If you stay in ballet class long enough, everything happens. I just found out a girl from class killed herself. Or let herself die — she was found in her car in New York City, cold. Back in Minneapolis briefly after an injury, she’d just returned to the big city with a new desperation to make something happen. I knew her: a pretty flaxen blonde with a corn princess smile, long torso, wide flat ribcage, flexible pipe-cleaner limbs. I can still see the way she’d launch into arabesque, her lower ribs out, a blank space under them; some moments of her unforced allongé, her very symmetrical fifth on high (arms, that is); the way her long back looked in motion, straight, her small shoulder blades riding along.
I spoke to her once, a couple of months before she went back to New York. I believe that was the only time we talked, though I saw her in class for years before that and for a few months that summer and fall. You have to understand this isn’t unusual in an open ballet class: there isn’t much time to talk, and still less to meet people. Ballet isn’t a talking culture, anyway. There’s no talking in class, and afterward everyone rushes off to whatever else they have to do: rehearsal, conditioning, “real life”. You can take class for months before the teachers even learn your name.
She told me about her injury, and I said I was sorry. “I’m not,” she said fiercely. “I’ve learned so much.” One does; I didn’t think much of it. But there was something unconnected about her. In class, I saw her restraining the flow of her angular body, squaring and neatening her ragged reaches. What did she want? Nothing in that room, I suppose. Sometimes it seems cruel: ballet teaches you to stretch, but it doesn’t teach you what for.
Each time I try to start writing this piece I realize how much I have to say to explain anything. Like every pursuit, ballet is its own world. If you know nothing about it, you know nothing — that is, nearly everything you think you know is wrong.
For example, what we wear: the serious adult dancer will wear a carefully mismatched and rigorously ragged assemblage of schmatta. This one likes her oversize warm-up sweater off the shoulder, Flashdance-style. This one, when he finally warms up, strips down to brilliant hot pants. This one flaunts the bony cleavage of her back in low black leotards and holey tights. This one wears old swimsuits. You see some familiar repurposings: tug an old sweater’s neck opening down to your hips, wrap and tie the sleeves, and you have a warm-up miniskirt; take an old pair of tights, cut off the feet, cut the crotch out and turn it into a neck-hole, and you have a long-sleeved warm-up undershirt. Precious few wear the regulation black leo and pink tights. No one wears a tutu unless practicing classical partnering (which we don’t do in ordinary class).
What I wear: a low-backed tank leotard, plain as possible, under black woolly footless tights pulled down to the arch, folded over at the hip. Thigh-high black stirrup legwarmers, nestled over my arch; socks and a long-sleeve knit shirt, at first. As class goes on and I get warmer, I shed and shed, getting lighter and lighter, preparing to fly.
Why do I take ballet class? I wonder that myself sometimes. Here I am, somewhere in my thirties, with a life outside that high-ceilinged, mirrored, naked room. And yet, here I am, still at the barre, still pushing my feet to point, still launching myself into air, long after most girls have had their tutu years and quit. Ballet’s made me cry, sometimes hurt me (torn cartilage in my knee, sprained ankle, broken metacarpal), but I’ve never wanted to stop — even if the first grande plié of the day always makes me question that persistence.
What is a grande plié? A very deep knee bend, with the knees tracking straight out over the toes, ideally 180 degrees away from each other. In three positions the grand plié is so deep that the heels come off the ground. If you’re having trouble envisioning it, think of sitting on your heels, except that you are turning out 180 degrees (or as close as you can) from the hip, and you are not sitting.
You are never allowed to sit. Ballet is not about sitting. That was one of the earliest lessons I learned, way back when I was four-and-a-half and attending my first ballet class. Along with the formation of the hands (thumb tucked in, fingers gently arched, forefinger slightly above the rest) and the positions of the feet, we learned not to sit down.
Some facts to ground this:
The class I take: the open advanced/professional class at the Dance Institute, Minnesota Dance Theatre’s school, downtown. Class happens 9:30 to 11 am, six days a week. (I try to go three days but often make it only to two.)
Who’s in ballet class: professionals from James Sewell and MDT; would-be professionals, pick-up dancers; bunhead teens, serious pre-professionals with long colt legs; former dancers, dance teachers; strays from modern dance reminding us that dance is not only finish and hauteur. And there are also people like me, who just never stopped coming to class; women who never danced until college, whose mothers didn’t see the value in it; the persistent.
How class works: every class starts with barre, forty-five minutes to an hour of warm-up exercises. Then we move to the center. Throughout class, the exercises go in a certain order (plié, then slow tendu, fast tendu, dégagé, etc), but each day, the exact combination for the pliés is different — how many in what position, in what order, with what arms or other steps. Everything is done to live piano music played by our accompanist, and everything is done full out: arms, head, all performed. Class builds to grande allegro, my favorite part, when we fly across the floor, spinning and leaping. Everything we’ve done, every slow roll through the joints of the foot, every stretch, prepares us for this exaltation.
