Swan, Late

The unexpected joys of adult beginner ballet.

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | February 2017 | 23 minutes (5873 words)

 

“Perfect is boring.”
— George Balanchine

I discovered I couldn’t dance when I was ten years old. My parents had signed me up for a ballet course in Toronto with a dour, shriveled Romanian teacher, chosen no doubt because of our shared totalitarian traumas. In her class I felt uncoordinated, impossibly gawky. My clearest memory is of trying to accomplish a gentle downward sweep of the hand. My teacher performed the movement. As I attempted to imitate her, she said, over and over, “but do it gracefully!” I could not figure out how to do it gracefully. I could not even see the difference between her gesture and mine. I came to the logical conclusion: I was terminally ungraceful. In fact, I couldn’t dance at all.

I quit ballet. I did have to dance again when I took part in the yearly audition held by a local school for the arts. I was terrible at acting and drawing too, but the dance test was my Waterloo. A teacher demonstrated a complicated choreography at the front of the room while we waited patiently in rows. Then he gave us a cue, and as if by magic, all of the other children repeated the combination perfectly. I, on the other hand, was a mess of arms and legs and confused desperation. I managed with twisted precision to be always facing in the opposite direction from the other kids, stumbling into them dangerously.

My inability to dance became a matter of faith, something I believed in unquestioningly for the next two decades. But I did so with pride and stubbornness. Everything about ballet felt wrong to me: all that Pepto-Bismol pink, ribbons and tulle, polished princesses executing their steps in martial unison, tight little buns behind tight little faces. Ballet represented hard beauty, ungenerous towards human flaws or quirks. It was a tyranny of perfection.

Family wisdom gave me other ideas. My great-uncle was a man of taste who surrounded himself with exquisite objects and gorgeous women, so we tended to take his aesthetic pronouncements seriously. One such nugget was that beauty requires a flaw. Perfection, he said, can never be truly beautiful. A slight asymmetry, a birth mark, a disproportion or scar — these are necessary to make the merely lovely transcendent.

I think about this idea often. It is an unpopular one, I suspect. In high school we learned that evolutionary biologists have proven that men find symmetrical women more attractive. Calculating your appeal to the opposite sex is as simple as measuring the circumference of your forearms and working out the differential. If your eyes are equally wide and your arms equally bulky or slim, you are due for reproductive success. Evolutionary biologists never study the enchanting quality of a mole or aquiline nose. From our early days we are brought up to admire perfection, or someone’s notion of it: to worship the smooth, the straight, and the slim.

No art form embodies these ideals as immaculately — or as rigidly — as ballet. No art form is as relentless in its requirements: youth, flexible joints, arched feet, a thin neck and small head, long legs that can be made strong without becoming muscular, to say nothing of coordination, musicality, discipline, and a tolerance for suffering. For much of my life, I hated everything ballet stood for, resented its unyielding standards and rose-dusted femininity. Taking ballet as a child had, after all, convinced me I would never be even a passable dancer. I was angry, too, that the ideals of womanhood that dominated my youth were, at their core, ballerina aesthetics: fragility, lightness, biddable mystery. It was a measure I would never meet and didn’t particularly want to. But it still smarted that I couldn’t.

***

“[T]he Academicians saw in ballet a chance to take man’s troublesome passions and physical desires and redirect them toward a transcendent love of God. The body had long been seen as pulling man down, sacrificing his higher spiritual powers to material needs…. But if he danced, so the men of the Academy believed, man might break some of these earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels.”
— Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet

Ballet was born in the French and Italian courts of the Renaissance, and its high idealism reflects these noble origins. It was not a professional dance yet in those days, and did not require the rigorous technical proficiency — the speed, jumps, and pointe work — we associate with the art today, but it was an elite dance nevertheless. Kings Louis XIII and XIV both danced avidly, and both appeared in politically symbolic roles like the sun or the god Apollo. Their ballet was a dance of rationality, order, and power — masculine power. It was in the nineteenth century, with the rise of Romanticism and the increasing dominance of the ballerina, that a different, hyper-feminine ideal redefined the dance. Ballerinas such as Marie Taglioni trained hard to look effortlessly buoyant, and the creatures they represented on stage often had no weight at all. Wearing diaphanous white tutus, they transformed into sylphs, water sprites, ghosts, and fairies.

