Thinking and journaling a lot about why to study the performing arts if you don’t end up being the traditional definition of “dancer” or “actor” or “musician” - in short, why study dance or drama if you’re just going to “give up.”
I know my own experience performing and watching performances shaped my curiosity, tenacity, and empathy, and I’m still articulating the other ways dancing, rehearsing, and choreographing shaped my worldview.
For now, here’s this quote from author and historian Sarah Vowell that I keep going back to.
"But I would like to point out that my perfectly ordinary education, received in public schools and a land grant university, is not merely the foundation on which I make a living. My education made my life. In a sometimes ugly world, my schooling opened a trap door to a bottomless pit of beauty — to Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong and Frank Lloyd Wright, to the old movies and old masters that have been my constant companions in my unalienable pursuit of happiness."
"Strange…I don’t see ‘Our Lord & Savior’s Birth’ listed on my Facebook’s ‘upcoming events.’ Who’s running this website? SATAN?"
I have a complicated relationship with ballet.
I started like most kids do: too much energy and not a great nap-taker resulted in me attending a half-ballet, half-tap class. This was a place I was actually ENCOURAGED to move, instead of being shushed or being told no, Sarah, stop moving we are in church THAT IS A PLACE TO KNEEL AND GENUFLECT THAT IS NOT A BALANCE BEAM. Plus, I got a fuschia-sequined headband for my first performance, a dance to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. I. Was. Hooked.
As time went on and we moved from place to place, ballet remained my constant. A plie is a plie when you’re in Texas or in Ohio.
I was in the fifth grade, and I missed the sequins. But I knew this was the study to do if I was going to be a prima ballerina.
By the time I got to middle school, I auditioned and got into the Junior Company, a group with a few responsibilities:
1. Visit schools, many times with students my same age, to demonstrate the ror and discipline it took to be a professional dancer.
2. Provide free labor for The Nutcracker, the highest-grossing show of the season.
I was good - not great - but I liked hanging out with people who also liked to dance. But slowly the encouragement to move went from joy to being told, “not like that,” or, “dance like her, not like you.”
Like many kids with a passion/pastime, cracks began to show in middle school that perhaps life as a ballet dancer wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I was no longer being simply encouraged to move, instead, I was being told exactly how to move my body, and how my body should look.
I remember being told while changing in the dressing room that I had a “full body.” I was in the sixth grade.
I could push these things aside, because I still got to move “like a seagull dancing on the waves!” in Miss Bess’s modern class*, where she had us put on big red skirts and dance with tambourines. The joy was still there.
Then came The Nutcracker.
The junior company appeared in two sections of The Nutcracker: as children in the first act party scene, and as “Mother Ginger’s Children” in the second act. For those who haven’t seen the ballet, this section begins with a dozen clown children popping out of Mother Ginger’s giant hoop skirt. It’s like the Duggar family crossed with Barnum & Bailey.
In our version of the ballet, the beginning was a complicated structure where dancers wove in and out of one another to very specific counts. Two of the girls messed up their counts, causing under-skirt-backup, and they were quickly banished and replaced. Their fates to only appear as a pantomiming Party Child Number ___ was sealed.
I was next to stumble over my feet.
The teacher cut the music, and I hunched my body over - half so I could accurately feel what it was like to be in the skirt, half so the teacher wouldn’t see my shaking knees or the fact that my thighs touched. Without breaking her gaze, she nodded at the outcasts leaning on the barre and said, “you’re next.”
I didn’t mess up again.
After a few weeks of only running our two sections, we made it to The Run-Through. This is a rehearsal when the entire ballet is performed in front of the staff, including the Artistic Director.
The Mother Ginger section came (both my entrance and performance were flawless, fear does that to you). The dance ends with all the clown-children jumping around the stage and back under Mother Ginger’s skirt. As I hopped around, I could feel my knit pants I wore over my leotard and tights begin to slip down. My brain, wild with the euphoria and adrenaline of performance, was suddenly not frightened, but INSPIRED.
"What an incredible artistic opportunity!" I thought to my clown-self. As I danced I exaggeratedly pulled up my pants and really hammed it up - widening my eyes and opening my mouth wide, imagining myself as an hysterical "tragedy" mask. I could hear the people laughing - including the REAL dancers in the company and the Artistic Director himself! It was a perfect performance moment of giving and receiving, the kind I imagine real actors and comedians talk about.
My faux panic, however, turned very real when I saw my teacher’s very grim, very unamused face.** I high-tailed it back under the skirt. Luckily, there were more sections to be performed, so I got to sit quietly with my classmates and escaped a lecture.
Nutcracker season came and went, a blur of going to school with curlers in my hair and reheated dinners eaten while soaking my feet and doing homework long after my siblings went to bed. It was fun, even if there weren’t any sequins.
Spring semester arrived, and we were back in class. One day, my teacher brought a glossy 8x10 photo of a former student in a beautiful arabesque, standing on one pointed foot while the other reached behind her, almost to her head. Imagine a clock, and the standing foot is at the 6 and the extended leg is at the 1.
"This is what you should look like," the teacher said.
My foot only reached the 3, and then, just barely.
This, compared with high school and college looming ahead, made me realize that maybe I didn’t want to spend all my days, nights, and weekends in three studios. I’d already missed a lot of extracurriculars, but I didn’t mind because it was fun. With the fun gone, why keep going? And if the thing I like about dance is moving with other people, and making a community with them, aren’t there more fun and cheaper ways of doing it that are closer to home, geographically and otherwise
It was a lot for 14-year-old me.
I remember the day I told my teacher I quit dance class. I felt weird, like I was leaving a branch of the armed forces in an unhonorable fashion. Nope, I can’t hang, or get my leg that high. See ya’ll later.
So I did marching band, and drama club, and was even a teacher’s assistant for my high school’s dance classes. All of these experiences were fun and reminded me what I liked about moving in the first place - we created little communities and little worlds. It didn’t matter if they were on the football field or the choir room or in the hallway outside the dance studio. All that matter is that we moved and participated enthusiastically. We were enough.
I didn’t stay away from formal dance class for long - I even majored in it in college. But by taking this short sabbatical, I realized that dance isn’t one thing, or two things or a dozen things. It’s all around, and it’s where we choose to see it.
Every day, I choose to dance with people. It could be on a studio or on the city bus. And it’s a goal - by championing dance, by serving on a board of directors of a dance company, and by generally being a good citizen of dance - to encourage other people to dance together, too.
*Oh my God, Miss Bess. I’ve tried to find her address or SOMETHING to get back in touch with her, to let her know what her classes meant to me. If anyone has any contact info for Bess Saylor Imber, let me know!
**I’m really painting this person in a negative light, and I don’t mean to. She had a hard job - herding adolescents and making them move in the same way, repeatedly, which is I think exactly the opposite of what these kinds of bodies want to do. she really did the best she could, with very little training. Pro tip: MOST dance teachers and very little pedagogical training, and may know little to nothing about anatomy or child development. If you want to put your kid into dance class, grill the teacher, ask around, and listen to your child. As this post shows, they know when something is not quite right.