Ballet is not about sitting. That was one of the earliest lessons I learned, way back when I was four-and-a-half and attending my first ballet class. Along with the positions of the feet and the formation of the hands (thumb tucked in, fingers gently arched, forefinger slightly above the rest), we learned not to sit down.
EVERYTHING MAY BE BEAUTIFUL AT THE BALLET, but everything is not beautiful in ballet class. People slip, trip, flop, crumple, fall — and those are just the more scenic mistakes. More common, and uglier, are the mid-pirouette cop-out, the I can’t, the shoulders climbing up to the ears in the middle of something that’s supposed to be lovely, the face looking so hard at itself it turns desperate. Sometimes I think we look like a bunch of female impersonators.
But there are those moments: a perpetual balance, an unrepeatably serene pirouette. Maybe because it’s class, people often take risks. I love to watch the recklessness, I love the mistakes.
I’ll tell you a secret: sometimes I’d rather watch class than see a performance.
A day you don’t dance is a day you are merely ordinary. Pedestrian body, you are constrained to sit as everyone else does, and the space between chin and collarbone closes down, is not meant to mean anything today.
All summer I’ve been working to overcome an injury to my weaker knee, the one I’ve had surgery on before. I can’t jump on it, can’t land properly, can’t grande plié. The air above my head stays unexplored. I wonder whether this is what aging will be like: what I love best cut off bit by bit.
Those of us who are not dancers are many other things. We are teachers, students, bartenders, scholars, therapists, physical trainers, lawyers, homemakers, doctors, retirees. By common consent, we rarely talk about our work lives at ballet. We know that when we walk out on the street, we will not jump or spin, and no one will know that we can, that inside we do. But if most people in our lives will never know who and what we can be, we can at least see that for each other. We are each other’s witnesses.
We watch each other dance — but also age, come and go, lose technique, have children, lose weight, learn new tricks, gain weight. (Dancers have a telling ability to drop ten pounds in a matter of weeks, and an even more telling propensity for suddenly gaining ten, twenty, thirty pounds.) Not much escapes our eyes: the costume is revealing, the dance even more so. If you are happy, you soar; if you are distressed, you sink. I watch the ebb and flow of this dancer’s confidence, watch this one making and unmaking her mind about what to do with her life. People go through dark phases, for years sometimes, and then emerge shining.
And yet sometimes we know very little.
The other day I found this in the bathroom:
I don’t know what to make of it. I went back into class and looked at everyone. Who was it? Whose shoulders hid the cry for help? Is this what that one’s sickled foot means, or that one’s flared nostril?
I wish I could do something for you. I wish I could smooth your line. I wish I knew the word to whisper in your ear.
Today was Denise’s last day. She’s been here for four years, though the pleasure of watching her precise technique still seems new. She’s the quintessential music box ballerina: pretty, gracious, yet upright, with a center so sure I couldn’t help thinking she must believe in god. While she was here, she had a foot operation, she went to Italy to restore paintings, she got back on pointe, she smiled a lot. I thought I was going to get to know her, but now here she goes, back on a plane to Boston, and today she’s giving away her last things — CDs, some unopened packages of food, a beautiful jewelry box. Turns out Denise wasn’t even her real first name.
Every night now, ice and the heating pad. I take joint supplements, go swimming to build up my strength, rub in arnica at night, but I still can’t fly. I don’t know what more I can do. I consider whether I can or should lose some weight, see if that helps.
Have danced a long time now. Have a drawer devoted to dance things. Have a dance bag. Have a routine, a set of injuries. Have a life there, a life mid-air.
Today: class is a seething pit of petty jealousies. I overhear gossip from every corner: “she,” “well,” “standards,” “never” — all spoken with that particular venomous emphasis women can give a word when talking to another woman. We don’t all like each other. When you’re young, ballet is often about conformity and prettiness, and it’s an environment in which mean girls thrive. Former mean girls abound in ballet, women ready to sneer at each other’s hips and their vain attempts at glory. One of these days you’re going to wake up and wonder how you got so ugly. . .
But then, in center I get caught up in something gone wrong/right with my glissades, a problem arising from a felicity, my favorite kind of problem. Suddenly it’s all about space and the deployment of energies and how one can be a body-mind and that body-mind in particular, and I love it again, trying over and over to understand it with my whole self, to bring these elements into conversation, feeling delightedly that they do all speak, they must just be brought to speak to each other. . .
People love to hate ballet, and I get it, I really do. I hate it too, sometimes, hate what it does to me and the rest of us, how we can’t just move. I flirt with other dance forms, think about how I could break free. But what do I know about freedom that I didn’t first learn here?
