~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.
I liked the end of the barre work, when we did the high kicks called grand battements. My leg flew into the air: front, then side, back, and side, turned out from the hip, presented up with a swoosh. A perfectly pointed foot. Sometimes, I felt like a little pixie as I performed a combination with frappés, the fast strikes of the foot that begin at the ankle. After the barre and before the adagio, we stretched. I had no patience for adagio, for those slow, controlled movements. I wanted to jump and spin.
Mom picked me up from school in her cream Tercel station wagon. She listened to the oldies station as she drove me to the ballet studios. My ballet bag was already in the car. Once she dropped me off, I darted inside. I had to get ready for class quickly; if we weren’t ready for class--leotard and tights and shoes on and hair neatly pulled into a bun--the teachers wouldn’t let us take the class. I couldn’t be late. I couldn’t be sloppy. I couldn’t miss class.
I learned to make a bun all by myself. I pulled my hair into a sleek ponytail, braided it, and looped it into a little knot, securing it with a few bobby pins. I wrapped a hair net around it, securing that with more bobby pins: some the regular flat kind, others u-shaped. I shook my head from side to side to make sure it would stay put. I had my own hairspray, which I kept in my ballet bag, using two or three squirts to hold the hair in place or to smooth little strands near my temples
In the hallways, I saw the older girls in their cut-up sweatshirts, legwarmers, and plastic pants, torsos folded over their own legs. One girl held another girl’s ankles as she lay flat on the floor. Then, she arched her back up, counted to twenty, holding position. Already I wanted the plastic pants and pink leg warmers of the older girls. They looked exotic; they wore lipstick and mascara. I became aware of their beauty.
Gelsey Kirkland, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas who would go on to dance with Baryshnikov, was an angel in The Nutcracker at age nine. Her first role on stage, just like me. She writes, “I was no more than eleven when my mother found me sleepwalking in the middle of the night with my ballet bag in hand.”
A Russian proverb: if you are afraid of the wolf, don't go into the forest. In ballet, there was always an awareness of other dancers. I wrote the names of other ballet students in my diary. Tameka, who was very tall for her age. Ashley, who had a snub nose. I wonder if they wrote about me:
Renée, who had freckles, but who could jump.
Renée, who has already been an angel, a gingersnap, and a mouse. Who would be in the party scene.
Our progress was often gauged by those early roles, my first awareness of the competitiveness of ballet dancers. Or maybe it was the older girls stretching in the halls.
I skipped through the steps of the petite allegro: sauté, royale, changement; the key to these little jumps was to hold your stomach in. Use a deep plié, bend the knees, and release. In my diary I wrote the names of the steps. I wrote about other things, too. I began to wonder if I would grow up to be pretty. When I would begin to work in pointe shoes, sur la pointe.
On Saturdays I didn’t have class. In the fall there would be class because of The Nutcracker rehearsals, but it was just a warm-up; it wasn’t meant to improve or teach technique. Usually on Saturdays I had ice cream with my dad. We both loved chocolate in waffle cones.
When did I hear about the dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet who was fired because she ate ice cream? It didn’t matter that she weighed only 110 pounds. They fired her. She was a prima ballerina, though, and her audience loved her. So the Bolshoi hired her back.
Not all dancers are that lucky.
By fourteen, I was spending my summers away from home to train. To go to
, I had to audition to be accepted. Once there, we auditioned again and were placed into divisions based on our skills. A summer at Interlochen -- just like a summer at any company school-- can make or break a ballet student. Some will go home and train harder; others will train at the academy for the school year. Some will quit ballet and never look back. Interlochen Arts Academy
There were students in visual arts and choir and writing as well as in orchestra and dance. Hundreds of artistic kids in one place. It was sort of like school, but everyone was talented, focused. There was competitiveness in the air: who was best in what? Everyone was aware of who was best, who was up-and-coming, who had a long way to go. In the cafeteria where we all ate, the dancers only picked from the salad bar. We all wore uniforms, but the dancers, with our skinny legs poking out from the navy Bermuda shorts, hair up in buns, were easy to spot.