Whether danced by men or women, ballet has always been trying to leave the ground. And yet there have always been other strains too, earthbound urges in the dance. As a teenager frustrated with the expectation that women be inconsequential, I struggled against what I thought of as the preciousness of ballerinas. Now I think of ballet as a tension between Apollo and Dionysus, gods of reason and abandon, or — not to put too fine a point on it — between Odette and Odile, the white swan and the black. At least since it became an art practiced by professionals in need of money rather than enacting court propaganda, ballet has had a seamy side. There is an ancient assumption that women who display their bodies on stage will make themselves available for a price behind the scenes as well, and this was often true of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ballerinas. Some, like the eighteenth-century French dancer Marie-Madeleine Guimard, made the best of a bad situation, gathering aristocratic and ecclesiastical lovers and even opening pornographic theatres in pre-revolutionary Paris.

In the nineteenth century as a whole, however, the lives of ballerinas became shabbier and sadder. In her book Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, Deirdre Kelly describes how the Paris Opéra served as an elegant brothel. Members of the Jockey Club of Paris treated the members of the ballet corps as playthings, and at the end of the century, the Opéra allowed male patrons to observe, flirt with, and hound ballerinas in an open rehearsal studio, the foyer de la danse. Dancers, who were generally from a poor background, were encouraged to be friendly to patrons, but left to their own devices if they became pregnant. Ballet has a cleaner reputation now, possibly because most dancers are supported by wealthy families who can afford expensive lessons, pointe shoes, and summer intensives. Still there are occasional glimpses of a sordid past. The Russian prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova was fired from the Bolshoi in 2003; a decade later, she accused the Ballet of expecting its dancers to sleep with wealthy patrons and oligarchs: “The Bolshoi general director has turned the Bolshoi theatre into a giant brothel.”

The Dionysian quality of ballet appears in other, more refined forms as well. The legendary choreographer George Balanchine idealized women, but also had earthly desires for the dancers who inspired him. “When they get heated up, to put nose in certain places when they do exercise,” he was quoted as saying, “odor wafts out and it’s natural, it’s natural. This I like.” Not only did he marry four ballerinas and engage in a long-term relationship with a fifth, but his aggressive pursuit of his most famous muse, Suzanne Farrell (forty-one years his junior), provoked jealousy among the New York City Ballet’s other dancers and ultimately drove her out of the country for half a decade. Farrell committed the forgivable sin of denying Balanchine his choreographer’s droit de seigneur and marrying a man her age instead. Her husband, Paul Mejia, later demonstrated how well he had learned his master’s lessons by having his own affairs with dancers and embroiling the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, of which he was artistic director, in a sexual harassment scandal.

Ballet, like opera, is wonderful because it is monstrous, the hyper-development of skills nobody needs, a twisting of human bodies and souls into impossible positions, the purchase of light with blood.

It was Balanchine’s choreography that made me fall in love with ballet in my twenties, though not for its idealization of the female form. Sometime around 2006, I let a friend drag me to the New York City Ballet. I had developed a decent, financially manageable taste for opera, and every few months I would take the train into the city with her to worship whatever gods the Met had on offer. Trusting her to know what’s good, I took a chance on the City Ballet, even though I secretly dreaded the tutus and unrelenting prettiness. But what I saw on that stage was modern, angular, fierce. Leg lines were broken, costumes were stark and geometric, athleticism was at the fore. A pas de deux was the most erotic thing I had ever seen between two people. Unlike at the opera, where even moments of unreal beauty are liable to be destroyed by a well-heeled patron intent on slowly unwrapping candy or toying mindlessly with her many bangles, the ballet audience was transfixed. We had all taken a breath in, and we were not going to exhale until the thing that was blowing our minds was over.

