How To Be A Dancer

In my other life I am a ballerina.

Image: Quinn Dombrowski

When I was two, my parents took me to see the New York City Ballet production of the Nutcracker. The room went dark, but I wasn’t scared. I saw the bodies on stage fluttering and catapulting, all arms and legs and story. I didn’t understand that I wasn’t part of their euphoric twirling, so I got up from my seat, spun around, and joined in. And after not very long I was, in fact, very much a part of the show.

In 1810, Heinrich von Kleist suggested in an essay on marionette theater that “grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.” And there I was at two, Bunraku Baby, lifted by strings to dance. I’ll never be more graceful than that.

Recalling the delight of my debut (I got applause, naturally), I think I am able to understand where the pleasure of dance comes from. It’s somewhere beyond consciousness, combining the great parts of other art forms, with motion and catharsis. It is silent and musical, expressive and abstract, ancient and immediate, athletic and theatrical. Set it to piano or drums or chanting, and people are transformed into spirits.

Like so many kids, from the time I went to see the Nutcracker, I wanted to be a dancer. I had several teachers, but the one I stuck with the longest was Miss Alexia, a tall, thin Texan who had maintained her accent after years of living in the Northeast. She mostly talked about George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, for whom she’d danced as a company member of the New York City Ballet. After having had a successful career as a ballerina, she moved to my small town in New Jersey, and proved herself to be a terrific choreographer of children’s dances. My mom once asked her if our production of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” had been adapted from a Balanchine show; Alexia turned red, grinned, and gently explained that it was Agnes de Mille who had made that ballet, in the forties, but this one was an original for our twelve-year-old class.

I was O.K. I could get my leg up high and I had good feet — I often got compliments on my arches when I tried on ballet shoes — but good feet will only take you so far. I could never land a killer triple pirouette; my balance was off. I was not “disciplined about my body,” as they say. I was always short, too chubby, too curvy. Lots of my peers hurled themselves into eating disorders, and my failure to follow, to my warped mind, demonstrated a lack of nerve. I wasn’t especially coordinated, and sometimes intricate choreography was lost on me. Alexia used to call me Sybil, because of my inconsistency. I remember her groaning, while I was in mid-flail, “What are you doing? Twyla Tharp?”

By then, I was dancing seven or eight hours a week — which is nothing compared to kids enrolled in pre-professional programs, who might dance seven hours a day — but this was the major commitment of my after-school life, and thus my childhood. And unlike peewee sports, with town recreational leagues, dance is not a default. It seems somehow out of feminist fashion to sign your daughter up—a son, maybe. Those who stick with it develop a particular identity, and an exceptional devotion. In addition to ballet, I took jazz, tap, and hip-hop (“Stop being so white!” my teacher shouted, to no avail), and so did the other girls in my group (we were all girls). Some of us were very good, but only a few were encouraged to audition for the School of American Ballet or Joffrey. The rest of us flapped along from one recital to the next, getting a little better and receiving bouquets for our efforts. Every year we learned more of what we would never truly master.

Occasionally, my mom would bring me on the bus to Manhattan, holding my hand from the Port Authority to 57th Street, and I’d drop in for a big, open class at Broadway Dance Center. Sweating among professionals in those studios, I had my moments, at twelve and thirteen and fourteen, of knowing how it feels to be promising. But puberty ended that. It became obvious that I was never going to be a real dancer. I could have invested more hours in class, but what would have been the point? I’d never really be good enough, or have the right shape. It was time to grow up, and try something else.

Before I stopped entirely, I scaled back, and masked my disappointment by becoming the class clown of ballet. I wanted everyone to know that I was just there to have fun. If I couldn’t be the most talented girl in the mirror, I’d be the jokiest. The only one I failed to convince was myself, and when I went to college, I decided to pretend like that I’d never danced at all.

“The only sin is mediocrity,” Martha Graham said. For dancers, either you’re the chef of a five-star restaurant or you’re nothing; there is no home-cooking. “You don’t just dabble in it,” a now grown dance kid told me. Jenifer Ringer, who started as an apprentice at the New York City Ballet in 1989, when she was sixteen, left when she was twenty-three. She had gained weight, gotten injured — human responses to a super-human endeavor. “When a performance wasn’t absolutely perfect, I took it as a sign that I was a horrible dancer and a horrible person,” she explained to the New York Times. She went to college, and waited to miss dancing, which took three months. Then she signed up for a class at Steps, where, she said, “I felt like a 10-year-old again, dancing just because it felt good.” Ringer returned to City Ballet reinvigorated — “I feel so free on stage” — and was promoted to principal dancer. When she retired, in 2014, the Times reviewer remarked on how young she looked in her final performance.