Ballet, like any classical tradition, is essentially religious, and therefore indefensible. I’ve tried before to provide some sort of universal justification for the ballet aesthetic, but I have to face it: there is none. Either you believe in the flagged foot and hyper-extended knee, or you don’t. Either you believe in the body exerted to its limit under this particular set of tensions, or you don’t.
But perhaps I can go a little further to convince you, if you are an unbeliever. As in any classical dance, in ballet, we (whoever we are) embody the highest ideals of the culture we take to be ours. I understand those ideals to be freedom, choice, discipline, knowledge, sensitivity, clarity, vitality, balance. I understand that you can see other things in ballet -— elitism, sexism, obsessive control; I understand those things have their role in ballet history. But I (to the very best of my ability) don’t dance that way. It is my tradition, after all, and I can shape it.
My mother believes ballet has shaped me, and I don’t disagree. Besides redefining pain (yes, I have bled through my pointe shoes), ballet has taught me that I can always do more than I think — that whatever I think is work, endurance, my limit, I can go past it. Nothing is as hard as a one-footed releve; no existential quandary matches standing on your own two feet.
Much of ballet is impossible. It’s not like modern dance, in which, because there are no platonic shapes, there is no such thing as perfection. Ballet does have its standards, and one always falls short of them. Some people don’t like this; some find it politically questionable. But I’ve come to treasure the impersonality of ballet’s absolutes. So much of life is bias and accident. How often do you get to weigh yourself against the elements?
I used to feel that more than anything — the discipline and the work, the existential testing — and it was all very dire, but then one day I flubbed a pirouette and surprised myself by laughing. It turns out that there’s more to learn here than simply forms and labor. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about music, how to save my strength, how I can feel on the inside of the dance, what I can build for myself.
Lately what I’m trying to learn in class is how to be now. The moment comes, the note, and it’s easy to be behind, to do the step still regretting the last error or worrying about the next. To be now requires letting go, abandoning oneself to what’s needed, almost a sensual surrender to weather — so appealing and yet so hard.
Ballet has its standards, and one always falls short of them. Some people don’t like this; some find it politically questionable. But I’ve come to treasure the impersonality of ballet’s absolutes. So much of life is bias and accident. How often do you get to weigh yourself against the elements?
PEOPLE IN BALLET COME AND GO. They take other jobs, their partners get better jobs, they get called up to the big leagues, they go off to do a stint on the continent (and come back a few years later implausibly much the same). We have to say goodbye to our teachers regularly: goodbye Bonnie, goodbye Ron, goodbye Peggy. But Lirena we can rely on.
It’s hard to describe Lirena Branitski without caricature, because the minute I say “Russian balletmistress,” you will more or less have her: the angular figure cloaked in raven black, the iron-gray bob, big glittering eyes, and imperial bearing; the voice roughened by cigarettes and winter, the strong accent (“fourth” is always “force”), the dry delivery (her entire comment when I asked her about the cast on her arm: “Oh — broke elbow. Ouch. Really ouch.”), the fierce discipline; even her habit of standing with her hands on her hips as she surveys her lackluster recruits from under her knitted brows, you would probably imagine. But Lirena is also a person. The headband she wears is sometimes pink and sometimes falls off the back of her head; she sometimes, imitating an earlier, sillier Lirena, skitters across the floor with her shoulders going. She has a mischievous sense of humor. When she found a dancer she liked not paying attention, she asked, “Are you thinking of your lover?”
Lirena is frightfully forthright. Once, when I asked her what I should work on in class, she said, “You needed feel muscles, big ones and little ones” -— and she was right. Sometimes, she can make you feel bad. She doesn’t smile much as she moves around class, and she’s sparing with praise. Her teaching is as much moral as physical: she’s death on unearned flourish, talented idleness, malaise, privilege. But there’s no malice in her. Her entire desire is to make the dance better, and she is happy to teach anyone who will work to that same goal. A “good” from her feels like a word you can take to the grave.
I hope I’m getting this across: for those of us who are not professionals, ballet is not merely physical. (You can get in better shape more quickly at the gym.) It is an experience of art — the dance, the music; of creativity — our own, everyone else’s. But it is also something more: a devotion. It is beyond ordinary life, and yet at the center of it.
When I think of ballet class, it is as if I carry that room with me everywhere I go.
And suddenly I have my jump back. My knee doesn’t swell anymore, and here I am, soaring (nearly) fearlessly across space, free and wild. What did it in the end, I think, was Lirena’s insistence on the grande plié.
I know I will lose it again; it’s the way of knees. But what this says to me is that I can always come back. I will always have a home here, even if sometimes I have to struggle to find it.
One more thing about the structure of class: every class ends with applause — the class applauding the teacher and the accompanist, the teacher applauding the students and the accompanist, the accompanist applauding. I’ve tried to explain this moment before and never done it justice. It is, simply, one of the best feelings in my life, this shared celebration of the day’s work. I do think it must make us better, whatever the rest of life holds.
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.