That evening it clicked for me. I loved opera because of its freakish achievement: singing that way required years of honing a set of otherwise-useless faculties until they became more than human, and thus inhuman. I was, at the time, in the middle of a PhD program, another method of training a small muscle to make it bulge in a way I considered beautiful and others thought perverse. Ballet, like opera, is wonderful because it is monstrous, the hyper-development of skills nobody needs, a twisting of human bodies and souls into impossible positions, the purchase of light with blood.

My childhood experience of ballet had convinced me I had two left feet, but over the years I found myself drawn to dance despite the feeling of inadequacy it inevitably awakened in me. In an Arthur Murray studio tucked in the corner of a suburban Toronto strip mall, I learned the basics of ballroom, and when my affectless teacher told me my hips had “Latin motion” I savored the compliment even though I knew he was fishing for long-term customers. I dragged my high school friends to the naval veterans’ club for free swing lessons and booze-free parties with the over-seventy set. I learned the basics of salsa and Lindy Hop on the crowded dance floors of overheated Montreal nightclubs. I made several half-hearted attempts at learning Argentine tango, breathtakingly intense the few times I clicked with a partner, painfully awkward and lonely otherwise.

But the dance that stuck was the polar opposite of ballet. Bellydance was sensual and grounded instead of light and ethereal. Its movements were round and fluid, but danced to heavy beats. It was also flashy, unafraid of sequins and beads and coins and the occasional neon animal print on shiny stretch fabric. It nourished my inner East European drag queen, kept me away from the bad breath and plodding steps of dance partners, and best of all, it was a dance I could learn as an adult with the hope of achieving some proficiency. And that was the problem with it too. As I took more lessons, practiced at home, and discovered I had a flicker of talent, I became frustrated with myself for my remaining limitations. Instead of focusing on the sheer pleasure of embodying music I loved, I noticed flaws: poor posture, wayward spins, bent legs in arabesque. Despite its roots in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, oriental dance has been influenced by ballet in multiple ways. I recognized that the technique I lacked was precisely what ballet taught best.

So it happened that, years after discovering the ferocious beauty of ballet on stage, I finally stepped into a studio to try it myself. And now, as an adult, I dance. Once or twice a week I go to a little dance school near my office in Bonn, squeeze myself into a leotard, cover up my life experience with a few extra layers of clothing, and take a place at the barre. My knees crack like they’re bending for the first time, my hair falls out of its makeshift bun by the second combination, I struggle to lift my legs or maintain a simple balance. And I adore every moment, despite the frequent frustrations, despite an image in the mirror that refuses to improve in any noticeable way. I will never be a gorgeous dancer. I will never even be good. This just might be okay.

***

“We questioned nothing because he told us not to analyze when he taught us; we knew hardly anything about each other’s lives because he was interested in us as dancers, not as people, and where his interest in us left off, ours in each other did too. We were, or felt ourselves to be, precisely what one of his principals once said of herself and his other dancers: ‘chosen creatures,’ and we were proud of it.”
— Joan Brady, The Unmaking of a Dancer: An Unconventional Life

What does it mean to engage in a practice aimed at perfection, when perfection is impossible? Why do these endless tendus and pliés when I know I will never dance a single role? Ballet is a stage art, and its goals are well defined and painfully hard to reach. One can take up salsa or swing as an adult and do it well — the measure of a social dance is dancing with others. Dancing ballet has a different meaning, so much so that the word “dancing” seems inadequate to describe it. Longing to feel even a shiver of what it might be like to be so strong and weightless and transcendent, I’ve developed a mild obsession with the memoirs of professional dancers.

Ballet memoirs all tell the same story with minor variations. Child accompanies older sibling to ballet class, finds it a good channel for boundless energy, eventually outgrows the amateurish studio in San Francisco or Cincinnati or Queens, and makes it, inshallah, to the New York City Ballet. There, the budding dancer falls under the spell of George Balanchine, or of his still-charismatic memory. A crisis occurs — weight gain, wonky hip, angry parent, lustful choreographer — but our hero trains hard and achieves a return to the stage. The story is seasoned with light, judiciously edited gossip.