The tension between the pure pleasure of dancing and the arduous discipline of honing technique can be debilitating, because it’s both physical and cosmic. Dance is about freedom, yes, but it’s also, obviously, about control. “It’s hard,” a teacher once told me of her young students. “I want them to get free, but they also have to learn.” Governing your entire being, for a purely aesthetic sake, demands rigor. “I treated it like a profession,” another childhood dancer said. In “Apollo’s Angels,” a phenomenal book by the dance historian Jennifer Homans, you can follow an early lesson plan for ballerinas at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “49 pliés followed by 128 grand battements, 96 battements glisse, 128 ronds de jambes sur terre and 128 en l’air, and ending finally with 128 petits battements sur le cou-de-pied.” Marie Taglioni, who is known for being the first person to go up on pointe, would practice by holding a pose for a count of a hundred, and before bed she’d work on her jumps — Homans describes her building strength in her back and legs by touching her hands to the floor without leaning over, and then pushing herself up on pointe.

The model for the body that can perform this way, Homans writes — feet turned out 180 degrees; lifted torso; lean, muscular extensions — is that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, whose proportions are designed according to the elegant geometry of God. The female dancers I saw when I was growing up — Darci Kistler, the models in catalogues, images of the divine — did not look like me. But intellectually, I figured, I could relate to them, because the ethos of dance isn’t about simply achieving perfect form, it’s in the practice itself: the repetition of 49 pliés at the barre, and again at the center of the floor. This is what dancers believe in, commit to, endure, conquer. You need to have the right body, but you’ve also got to have the mettle.

If Jenifer Ringer couldn’t make it out unscathed, how could any of us regulars? One summer, my dance studio flew in Vadim Pisarev and Inna Dorofeeva, a married pair of principals at the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, to teach us for a week, and my class was forced to sit through a ten-minute diatribe against fat. “How can you go out and eat and then come in and dance? You have too much Veight!” They were concerned that we didn’t take our training seriously enough. The lecture was directed at one girl in particular, who sat cross-legged at the end of my row, but we were all unsettled; it happened just before lunch. The girl on the end did not eat hers.

Recently, at dinner with two friends (pasta and cake), I wondered aloud, “Is dance something you are or something you do? Are you a dancer if you haven’t been dancing?” One said, “There’s something ingrained. Everyone learns to write, but not everyone learns to dance.” The other agreed, and told me, as both a blessing and a warning, “You chose it.”

In the old tribes of Madagascar, when the men went off on a headhunting expedition in the jungle, the women had to perform a dance until they returned. The sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote that, among the Dayaks, women would rise at dawn, pick up weapons, and begin moving ceaselessly; “all those Dayak women, dancing and carrying sabers, are really at war,” he observed. “Acting this way, they actually believe the success of their ritual.” That is, they believe that their dance is magic.

There is sorcery to dance, and it worked on me as a toddler, and it works still. You enter a designated space, where the light is different, and you’re transported into an altered state — these are the conditions for going into a trance. A couple years ago, I was at a performance of “Who Cares?,” a Balanchine ballet set to sixteen Gershwin songs. Occasional audience members of City Ballet, like me, may not be able to catalogue all the Balanchine program staples, but “Who Cares?” stands out for being the jazziest, and for being the one most likely to elicit a wavering, mumbly, sing-a-long. At the performance I attended, the karaoke was intermittent and subtle, but there was another sound effect: What I heard, over Gershwin’s melodies, was approximately an orgasm. The happy customer was in the row in front of mine, so I could see clearly that there was nothing happening in her seat other than ballet-watching elation. She saw the sturdy arabesques and the confident lifts; she wiggled her toes under her chair, clutched her brooch to her chest, and let out a series of oh’s! and gasps, culminating in an enthusiastic round of applause.

I have always taken pleasure in watching dancers perform, though not quite like that. Those who cannot do, do vicariously. If, at two, the distinction between watching and participating was beyond my understanding, it began to evolve into its own kind of meaningful erasure. A wannabe going to the ballet can will herself into a daydream. This isn’t sleepy, but almost like an exercise: by seeing the movement, and appreciating it deeply, you might, in some way, join in. You’re a third person floating into a pas de deux, practicing in your head. And in fairness to that woman sitting in front of me: watching the realization of what, for you, would have been impossible, can come with mad longing.

“Do you ever wonder if it was a scam?” one of my dance-kid friends asked. Like an elaborate trick demonstrated by suburban dance schools around the country: give us a decade, and we’ll make tens of thousands of dollars vanish into stage smoke. Classes, tights, leotards, shoes, recital costumes, recital videos, dance team entry fees, dance team sweats. If the purpose of a dance education is for making dancers — not in some remote, aspirational way, but as a matter of practice — and most children won’t wind up hacking it, what is the point? Exercise, discipline, a sense of timing — there are other means to those. To put on a show for our parents?

