~This essay previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2007).
Once burned by milk you will blow on cold water.
I was once a ballet dancer. While I was a dancer, I collected quotes from famous people in the dance world and from the less famous Russians I met in ballet. Because
produced so many proficient dancers, they completely infiltrated my American experience, the influence of their methodology everywhere. They often shared with me their proverbs, sayings meant to convey their truth, but perhaps veiled, as I often veil my own. The proverbs, like their technique, went straight to the heart of things. But the proverbs were difficult and, like ballet steps, could never fully be mastered. Russia
George Balanchine Americanized ballet, but he was originally trained in
. Like the other Russians, Balanchine was famous for his proverbs, most of which he concocted; he was also famous for his ballerinas: very young, very thin, a blend of athlete and siren. He invented the baby ballerina. If old St. Petersburg immortalized the sexy, curvy blonde, Balanchine created a new fetish: the sleek brunette. Of course, when I was seven and first stepped into a ballet class, I had no idea about any of this. Hollywood
A Russian proverb: you do not need a whip to urge on an obedient horse. In the first year, we learned to bend, plié, and to stretch the leg and the foot, tendu; then we learned to sketch circles with our pointed foot on the floor, rond de jambe par terre. “Pull your stomach in,” instructed Ms. Helen, my first teacher. “Derrière tucked under. Turn out from the hips. Lead with the heel of your foot.” Holding my stomach in was the hardest part.
“In first position,” said Ms. Helen, “make a slice of pie with your feet. Stand with heels together, legs and feet turned out, pointing away from the body. Turn out from the hips as much as possible, and do not let your knees or ankles twist.” I tied my hair back into a bun, little sprigs defiant at the temples. I wore pink tights, forest green leotard with cap sleeves, little pink Capezio slippers, soft leather, elastics sewn at the heel.
Made up in thick blue eyeliner and dark mauve lipstick, Ms. Helen kept her hair short. She wore chiffon skirts in pink and jeweled green. She wore clogs and smelled of heavy perfume. I thought she was glamorous.
My first pair of slippers: “You have to fit them tightly,” said the woman at the dance store. “The teachers won’t like it unless they’re snug. Ballet is not something you can grow into.” The sales lady had a mass of carrot red hair on top of her head in a messy knot. With her stubby fingers, she checked the fit of the slippers.
Ms. Helen told us to open our legs into a straddle split. Mine: straight out to each side--splat!--open! After that class Ms. Helen talked to my mom, and I started taking classes twice a week. By the time I was ten, I took ballet every day.