In these years, I idolized Suzanne Farrell of the New York City Ballet. She was first among Balanchine’s muses. He loved her for her off-balance balances. Before Balanchine, she was Susie Fricker of
. He remade her. He said, “First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty if you're very lucky and have said your prayers.” Cincinnati, Ohio
A Russian proverb: don't blame the mirror if your face is crooked. Most girls go through an awkward stage, caught between the little girl and the young woman. But I was caught between a little girl and a young ballerina. Yet by fourteen, I could do nearly anything in pointe shoes that I could do in my soft shoes. The benefit of being a quick study with strong ankles. I perfected a technique for preparing my toes, using thick white medical tape to ward off blisters. The soft shoes didn’t get much use.
When I came home from
, my teachers noticed my improvement. Mrs. Gooden made a list of places I should audition for the following summer. Mr. Franklin said, “Try a little mascara. Some blush and lipstick too.” Interlochen Arts Academy
Ms. Leigh invited me to take her class but said, “You have to continue to work, to work very hard.” Ms. Leigh was over fifty, still lean, but with sharp features wrinkled from chain smoking. She knew hard work. She had once been a soloist with the National Ballet of Canada until her Achilles tendon snapped and rolled up her leg like a window shade.
My favorite part of class was the petite allegro, although I also enjoyed the big leaps, the grande allegro. I knew what it meant to soar, even just for a few seconds. I had what the men were taught to cultivate: ballon, or suspension in the air while leaping. Sometimes I took the men’s class just to jump. I liked to bounce; I actually allowed myself to have fun. The connecting steps and the big leap performed diagonally across the floor: tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, grande jété. If you say them right, even the words sound jaunty.
Mr. Franklin said it wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to my diet. I stopped eating ice cream with my dad. I got a scale for my bathroom, checked my weight daily. I took classes on Saturdays now, and I hated Sundays because there wasn’t any ballet. I began to learn the classic variations: Finger Fairy and Bluebird from The Sleeping Beauty, and the solo from the third act of Don Quixote--the one that’s performed only in
. My muscle memory became bits and pieces of the classic repertoire. Russia
With birthday money, I bought a pair of plastic pants to warm up in. They made me sweat. I thought of the weight I might lose. But when I looked in the mirror, I hated myself. And mirrors were everywhere. I couldn’t stop looking, even if I wanted to. Balanchine said, “The mirror is not you. The mirror is you looking at yourself.”
During my summer at a famous ballet school, I was chosen to do the Bluebird variation and pas de deux in the summer showcase. My dormitory suitemates weren’t chosen to solo. They were dressed in white tulle, on stage among many others dressed in white tulle. Up close, the costumes were smudged and dirty and smelled of sweat.
I told them, “It’s important to learn to dance in the corps if you want to get into a ballet company.” They had teased me, and it was my turn with the knife. It was a tactic. I hoped to isolate myself from them. Every ballet dancer has her own brand of bitch that she uses to protect herself. Mine was to remove myself from those around me. I was remote and cultivated superior airs: don’t talk to me; don’t waste my time. I was competitive in a way that made friendships nearly impossible. But I was also very lonely. I don’t think anyone I knew in my ballet years knew my favorite color was aqua. They never asked, and I never told. Ballet wasn’t about being personal.
My partner in the Bluebird variation and pas de deux was Joe, an athletic dancer two years older than me. He was black and wondered if that would hold him back in ballet. “In ballet,” he said, “if you’re black, everyone wants you to be the next Arthur Mitchell.” In 1955, Mitchell had joined Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He said, “The myth was that because you were black that you could not do classical dance.” I reminded Joe that as a male, he would be coveted by many companies; there were never enough male dancers. Joe was kind to me. Sometimes we shared a Diet Coke before our rehearsal. He was in love with another dancer at the company school. Karina. She was lovely: creamy pale skin and light blue eyes and the lightest blonde hair, so light that on stage she looked almost bald. Karina was performing another solo in the summer showcase. She had a lovely sense of line when she danced, as if her body was meant to be in arabesque. There was something so natural about it. I watched her, but I also watched Joe watching her. He was reverent in his admiration; it was what I wanted someday. It was how I thought a man should look at a woman.
We were rehearsed by a middle-aged Russian dancer retired from performing. When I first met her, she said, “Your cheeks look so round. You have face like pumpkin.” Her advice? Eat less. “Face will lose the baby fat, you see. You like little girl, but you are not anymore.”
