I grew up speaking French. Well, more accurately, listening to French. As a ballerina, words like plié, relevé, and grand jeté were sung to me each day by a rather strict and very serious British ballet mistress.
I was her devoted pupil and she taught me, molded me, scolded me and inspired me six days a week for years. She also mispronounced my name for the entire time I knew her, and I never once had the courage to correct her.
“Ca-THEE-ah,” she’d say, “turn out, shoulders back, more point in those toes…what would Mr. B. think of that?” (She was referring to the master choreographer and artistic director of the New York City Ballet, the one and only George Balanchine.) To imagine Mr. B. thinking anything about me at all was intoxicating. And the occasional compliment from her – doled out with great economy – could leave me floating for days.
As the teenage years rushed in and my interests spawned hither and yon, I strayed from my first true love, ballet. And one day – with very little forethought or ceremony – I walked away from it cold turkey. I was early in my high school years, exhausted both emotionally and physically, and deeply yearned for a more “normal” life.
I’m forever grateful for and indebted to the experience of growing up immersed in dance. And I believe the ballet culture shaped me in mostly positive ways. (Thankfully, I was never lassoed with the stereotypical eating disorder and/or nicotine addiction, and I didn’t dance long enough to permanently injure my body.)
However, I suspect my rigid/perfectionistic tendencies are one of the less elegant by-products of my training. And like many things, it is both a blessing and a curse – serving me well in some situations and sabotaging me savagely in others.
Got any of those in your repertoire?
About a year ago, I had the great fortune of meeting prima ballerina Patricia McBride, and I was an absolute puddle introducing myself and trying to explain to her what she’d meant to me. She was one of my idols, and her New York City Ballet photos lined the walls of my childhood bedroom. She took my teary face in both her hands and said through a ginormous and gracious smile, “You are so beautiful.”
I felt anointed. And deeply seen…as if she’d read my heart.
Taking the occasional adult ballet class over the years, nothing ever reignited my passion or stuck for long. Then, in my late 30’s, I discovered ballroom dancing (specifically International Latin; with Cha-Cha and Rumba as my hands-down favorites). It was the movie “Shall We Dance” that inspired me, and I lovingly dabbled in Latin dancing for about eight years – even entering several Pro/Am dance competitions along the way. It was both deeply satisfying at the soul level, and a constant battleground at the ego level.
I struggled to pick up the choreography as quickly as I did with ballet, and the new way of being in my body for this particular kind of dance was intimidating and felt like a daily face-off. It seemed the only muscle memory I had was diametrically opposed to what I now needed for Latin.
My frustration and desire for perfection typically overshadowed the joy of just dancing. Ultimately, my ego won out. It beat my soul into submission and I stopped taking lessons. I hate admitting that, and it happened. (Just ask my doll of an instructor.)
However, I did discover a way to dance again…to fully enjoy, in joy. There are no lessons, no mirrors, no performances, no competitions, and no judges (not even my inner critic). There is just a gymnasium, a diverse group of people who share a love of movement, and a big-hearted instructor who shows up, both literally and physically, several days each week to usher us into an hour of PURE JOY. Cardio Craze, which is hip-hop-esque, is my dance outlet these days, and my #1 drug of choice.
Balanchine said, “I don’t want people who want to dance. I want people who have to dance.”
Got it, Mr. B.