I do not read these books for the suspense, but because somewhere in a narrative shaped by a ghostwriter or editor, there are descriptions of actual dancing. These are not the exercises I do in class, but an experience of art I will never know. I read about what it means to dance a role choreographed on your body, the delicate nuances of partnering in a pas de deux, the physical and emotional thrill of intense performance. I imagine these fiercely, extrapolating endless fouetté turns, elastic extensions, and airy leaps from my muscle memory of ballet’s basic movements.

Surprisingly, reading the experiences of dancers who never made it to the top gives me a different perspective on amateur ballet. These books make vivid the price of professional dancing, showing how easily ambition or jealousy or even routine can flatten a dream.

Then there are the memoirs of the dancers who failed. The great stars have their own struggles and regrets, but they also have a name to maintain. The dancers whose career stopped at the corps, or just on the edge of success, reflect more frankly — sometimes bitterly — on the frustrations of professional dance. I read Toni Bentley’s moving diary of a year in the corps of the New York City Ballet, struggling to maintain her joy in dance despite her limitations, to be spontaneous despite her analytical mind. I read Joan Brady, not really passionate about ballet but determined to prove herself, training alongside the more confident and intrinsically motivated Suki Schorer, who would become a principal dancer and successful teacher. They are the Icaruses of ballet, flying just close enough to the sun to be burned.

Surprisingly, reading the experiences of dancers who never made it to the top gives me a different perspective on amateur ballet. These books make vivid the price of professional dancing, showing how easily ambition or jealousy or even routine can flatten a dream. I begin to suspect there might be some secret advantages to my earnest amateur efforts, a kind of freedom denied to dancers cursed with early talent.

After a morning class one day, I ask my teacher, a bit shyly, what it was like to teach people like me. Yvonne Hamm trained in Hamburg and studied at Martha Graham in New York before starting to teach. Even though most of the classes she offers are ballet, she’s a modern dancer at heart, and she often has us do preparatory floorwork before we move to the barre. This might be why her classes are not particularly intimidating, even though she corrects us scrupulously and expects us to pick up combinations fast. Most of Yvonne’s adult students, unlike me, had danced as children more or less seriously. But intense dance training in childhood is no guarantee of happiness in the adult classroom, she points out: students who were dedicated dancers as children are often frustrated with what they can do as adults. It’s a sad irony I have noticed among my own friends. “I loved ballet, I even got on pointe,” they will tell me wistfully, but when I suggest, with puppy-like eagerness, that they join me in class, they demur.

I hear a similar story from Rosa Noreen, a dance teacher I know from bellydance circles. Rosa danced ballet as a child, but injuries forced her to quit at sixteen. Like me, she discovered oriental dance in her twenties, but her occasional attempts to return to ballet class ended in frustration and physical pain: “my body knew what it was supposed to do, but wasn’t capable of it.” It was seeing the Ballets Russes documentary in the theatre that reshaped her relationship to the dance, allowing her to focus less on the bitterness of losing ballet and more on the sense of adventure in it. She began training again in her early thirties, this time more safely, and then she began teaching adults in her studio in Portland, Maine.

Rosa’s students are mostly interested in exercise, not in artistic exploration. The precise physical challenges of ballet training, “seeking turnout, seeking a stronger foot arch, figuring out exactly how to hold their arms,” are what absorb them right from the beginning, but they can also make staying with the dance hard. Students have trouble measuring their own progress, and if they are learning correct and safe form, that progress is indeed slow. Rosa tries to remind them of how much they’ve learned and of the rationale behind clean technique, but there is a certain hard reality any late beginner will face, one I struggle with all the time. “As an adult learner, starting ballet at age 20-something or 30-something or 40-something, you’re not going to be a professional,” she says, but “the beauty of that is that your development is going to be more for yourself and your own fulfillment as opposed to trying to reach an external goal.”

Rosa is speaking to me from Cairo, where she is taking lessons with famous oriental dancers and buying shiny costumes and seeing shows with live music. It’s a bellydancer’s dream. I reflect, a bit ruefully, that it was the very openness of bellydance, the possibility of becoming very good even as an adult, the desire to take private lessons in Egypt and attend festivals in California, that ultimately made me unhappy. Ballet awakens no ambitions in me. It offers no dreams.