In the Bluebird variation I did échappés, springing up sur la pointe in fourth, snapping back to fifth, then out to second position. Sometimes I felt exposed. On stage I was no longer just an insecure ballet student. I heard the music of my variation, and my muscles took over. The only thing that mattered was the dancing. The first time in Bluebird, I was made up in heavy eyeliner and pancake makeup. The lights were hot, and the audience one big shadow. On stage, I searched for myself through the execution of steps. One of the greatest ballet dancers of all time was Margot Fonteyn. She said, “Great artists are people who find ways to be themselves in their art.” The Russian who rehearsed us said the clumsy dancer blames her skirt.
A Russian proverb: don’t make me kiss, and you will not make me sin. Partnering classes, where the boys and girls learn to dance pas de deux, were tough for me because I was uncomfortable being touched by boys. I had the tiny buds of breasts. My freckles were fading; my skin was very pale. Sometimes I broke out, even though I scrubbed every night, determined not to be plagued by acne. It came anyway, angry. The boys with their hands at my waist, under my thigh, or pressed at the small of my back. I always blushed.
I had my first kiss at one of the lakes around
, with a trumpet player named Mike. He had dark hair and, of course, strong lips. I thought maybe his lips were strong from trumpet practice, but I think Mike had practiced kissing other girls before me. He was two years older than I was. He always wanted me to let my hair out of its bun. When I did, he ran his fingers through my hair, telling me I was pretty, and I couldn’t help but like that. I wrote this in my diary, next to “must work on extensions: devant, á la seconde.” Interlochen Arts Academy
I spent time at a famous ballet school, away from home. When we had a night off, Shandee and Maureen, two of my dormitory suitemates, and I walked down to a local coffee shop and drank espresso. Under the guise of advice, Shandee said, “No one will want you in a company if you’re a virgin.”
I said that wasn’t true.
“Sure it is,” said Maureen.
“You only say it isn’t true because you’re still a virgin,” added Shandee. She twirled a lock of her hair between her fingers, an affectation I had seen her use in the presence of men. Shandee liked the idea of men touching her. She told us as much. “It reminds me that I’m beautiful,” she said.
Maureen had a boyfriend back home in
who sent her letters full of the things he wanted to do to her, explicit and sexual. She read them aloud to make me uncomfortable. L.A.
Suzanne was our other dormitory suitemate. She smuggled a boy into her bedroom and bragged about how sore she was from this nocturnal visit. Part of me knew they were exaggerating for my benefit. But there was pressure: be womanly, be desirable, be the object of attention.
I didn’t tell anyone that I was afraid. I panicked. Did anyone else really know I was a virgin? Would it keep me from being asked to join a company? So I worked harder in class, lost weight, followed the mantras I heard from teachers. Back in the dormitory, the girls harassed me. They nicknamed me Scarlet V. The Great Virgin Hope. They snickered about their sexual escapades in the backs of cars and dressing rooms. Shandee had a lover who was twenty-five. She was only sixteen. “He was shocked by the way I could bend,” she bragged.
A girl got sent home from the ballet school. We were told she was abusing diet pills. We knew that couldn’t be the true reason. Who would care if we abused diet pills, so long as we were skinny and doing well in class? The real reason she was sent home was because she was abusing speed. That was hushed, but we all knew. She was only seventeen.
Shandee asked, “How different is speed than diet pills?” I didn’t use drugs, but I could understand why a dancer would. Speed increases alertness, energy. None of us were eating properly, and we were borderline anorexics or worse. Suzanne would splurge and purge: eat a dozen glazed donuts and then puke them up.
When I did lose my virginity, it was not to another dancer. As soon as it was lost, I wanted it back. But I knew I would never be pure, the way a dancer never feels truly beautiful or satisfied with herself. So, I pushed: anorexia, extra coaching, makeup, practice, another class, Pilates, one more sit-up.
I didn’t date very much; there was no time for it. The dates I did go on were awkward because I had nothing to say to boys who didn’t understand ballet dancers, and these were the boys who asked me out. I didn’t go out with male dancers: some were gay, and the others weren’t appealing. It wouldn’t be long before I attracted the attention of older men, those in the audience. Men confused me, younger or older. Their glances unnerved me. In many ways I was very naive. Perhaps I wanted to be naive.
Men. They were the choreographers, artistic directors, wealthy patrons. They commanded their little legions of women, and as dancers we willingly obeyed. We were vain creatures; we bought the hype. I was no exception. If a man wanted to sleep with me, I thought it was because I was a ballerina. I wanted them to want to sleep with me even though I didn’t want to sleep with them. I was learning an ugly truth about ballet, that part of my success was being an object of desire.
