Finding Home with Ballet

December 24, 2011
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“Up a steep, and very narrow stairway... to the music like a metronome. Everything is beautiful at the ballet... it wasn’t paradise, but it was home.” Taken from the musical A Chorus Line, those lyrics pretty much describe my feelings of home with my ballet studio. In the beginning, I didn’t like ballet. Jazz and tap were the fun, upbeat types of dance that all the cool girls were into. And ballet? Ballet was the slow, boring type that focused too much on technique and less on having fun. Initially I took up ballet as a burden, disliking the studio I was at and looking forward to quitting after reaching a certain level. After getting used to the new style of dance though, and studio, the ballet studio began to merge into a special second home that I learned to love and enjoy.

Most high school students have an after school activity or hobby that allows them to take their mind off school and family life. Whether it be sports, a particular video game, or, in my case, ballet, these activities, for many kids, make high school a little more bearable, and maybe even fun. I originally decided to take up ballet during middle school after I decided that I liked musical theatre. I took jazz and tap lessons once a week, but people kept giving me the same advice, “Ballet is a necessary foundation for Musical Theatre. Look into finding a serious studio focused on ballet, because if you don’t start now, you may never catch up with others at auditions. It’s sink or swim.”

In seventh grade, I finally convinced myself to begin taking ballet. I stumbled upon a small studio located near the commons. A small trash can had been established in the center of the lobby are to collect rain water that leaked in through the ceiling and rat traps were placed haphazardly in a hallway behind the dressing room due to a rat infestation. Hot, sweaty, stinky, and in dire need of repair, this studio was definitely not a model studio, at least the physical setting wasn’t.

Two large glass windows peered down from the lobby area into a large, well lit studio, full of older dancers twirling and leaping across the floor. I, however, would be dancing in the smaller studio located on the same floor as the lobby. Since I started late, I would be dancing with the younger girls. I sat in a corner of the smaller studio and anxiously watched the younger girls chatter excitedly, pointing and glancing my way every now and then. I nervously tucked some stray strands of hair behind my ear and wished my hair didn’t look so silly. I didn’t like the way it looked in a bun. I thought to myself, What if I was bad at ballet? What if I fell over in front of everybody? Would the other girls laugh at me? The class started when the teacher clapped her hands and the noises stifled into soft whispers and short giggles. I was perplexed by the unfamiliar new terms such as “demi-plié,” “tondu,” and “rond de jambe,” but I tried to follow along as best I could, copying the girls in front of me and attempting to go along with the music. In between exercises, girls would cluster around me, asking me to remind them how to pronounce my name, which school I went to and what grade I was in.

As soon as the class ended and I curtsied to the teacher, I sprinted down the rickety wooden stairway to change. I was sweaty and a bit embarrassed by the whole situation, being the oldest yet least experienced of the girls in the smaller studio. All the girls began to get ready for pointe class, tying their ribbons around their ankles and putting in little gel inserts into the tips of their shoes to cushion their toes. I didn’t really understand why anybody would ever take pointe class; it looked painful and probably wouldn’t help them improve much! I wanted to become better at dancing but I didn’t want to continue taking classes. I mean, everyone was better than me and instead of working at it, I would often skip classes, taking the bus home after school.. Sometimes I would only go to class once or twice a week!

As the years passed and I became more experienced, I began to to realize that I actually appreciated ballet. Although I occasionally took the bus home after a long day at school instead of going to class, I began to enjoy dancing more and more. I moved up through the levels along with the other girls and made some close friends. No longer simply taking classes in order to swim rather than sink during a large dance audition, I was dancing out of a true love of dance. I would often point and flex my toes under my desk and count the hours until my ballet class started during school.

I began taking pointe lessons with the encouragement of my dance teacher which helped my feet to become stronger. I didn’t believe that taking pointe class would actually strengthen my muscles very much, but I decided to at least try it, mainly just to fit in with the other girls. When I first bought my toe shoes (pointe shoes), they were beautiful and I could hardly wait to try them on and take my first class. Glossy pink with ribbons neatly sewed on, I loved balancing on the tips of my toes. It hurt like crazy at first balancing on my toes and I would often have to rest a bit during an exercise while the other girls proudly stood without so much as a wobble but slowly and surely, my feet dod become stronger and my endurance saw me through.

The ballet studio started to feel like a second home to me, a place I could always feel comfortable in. Friends, cliques, and lunch tables shifted, I changed schools, and my life at home wasn’t always exactly what one would call a peaceful sanctuary. I was always adjusting and being adjusted to my surroundings, but one thing stayed constant through all these changes; and ballet started to turn into my own special retreat. I began to use ballet as my escape from the outside world instead of stressing out about the steps and positions. The sweaty environment didn’t bother me that much anymore and I could feel my muscles becoming stronger, the movements becoming easier, more fluid. Maybe even elegant. I liked the way my hair looked in a bun.

It’s natural for people to feel good after completing a project such as knitting or maybe acquiring a new skill like cooking. To me, one of my favorite joys became ballet. No longer struggling to memorize the ballet combinations, dancing became easier and there were some days I felt like I was flying, soaring through the class. In Elton John’s famous musical Billy Elliot, Billy explains dancing as, “Something bursting me wide open, impossible to hide. And suddenly I'm flying, flying like a bird. Like electricity. Electricity.”

Dance became one of my favorite forms of expression besides theatre. Each move slowly released some of the stress I had built up over the day. Going to ballet meant forgetting. The anxiety of starting homework, Friday’s French test, family problems, and friend changes were forgotten, even if just for a mere hour or two each day.

Life at the ballet studio isn’t perfect. It’s not unusual for tears to be shed over injuries, friendship issues, hurt feelings, “unrequited love” between certain dancers, and sometimes even harsh rumors and gossip. The sweat and stench after dancers take class and plumbing problems are not unspoken in the studio. Missing costumes and props, stage freight and loss of both personal space and sanity plague most us during performances, especially during technical rehearsal. Hot, blinding lights and uneven floors are often culprits for those who go very hard on themselves (or others).

Most of the dancers dancing with my ballet studio have been able to push through the hardships of being a dancer, and through the thick and thin, the ballet studio has remained, for the most part, a true and loyal home. Friendships have survived through even the strangest of fights, feet have pulled through after bleeding and tearing, and shows have gone up with missing props and costumes. Dancers have performed on broken toes, muscle strains, and even dislocated hips with bright smiles spread across their faces. It isn’t paradise, probably not even close to paradise, but it is home.

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