***

“The body of a dancer is tired before it is worn out. The back fails. The adductors fail. The neck muscles are too loose. The neck muscles are too tight. The extension is too low. The extension is never high enough. The body of a dancer has an ache in the right ankle. Or the right big toe. Or maybe the dancer fell and hurt the coccyx and bruised the tail.”
— Renée E. D’Aoust, Body of a Dancer

It is nearly impossible to put on a leotard and face a mirror once or twice a week without being confronted by an inconvenient image. The irony of taking up ballet as a new mother in my thirties was that I began learning the dance most associated with thinness when I was uncomfortably heavy. There is an industry dedicated to convincing women like me that doing small movements at a barre for one or two hours a week will somehow transform us into lithe goddesses, as if sixteen demi-pliés were all that stood between me and Allegra Kent. The emptiness of this promise became clear to me when I began reading ballet memoirs. Given that women who have company class, hours of rehearsal, and several exhausting performances every single day still count every apple and half-sandwich, it seems unlikely that my twice-weekly barre will do much to mitigate the effects of my unfortunate cheese habit.

I go to class bravely, but I do feel the pressure of being one of the largest women there. I find myself trying to eat small things during the day so that the image in the mirror won’t be too troubling. It’s not that my weight makes any difference to my potential performance. No partner will ever raise me in a soaring overhead lift, nor will I be vanquishing gravity with a series of grand jetés. But I have learned that even Sugarplum fairies can be chastised for loving sweets too much. In feeling that my reflection takes up too much space, has curves where there should be lines or hollows, I have my closest taste of the life of a professional ballet dancer.

There are so many ways that amateur dancing is less than professional ballet: less high, less complex, less exciting or enchanting or even musical. But in some small ways, the rigorously unambitious ballet practice can offer a body more: more comfort, more health, more years of dancing, and the unexpected gift of holding on to a layman’s attitude to pain. Dancers, much like other athletes, are often encouraged to continue working through hurt and injury. Professionals know they are replaceable, that there is always someone else waiting in the wings who is willing to dance through the pain. Fear and competitiveness play a role in this fundamentally destructive attitude, but also, I suspect, higher sentiments: dedication, responsibility, love for the dance and the company.

In feeling that my reflection takes up too much space, has curves where there should be lines or hollows, I have my closest taste of the life of a professional ballet dancer.

Edward Villella was a highly successful danseur with the New York City Ballet, known for his athleticism and his boisterous, anti-gravity energy. He writes about punishing his body with unsafe practices for years until he was finally forced to stop by a worn-off hip joint. As a male dancer, Villella would not have been as easy to substitute as a ballerina might have been, but it also meant that more performance work fell to him when other dancers were ill or seriously injured. His memoir also reveals — more candidly than others — another reason for the abuse his body suffered. Villella took on a series of odd dancing jobs to supplement his company income. Not only did this mean a more grueling schedule, but it often entailed dancing with little warming up, on hard floors. Professional dancers know that their careers are short, and some, like Villella, are intent on squeezing as much dance into the time given to them as possible.

Ballet is notorious for injuries, but I think this is at least partly due to its striking artificiality and defiance of physics. It looks like it should hurt. Modern dance seems more organic, mortal in its ambitions, but it too batters its practitioners. Renée E. D’Aoust, a modern dancer-turned-writer, describes how students of Graham technique tried to achieve contractions by pretending someone had punched them in the stomach: “Back in Martha’s day, teachers would punch you in the gut to be sure you knew the real feeling.” There are increasing attempts to promote safe movement among dancers, as with the Australian “Safe Dance” project, which studies rates of injury among professional dancers. But to some extent, pain is a cultural value within ballet circles and an unavoidable side-effect, and professional dancers can no more avoid it than I can take a few weeks off typing every time my wrist hurts.