Still, a part of me craved innocence. As a child, I had a wide smile, pigtails, and freckles. Now I missed the Sunday ice cream with my dad. I missed family life. Instead, I had rows of pointe shoes, cartons of baby powder, tubes of mascara, limp, damp tights with seams down the back. Strong lean legs. Long neck. A slim ponytail down the length of my back. Backstage, I received flowers from strange men.
In our dressing rooms, we peeled off parts of our costumes, skin still glistening from adrenaline and sweat. Partially exposed, we spilled in and out of the backstage rooms, talking or laughing, smoking cigarettes, maybe tending to blisters on our feet. There was wine, shots of vodka. The patrons were allowed backstage for parties put on by the company’s management, ensuring that they would continue to write checks. They knew the patrons liked to see us this way, half naked, kissing cheeks in congratulation, preening, powdering, on display, a type of performance in itself.
In fourth position, place the heel of one foot against the middle of the other foot, keeping both turned out. Then slide the front foot forward, so there is space between the front and back foot. Fourth is crossed, but open. In this way, it is complicated.
In the ballet studio, everything about my physique was criticized. My body was always a work in progress. But when I took on extra work as a model at a local arts school, my perspective about my body shifted. Like other dancers I knew who modeled, I started because I needed the extra money. Behind a screen, I would take off my clothes and emerge completely nude to lie on a couch in the art studio. What is remarkable about this is that I was not embarrassed to do it. I was more comfortable unclothed in front of strangers than I was in a leotard and tights in the ballet studio. The artists studied me to recreate my form, while in the ballet studio just my form, just my body, would never do. In ballet, I was scrutinized without hope of ever reaching physical perfection. On the couch, there was no standard to live up to.
With my body spread across the couch, I was aware of the gazes of the art students only abstractly. Even though I was right there naked before them, it didn’t feel like there was anyone in the room but me. I surprised myself with how relaxed I was. There wasn’t any pressure to do anything other than to be drawn. I knew they would see me differently than the teachers, coaches, choreographers, and other dancers in the studio.
The art students never talked to me. I could hear the scratch of their pencils as they worked. I would find a glass of water and an envelope stuffed with cash waiting behind the screen with my clothes. Once, after I dressed and was walking across the studio to leave, I saw one of the drawings. The artist had left his large sketch pad on the easel. It shocked me: a swath of long hair, my stark, bony clavicle, and my breast, a tiny lump with an imperfect aureole, shaded darker but somehow more delicate in the individual strokes of the shading. In the center, a tense little nipple like a tightened fist.
I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or unbeautiful, but something in the depiction was both very close to me and so odd it couldn’t have any connection to my body. I was affected by this picture, scared by it. What I remember in particular was practically running out to my car and driving away.
Yet I didn’t stop posing. Seeing the picture made me bold, seeing myself differently through the drawing, a way I never saw myself as a dancer. Each week I came and undressed and displayed myself on the couch until the end of each class. I was almost happy to be there. Perhaps I thought that one day I would see one of these pictures, recognize it someplace I wouldn’t expect. Maybe I would hear a person comment on the picture, something about beauty or grace. I had a tendency to romanticize, and I can only say that it was because my life as a ballet dancer was so unromantic that I desperately wanted it someplace else.
But I didn’t have any elaborate fantasies about how the artists saw me. Although the class was mostly young men, it didn’t occur to me that they saw me as anything other than a subject to be drawn. After my last day as an artist’s model, I walked behind the screen to dress. There, on top of my clothes, was a plain, white, 3 X 5 card. On the card, in almost perfectly symmetrical capital letters, someone had written this one sentence: I ache for you.
Every year, in every ballet company where I studied or performed, we put on the holiday classic, The Nutcracker. The performances ensured revenues for the ballet company. As a dancer, it was a strange brew of holiday festiveness and aching dread.
One year I was cast as Arabian, a short solo to slithering, reedy music, a moment of melancholy sensuality in this otherwise childlike ballet. In the particular choreography for my Arabian, which was a new rendition for that year, I was carried on stage by four male dancers, legs in a split. I danced between these men, lifted and turned and posed. What I didn’t fully understand was that this particular choreographer had reinvented the part for me, for how he envisioned me.
