn’t know why, but I signed up for another session. I lived for those nights I changed in the newsroom bathroom after work and ran across the street to a café to sneak a sandwich before class. Sometimes I made it just early enough to sit outside in my car where I would drink coffee and watch the rain run down my windshield. I thought about all the work I had to do and I thought about men—both in my past and present. Five minutes before class began, I forgot about mistakes I’d made or were making in and out of the newsroom and ran up the old stairs to our practice space.
No matter how clumsily I danced, I could breathe there. I met with women who weren’t interested in gossiping about whether I had gotten too close to another staff writer. They never commented about my clothing, positively or negatively. We were too busy focusing on the movement of our bodies to talk much about anything else.
When class ended, I drove the half hour home in the countryside dark listening to Chopin or Debussy, holding onto that quiet. My spine held me straighter and my heart beat slower. I breathed deeper and fought closing my eyes at the wheel, not because I was tired but because I had just shared one of my most tenderly guarded secrets for an hour and a half. Each class, I gained new uses for my branches. I started to bloom without knowing it.
I would have continued taking classes at that art center, but I enrolled in a graduate school far away. When I informed my instructor of my plans, she gave me those flats as a parting gift and told me to keep working. Before moving, I researched the course offerings and contacted the teachers to see if I would be a good fit. My master’s program wouldn’t have covered the tuition and I was already short on funds, so I settled for the class offered through the campus recreations center.
A Chinese woman about my age taught the class. One by one, that handful of girls dropped the class because they said they couldn’t understand her accent. I stayed, even when I was Lily’s only student. We became friends, dancing during our private class and crying together later about the way we’d been abused and how we found ways to abuse ourselves. With each other, we discovered that regardless of growing up an ocean and culture apart, we wanted the same thing. Both of us longed to love our bodies, wishing to be beautiful and find love. We used the space together through the end of the year.
Due to a lack of interest, no recreational classes were offered the following semester. If I hadn’t gotten injured in one of those classes with Lily, I would have joined a class off campus.
I joke that Lily broke me because she forced me into a side split when I needed two more weeks of practice before getting my pelvis to the floor comfortably, but that’s not the way she was taught in China. She never knew that her move landed me in physical therapy for six months. I strained my hamstring so badly I could hardly sit, which was difficult as a graduate student working on a thesis about Nineteenth Century serial fiction.
My last year of graduate school was a hectic rush to finish my thesis and find a job nearer to my spouse’s Ph.D. program so we wouldn’t have to keep commuting and couch surfing. I never forgot ballet and hoped to find a group when we moved to the DFW area, so I could one day really learn how to dance.
The group that was closest and most affordable studio offered a night class. On my first and only night, I arrived early. At the time, I worked full-time as a biomedical editor and part-time as a private language instructor. I could have justified squeezing the class into my 60-hour workweek if she hadn’t laughed at me. My husband looked forward to watching my confidence grow enough that I might allow him to observe our practices, and I thought I might memorize some choreography. But she laughed.
The instructor laughed at me when I attempted to pirouette across the floor, but I had never heard of spotting. I understood the concept but never tried. I ran into a mirrored wall. She laughed so hard and didn’t seem to understand all the work she was undoing. At the end of class, I begrudgingly handed her a check for the lesson and never returned. I didn’t call any other studios. I folded my tights and leotard and didn’t think about dancing for two years, roughly three months after having my daughter.
In that time, we had moved to a small town in northwestern Missouri where I noticed a curiously high number of dance studios per capita. I looked up information about adult classes. While I waited for someone to pick up my call, I realized how ridiculous it was to expect good to come from stuffing myself into a leotard so soon after having a baby when I don’t have a celebrity trainer or some sort of ankle bracelet that alerts authorities when I eat cookies. Just looking at the “About” pages made me cringe. All the teachers were hot, addressed as “Miss,” and probably in college. But when I called to inquire, the studio owner said they worked with people of all levels. I explained that I was not to be confused with a ballerina out of practice. As a novice, I don’t even know all the terminology, let alone possess the ability to execute the moves. My French is terrible. I have a kid and my leotard looks even smaller than it used to.
I gave her every excuse I could and she told me we should start soon and that I bring Leona and let her nap there.
On the night of the first class, I brought my good shoes. I met Rollens, my 19-year-old teacher named after Henry Rollins. We spent a half hour warming up, and then our short private lesson ended. Even though I knew I was still a beginner, I wanted her to push me. I missed that group of women in Wooster, Ohio, who showed me so much grace but wouldn’t let me quit. Without them, I didn’t last long.
The lessons were spotty. We cancelled on each other because she had a pressing assignment she forgot, and my baby fell into the coffee table and needed me to soothe her. My young teacher, though willing and eager, never knew how to gauge my skill level when we did meet. So and we stretched a lot. When I accepted a job as a staff writer at the local newspaper, I didn’t call back to set up more lessons.
That fall as my infant daughter napped, I looked up videos of ballet exercises on YouTube and practiced in the kitchen, knowing that might be as close as I’d ever get to dancing.
Although I haven’t given up the prospect of enrolling in another classical ballet class again someday, I know it won’t get any easier the older I get. The splits are getting harder, I’m thinking about having another kid, and it’s hard to find money or time for classes. So I dance in the living room, retracing the few steps I know and making up a few of my own. It is a shame that I started so late because I might have been a natural, but now I know my body is strong, and my will is stronger. The way I move when I dance like I don’t care who sees me is beautiful.