***

“By not pausing, stopping, or fussing over any specific step or moment in the dance (every dancer’s favorite rehearsal technique), I discovered the overall rhythms, dramas, highs and lows, stops and starts, climaxes and quiet moments in it, which were, after all, what it was about….. To Balanchine, dancing was never the execution of a specific step but musical movement with a beginning, many middles, and an end.”
— Suzanne Farrell, Holding on to the Air: An Autobiography

One of the deep pleasures of reading Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography lies in discovering what a productive mess professional ballet can be. This is despite the general worship of Balanchine’s genius at the New York City Ballet. Dancers who worked with him tend to describe his choreographic work in near-mystical terms. Balanchine, it would seem, transmuted music into movement as if by magic or uncanny inspiration. But the process was experimental, and involved consciously breaking rules and trying out unorthodox positions. It even meant embracing error. Joan Brady writes about a colleague at the School of American Ballet, Carol Sumner, who “looked light, airborne, easy, when she jumped,” despite committing the basic technical mistake of not bringing her heels all the way to the ground after a jump. Balanchine watched Sumner and then asked all the students to jump like her, which, after some shock and error, gave them the same light quality. Farrell describes the “laboratory atmosphere” of working with Balanchine, and she seems able to recall every mistake, surprise, and forced improvisation that happened in her performances. “Making balletic goulash with Balanchine,” she writes, “was a great deal more satisfying and fulfilling than the lonely splendor of perfection.”

This is surprising to me, because I associate ballet with strictness, not spontaneity. I have always chafed at choreographies in oriental dance, a fundamentally improvisational art, so I didn’t expect to enjoy the ritual-like predictability of ballet. Classes always have the same structure, beginning with pliés and tendus that warm up and shape the body and moving to faster and larger movements, jumps, and center work. Class is more formal, too. Rosa tells me that because of the higher potential for injury, she is more exacting in ballet than in bellydance. Yvonne explains that the students who take her modern classes are more comfortable with being told to work out the arms themselves for a movement, less troubled if they do not pick up a sequence right away.

For amateur dancers, who will never reach the heights of professional ballerinas, the struggle to find freedom in structure happens at a modest, constrained level. It is like writing a sonnet with fridge magnets.

One of the paradoxes of ballet is that the complex efforts that make it such an exquisite escape from the rest of life — intensely focusing on many small muscles at once, using visualizations, pressing against the floor and drawing up at the same time, moving fluidly and filling the music, imbuing movement with intention and emotion — make it difficult to let go in the dance itself. The movie Black Swan presses this point to an almost satirical degree: Natalie Portman’s character is so obsessed with achieving perfect technique that she cannot dance Odile with seductive abandon. Madness, it seems, is the only way she can be in the moment.

The movie is a caricature, but hints at a psychological reality. The dancers I read about so often need to leave ballet — or a particular company — for a while to recalibrate their relationship to dance. Edward Villella is forced by his family to attend college, but is later grateful to have an identity outside the dance studio. Suzanne Farrell runs to Belgium to work with Maurice Béjart on his experimental, erotically-charged dances. Jenifer Ringer, who struggled with weight gain and an eating disorder, takes time off and reconnects with her faith. Ballet is so demanding, and from such a young age, that it leaves the most gifted dancers few opportunities to develop themselves in other areas of life. The charismatic authority of teachers and choreographers enforces their total dedication, and makes it a matter of love as much as ambition. The lucky ones reach the point where they can become free on stage, even while dancing someone else’s choreography.

For amateur dancers, who will never reach the heights of professional ballerinas, the struggle to find freedom in structure happens at a modest, constrained level. It is like writing a sonnet with fridge magnets.

***

“If I were totally at peace dancing, I would have nothing to say.”
— Toni Bentley, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal

One brutally cold January day, while visiting family in Toronto, I made the long trek downtown to the National Ballet of Canada. I wanted to take a class at In Studio, their public education program, though I wasn’t in the best of shape: a broken little toe, the ravages of holiday eating, and the freezing wind coming in off Lake Ontario had rendered me about as supple and dynamic as a two-by-four. But once in the large, airy studio, the comforting ritual kicked in. The other students ranged widely in age, some dressed in leotards, some in workout clothes. A few seemed to be advanced dancers practicing basics, others were back for the first class in decades. And there were quite a few men. We all knew what to do, from gentle preparatory stretches at the barre to the instinctive shuffling as we prepared to practice moving steps on the diagonal. We looked to each other for guidance, not out of competitive instinct.