I was surprised to be cast in Arabian because it was an adagio, slow and sensual. I was never particularly good at adagio; I was more the spitfire. But I realize now that the reason I was chosen for this role was for my acting ability on stage more than my dancing. Typically, a soloist’s role might really be a pas de deux, two dancers, one man and one woman together. In a pas de deux, there is an intimacy between the two dancers that the audience is allowed to watch. The ballerina captures the attention of her cavalier, and by extension the audience. But my role in this particular adaptation of Arabian was to keep the attention of four men. But it could have been twenty men, it could have been every man who has ever been in a ballet audience and thought about what he might do if he was alone with the dancer. It was about sharing my body. At one point in Arabian, I snaked my leg around one of my partners in attitude while extending my arms out toward another. Here was my acting: I danced as if I knew what I was doing, which was seducing them.
I was never comfortable dancing Arabian, and I think my discomfort was something the choreographer wanted. There was always this paradox between innocence and sexuality. I was caught between them.
Often we would have parties backstage after Nutcracker performances. Our patrons threw them, the wings filled with cut veggies and little sweets, bottles of Chardonnay. After one evening of performing Arabian, at such a party, a man put his hand at the small of my back, a pressure in his fingers as he slid them around to caress my hip. I recognized him as a patron, but I didn’t know him, and only knew he was much older than me. He complimented me on my performance onstage. What was implicit in this exchange was his pleasure. Maybe what he saw on stage made him think of his own bedroom, lights low, arranging a dancer on his bed, her warm, slight body against the coolness of sheets, his hands posing her to his liking. A part of me knew this. I saw this attention as a curse. But as a ballet dancer, if I wasn’t desirable, I was a failure. So if I was disgusted, I was also pleased. What I didn’t understand at the time was how anonymous it all was. I could have been any dancer on stage. For him, I was just any dancer. And, I was okay with being just any dancer, as long as I was one.
Balanchine’s philosophy: God creates. Woman inspires. Man assembles. He said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”
Oh really, Mr. B., God had nothing to do with it.
A Russian proverb: acknowledgement is half of correction. Like many dancers, I found refuge in technique itself. I had moments that were just dancing. Stolen moments. Usually jumping, spinning, leaping. If you said the steps aloud just right, you felt the lilt and bounce. Glissade, brisé: legs like skipping in delicate figure eights. Assemblé: breathe, release, travel across the floor. Quick and light. Like air. Like a breeze--brisé. I gave up my cares when I performed the petite allegro, even in class. In those steps, I was more than myself, my drive, my passions, my mirror. I forgot to think. I just danced in fast, skittering movements across the floor. I felt perfect for one shining minute of music.
One day I stood in front of the mirror, working out a combination. I gave myself to the steps, concentrating. It was a day when I didn’t pay attention to the other dancers around me. It was a day to study my own self, my own body. That was a good day.
Another day the teacher from Hamburg Ballet said, “Look at her clean beats” as I jumped through the steps of a petite allegro. My feet were speedy; they cut the air in brisk strokes. I smiled. It was a day when the mirror didn’t feel like an attack.
The choreographer Twyla Tharp said, “Dancing is like bank robbery, it takes split second timing.”
I always struggled through the adagio, the slow controlled extensions, the movements that require a different kind of precision, a meticulous, cultivated sense of line. Strong and delicate, the adagio requires embracing opposites: static fluidity. It requires a maturity and patience that I didn’t really own, that I could only achieve through affectation. But imitation was part of my craft as a ballet dancer. Allegra Kent, one of Balanchine’s muses, said, “All we actually have is our body and its muscles that allow us to be under our own power.”
Balanchine has been dead for most of my life. But his influence over every American dancer who came after he started his
has been absolute. We all danced for him, in his image of woman: lean, whittled, yet erotic. He was the one who first demanded the slim physique, so slight in frame. But despite its delicacy it also had to be powerful enough to move with the quickness of racehorses. When he started the School of American Ballet , he created a stable of dancers, like a breeder of champion thoroughbreds. School of American Ballet
I continued to chase Balanchine’s ideal. So, I found a coach--Jillese Austin--a redheaded beauty who used to be with his New York City Ballet. Jillese pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits, which was what I wanted her to do. I needed to be pushed. I ached to be pushed.
Ballet was about pursuit.
