October 15, 2020 | Feature
bend and snap
finding, losing, and spinning back into dance
My first memory of creating myself was when I came home from watching ballet for the first time, marched into my living room, closed my eyes, and poured my body into the shapes I had just witnessed in Swan Lake. I was three years old and sure I could feel my body joining my soul.
A few weeks later, I attended my first ballet class and began to dance the fine line between self-expression and being wrong.
Over the years, ballet was the best friend I saw every week. When I was in class, I was intensely present, molding my limbs into each plié and arabesque. But our relationship was cracking at the edges. While I dreamed myself among the glorious swans of the Moscow Ballet, in class I watched the other girls miraculously pirouette, land, and press into a high relevé. I just wobbled, more detached from my body than I had ever been. The more complex sequences our teachers demanded, the more my legs fumbled and my mind blanked from self-doubt.
Eventually, I let myself let go. It was easier to not try at all, to be an obvious failure, than to always wonder how I measured up. Then came the day when the teachers lined us up and tapped the girls who they had decided were ready for pointe, the ritual that split ballet into amateurs and protegées. Staying back by my own design felt even worse than giving myself the chance to fail: I quit ballet on the spot.
Yet five years later, I found myself standing awkwardly in my childhood studio again, toes pinched in new shoes and shoulders slumping to hide the cumbersome body adolescence had given me. Eventually, I made myself look up from the floor: I saw another teenager and three middle-aged adults, all of us glancing downward. I traced tiny rond de jambes on the floor to remind myself why I was there—my mind had never been able to let go of ballet, and neither had my body.
Our teacher brushed into the room: Clara balanced her height with the delicate posture of a tulip. I lifted my spine, pressed back my shoulders. Beaming, she instructed us into first position. The soles of my feet settled along the rippled floor with ease and purpose as if they’d never been gone, and my self-doubt unfolded and fluttered away.
During my years of separation from ballet, I had sharpened. I had become a gymnast with total control of her movements in space. I was a student who could hone her attention to her work. And I was now a teenager whose desire to improve was fueled by constant self-criticism.
Each week, I drifted my palm onto the barre, fixed my eyes on Clara, and metamorphosed. Toes grazing the floor. Thighs firing to the sides, collarbone shelving the air.
After class, back home, sweat garlanded my neck, the nerves in my calves buzzed like cello strings, and I practiced the sequences over and over in my room: frappé-beatbeat-frappé-pasdecheval-extend-UP-closefront-closeback.
A year of this until I realized I had outgrown the beginner class. It was time to move to the class of girls who would have been my peers if I hadn’t quit on the turn of my heel years before.
Ballet is fluidity, and it is discipline. The renowned Russian ballet instructor Agrippina Vaganova transformed ballet in the 20th century by synthesizing French and Italian styles into a balance of iron strength and “the illusion of floating.” But ballet is more than technique: Teachers insist that dancers maintain extreme focus on both their body and mind.
As a child, I was ashamed when a teacher singled me out for failing to watch my toes as I lifted them from floor to sky. Entering my advanced class, internal scolding stung me instead: Why can’t you remember the names of the steps? Why did you stop listening to the directions? As my peers added wrist flourishes and sped up their steps, I realized that what I had really been missing in the years before I quit was my full attention.
The dancer’s inner voice that calls every movement a mistake easily shifts to the dancer’s body itself. In my adult beginner class, we only knew enough about correct form to stare in bewilderment at our feet and elbows, trying to bend them into shape. Now I stood in a line of a dozen teenage girls, all of them flat and narrow and using every break to pinch themselves and whisper about how fat they were. I drilled my eyes into space to stop my cheeks from burning, to slam out the wishes for a smaller body, shorter, less conspicuous, easier to float.
My new teacher, Mimi—a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company—jolted me away from these inner voices. She didn’t let us waste our time fixating on how our bodies met, or failed to meet, the strict aesthetics of ballet. Instead, she prepared us for the hardest moves, the ones we had told ourselves were beyond reach: the fouetté turns, Italian fouettés, échappé battus. We laughed at our attempts; we knew we weren’t swans. But in throwing my leg to the side and my arm toward the ceiling, I flung away the weight of self-doubt and found the creativity that my perfectionism had suppressed.
Mimi’s bursts of “Yes!” and “Beautiful!” glowed in the room and in each of us. This style of teaching––encouraging us to trust ourselves as well as her––motivates dancers to source their motivation from within. As I stopped looking at the other girls and fixed my gaze on Mimi, I discovered a new energy sparkling within my exhaustion. It was during her class that I decided I was ready to draw back the curtains on my living room stage.
That weekend, home alone during my junior spring of high school, my feet tingled for Swan Lake, the love that only my parents––captive audience to my all-day, tutu-and-slippers dance recitals at age four––knew I cradled.
The opening pizzicato plunked down from my living room speakers and landed at my feet in a soaring waltz I couldn’t help but join. The next two hours were aswirl, gliding through my house, spinning past the kitchen chairs, flicking a breath away from the stack of coffee cups, flinging myself toward the ceiling. Something like rage scooped itself out from my ribs and burst through my elbows. When the strings murmured their famous premonition to the Black Swan’s entrance, I was drawn into a tight bow in the middle of the living room, awaiting my cue to move.
Entering college, I wondered: Where will I dance? I didn’t want to perform; no one needed to see or know. But I needed to breathe every now and again. Even the Greeks realized dance is catharsis, that it can spin the body away from pain and flood out anxiety. More than that, I and other dancers know, movement allows us to communicate things that lack words. When I come up against the most perplexing depths of my emotions, the only way I can deal with them is by flinging, leaping, twirling them out.
At Brown, I didn’t find a space to dance alone my first two years, but I kept a monthly date with Zumba and shook out my stress at parties. I shrugged off the racing in my feet when I listened to music and found other ways to channel my energy. I told my family it was a tradeoff; who said I needed dance anyway? I was at college, finally. My dream was fulfilled.
Then quarantine sent me home to a life devoid of fitness classes and parties, hunched over black keys and screens. My body ached, and my heart wasn’t doing much better.
I locked myself in the laundry room with my phone and a glass of water. Socks on. Shoulder, elbow, wrist, chin. Tchaikovsky leapt tinnily into the room and I dipped into first position plié.
Dance re-rooted my soul like a squeezed flower expanding into a new pot. Not only ballet: wild dashes of modern here, a twist of hip-hop there, a burst of jazz, a maniacal full-body shake that comes from nowhere and lives in everyone. Losing my mind in isolation, I found my body. It isn’t a tool, I learned, designed for a specific purpose. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes in the air or at rest, it doesn’t matter how pointed or long or airy it moves across the floor. I know, when I feel my lungs lift, I am doing something right.
Back on campus during Quiet Period, I didn’t hesitate. Bedroom floor clear, mind heavy, I turned off the lights and lined up the Romantic kings of longing: Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Beethoven. With a dip of my head and curl of my fingers, I danced for my best friends mountains away, for the unrequited crushes who I wanted to charm like the Nutcracker prince, for the split in my heart that has opened for the sick. When I cut a jagged path across the room––I don’t know the words for what I’m doing, but I am able to say more than my body alone ever could.