After class, I sat down with Kate Kernaghan, our teacher that morning and the director of In Studio, freshly back from maternity leave, to talk to her about how she teaches older students. Even though the class I took was the most basic one available, Kate had repeatedly prompted us to pay attention to our form. When it was over, she spent another quarter hour in a corner of the studio answering students’ questions about small points of technique.

Children, Kate explains, don’t always listen to the teacher, whose challenge is to keep them engaged in class despite their short attention spans. “Adults are listening to every single word you say. It’s really nice, because you can spend a few minutes talking about a tendu,” she says brightly. She then recalls how the presents and cards her students brought before she had her baby left her in tears. “My students are my family to me.”

The adult ballet class offers growth defined by frustration. Its beauty lies in the human, not the superhuman, in scars and hunger and self-criticism and fierce concentration.

Without admitting it to myself, I had assumed any teacher would prefer to train gifted children who might grow up to be professional dancers. I learn better from Josh Tuifua, a teacher at London’s Royal Academy of Dance. Josh danced with the Royal Ballet Company for sixteen years, retiring as a soloist. He went on to do a wide variety of teaching, at primary schools and professional dance academies, in advanced workshops for boys, and with senior citizens and special-needs children. As for absolute-beginner adults? “One of my favourite classes to teach.”

Adult students are fun because they want to be there. They are mothers enjoying the chance to focus on themselves for one night a week, or professionals who want to forget the stresses of work. But it’s not just about the attitude. When teaching children, Josh holds back on certain movements because his pupils’ bones might not be formed enough to do them safely. Adults are fully developed and have discovered their bodies already, so class can move faster as they progress. “If I have a feeling that they’ve achieved something and we can now move forward, there are no restrictions.”

Seeing the enthusiasm teachers of adult dancers have for their work, I started to understand the charm of my imperfect experience of growth, one tied, perhaps, to the softened expectations of age. The adult ballet class offers growth defined by frustration. Its beauty lies in the human, not the superhuman, in scars and hunger and self-criticism and fierce concentration. There is something refreshingly pure about being an adult beginner. Most of us will never excel. Bare mediocrity would be an achievement. We will not become famous, and we will not make money. The vast majority of us will never even perform outside of studio recitals.

When studying another skill, like a language or sport, people are usually excited by the steep learning curve at the beginning but set back when they hit a plateau. Ballet does not coddle its students with plateaus. If I miss a class or two, my flexibility and strength seem to fall to zero. Even attending regularly, I find there are occasional setbacks for no particular reason. But the difficulty of progressing makes tiny breakthroughs that much more delicious: holding my leg two degrees higher or a balance two seconds longer than I did the previous week makes me feel almost maniacally confident. One class I am a hopeless flop who will never improve, the next I am a radiant goddess with barely-tapped reserves of strength and grace.

Renée D’Aoust tells me that when she taught dance, she “loved the vulnerable and gutsy adults who were willing to put their bodies on the line to learn. The body never lies, so dance is a particularly vulnerable way to learn new things as an adult.” Like me, she finds value in absolute limits and the freedom they paradoxically provide. Dancing as an adult is a chance to reach beyond perfection to the complex joy of effort. Ballet began as a dance of kings, but even kings had to set aside time to practice.

***

Recommended Reading:

  • Toni Bentley, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal (University Press of Florida, 2003).
  • Joan Brady, The Unmaking of a Dancer: An Unconventional Life (Harper & Row, 1982).
  • Renée E. D’Aoust, Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press, 2011).
  • Suzanne Farrell and Toni Bentley, Holding on to the Air: An Autobiography (Summit Books, 1990).
  • Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (Random House, 2010).
  • Deirdre Kelly, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books, 2012).
  • Jenifer Ringer, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet (Penguin, 2014).
  • Terry Teachout, All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (Harcourt, 2004).
  • Edward Villella and Larry Kaplan, Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992).