Under her tutelage, I felt my body lengthening, felt the line of my body as an energy that ran from my fingers through my arms into my spine. From my toe through my calf and my thigh. Jillese also knew how to accentuate a dancer’s strongest points. We worked through combinations of petite allegro: faster, faster, sharper, faster, like little sparks of light at the end of my legs. I was stronger on my left side than right; so we worked on partnering, which required a strong left foot.
I continued to seek out mentors. In pas de deux I was coached by a Polish dancer who had trained in
. He spoke six and a half languages, English the half language. We were working on a complex lift, and he tried to say don’t be scared. But it came out, “Oh, don’t be scary!” Russia
Never satisfied with my progress, I spent more time being coached by Jillese. With her, I felt the direct connection back to Balanchine, because she taught from the experience of being trained directly by him. With this knowledge, she worked out the kinks in my technique, mostly my arms, the way I carried myself, the way my shoulders and upper body appeared. “Shoulders down, resist the tension in the back muscles,” she said. Energy from the ring finger through the elbow to the shoulder. Elbow relaxed. Lift up from the sternum. In such commands, grace was acquired.
”You should wear white,” Jillese said. “You look perfect in white. Maybe someday you will be Giselle or Odette.” But that day never came. I was neither. In the end, I did not even merit a footnote in the world of ballet. But I learned from Jillese that a dancer sacrifices everything for the chance. She believed Mr. B., as she knew Balanchine, when he said, “I don't want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.”
Ballet sets a nearly impossible standard. It is erotic. Beguiling. Sexy. Demure. Slender. Extended. Driven. A composed surface, insecurity underneath. As a dancer, I loved and hated myself.
In fifth position, the legs fit and lock together. Turning out from the hips is key. Toe-to-heel, heel-to-toe. You can turn, you can leap, but you are, from that point forward, made from dance.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
This essay almost didn’t make it. Although I now write in three genres, when I first started writing outside of fiction, my first genre, I was completely unsure of myself. Because I had trained for a career in professional ballet, I was encouraged to write about that experience. In my graduate creative nonfiction class, I wasn’t willing to bare enough of myself on the page to make a reader feel invested in my story. Nervous about the worth of my story—it’s not like I became a famous dancer—the first draft of “Five Positions” had an arms-length narration that just didn’t work. Frustrated, I took apart the original draft and put it back together several times, letting go more and more. The resistance I felt towards my subject matter started to subside, although the tension I felt also mirrored the tensions I felt as a dancer, many years ago. As a dancer, I never felt my work was quite good enough, and that uneasy feeling found its way back to me when I began writing.
There are five basic positions of the feet in classical ballet, and I used these positions, which go from open and less complicated to crossed and more complicated, to chart my growth as a dancer. This growth was both in skill, but also in emotional understanding. Because a dancer’s instrument is her own body, so much of the art of dance becomes fused with both the dancer’s physical and emotional self. We are the stuff of our art, quite literally. But we are shaped by others—teachers, choreographers, artistic directors. And that’s where the Russian proverbs and other quotes came into play. They represent the outside influence on me as a dancer, which was ever present.
Even as I wondered if I should stick to writing just fiction, the more I pushed myself to write a better version of this essay, and the more I opened up to the process of writing nonfiction. I found I had a lot to say about my training as a dancer, about that young dancer I once was, and that ballet was my complicated first love. Perhaps, if the writing came too easy, it wouldn’t be right, the same way a dancer continues to practice the most basic steps throughout her life. The artistry doesn’t come from perfection, but through the devotion of coming back time and again to the same material. And it’s not all pretty like the visions often presented on stage.
Since first writing this essay, I’ve continued to mine my dance experience for essays have a collection I’m hoping to publish. As well, I have returned to the art of ballet as a teacher. Writing and dancing have become twin pursuits, and so much of that began with “Five Positions.”
ABOUT RENÉE K. NICHOLSON
Renée K. Nicholson lives in
, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. Renée’s promising career in ballet was cut short when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She earned teaching certification through American Ballet Theatre, and her students have gone on to attend top schools, such as The School of American Ballet and ABT Summer Intensives, and dance professionally. Renée also earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Morgantown, WV , where she teaches in the Multidisciplinary Studies Program and serves as Assistant Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Mid American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Poets & Writers, The Superstition Review, West Virginia University Switchback, The Review and other publications and anthologies. Renée was the 2011 Emerging Writer in Residence at Penn State-Altoona, is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review and is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com. Gettysburg