“I feel weird talking about it,” my friend went on. “Even the term: ballet mistress. She wasn’t a scary Russian lady. She was in some off-Broadway shows. She was just in small-town America and she was training us as if we would become these great ballet dancers, even if none of us would.” Then she said, “I’m embarrassed I ever thought I was good.”

The magic that happens in a dance class is that you believe the success of the ritual. You see yourself making yourself good — we all do it, because we’re supposed to. Why else would we be there? Sometime after I’d concluded that I would never be great, what followed was that I wasn’t any good, and the spell was broken. I had to ditch the longing — turns out that it was a shameful waste of time, a delusion. I put it out of my head: all of the pliés and grand battements and petits battements sur le cou-de-pied. And I made that part of myself disappear.

A few words about feet: Dancers’ feet get dinged up pretty bad, professional or not. There are many gruesome ways to describe the ramifications on individual toes, the ball of the foot, and the heel, which suffer from blisters, bunions, Achilles tendonitis, and other pains. When I first started with pointe shoes, all us girls would show off after class by scooping out our lamb’s wool toe pads and comparing the bloodiest. A toe pad is placed around the top of your foot like a mitten; many manufacturers make a gel version, too, sometimes called an “Ouch Pouch,” but good dancers tend to avoid them, because they’re too thick and you lose the feeling of the floor. A dance shoe is supposed to mold to the foot, like a second skin, and the more you’ve got covering your feet, the clunkier your steps will be. Dance supply stores also sell silicone individual toe tubes (“Jelly Tips”), which are more like gloves, but you can choose to slide them on only certain toes. I would often use these on my big toes, and any others that might have had a particularly nasty-looking blister, but then I’d try to forego the lamb’s wool.

When I was at my peak dance-hours, my feet started to seem like horrible obtrusions on my body. They looked generally purplish. I kept my nails short, and for obvious reasons I never attempted a pedicure. I avoided open-toe shoes, and when I wanted so badly to wear them that I convinced myself that my feet weren’t really so grotesque, I would show up at school and immediately be mortified, and have to wait until I’d forgotten the hallway humiliation before I tried again. Then the worst thing happened: I completely lost the toenail on one big toe, and then the other. (Actually, after a couple classes, I forced myself to complete the symmetry; had to be done, a loose toenail is like a loose tooth.) This is a rite of passage. Real dancers dance through it, proudly, under the belief that, ultimately, toenails are only getting in the way.

When I stopped dancing, my feet gradually softened. After a while, the last evidence of damage healed. The summer before I started college, I bought my first pair of flip-flops, which I wore around the dorm with preposterous glee. I still catch myself admiring my feet, intact and unremarkable. I give myself pedicures because I can. Having gnarly feet is something I never started to miss about dance.

One Saturday afternoon, I went to see my friend Adrianna Aguilar and her infant dance company, Trees, perform a new show. The event was supposed to take place outside, at a park in Bed-Stuy, but we were expecting rain, so word went around that the setting had changed to a spot nearby, with only a street address. Upon my arrival it was clear this was going to be at someone’s apartment. I went with a non-dancer friend, a kindergarten teacher. We buzzed in. Someone had not picked up his newspaper; we left it by the entryway. Inside, we ascended four flights of plywood stairs, which looked to have only recently been nailed together. At the landing, people had taken off their shoes and left them outside the door. We kept ours on. Adrianna let us in, with a hug and an offering of snacks that were arranged on the kitchen island, which was also the middle of the stage. Chairs were positioned against the walls, and there was a big open space to the right of the refrigerator. A guy sat at the base of the fridge banging on a metal pot. We found seats by Adrianna’s mother. “She was dancing when she was pregnant with me,” Adrianna said.

The pot-player began to wind up. Next to him, a young woman with her hair tied in two perfect buns, like Princess Leia, began to tap-dance a beat on a slab of wood. A man with long dreadlocks and a woman in a woodland-design tank top moved to the center of the room, and began to sway. My friend leaned over and whispered, “This is going to be immersive as hell.”

But nobody touched us, nobody asked us to participate. The woman sitting on the floor beneath my feet got up for the second movement, an intense stand-off with another woman; the two had nearly identical buzz cuts. At one point, a guy shuffled over for a glass of water, which was not part of the performance; later, Adrianna started eating a popsicle at her seat, which was.

There were lots of swooping arms, elbows jutting out, writhing on the floor in a move that I recall as a sexy seizure, and quite a lot of pushing and spinning someone into submission, down to the ground, aikido-style. Some of this was hard to parse. There were moments when I looked around curiously to see how others were reacting (lots of mellow grins; I caught water guy mid-chortle). But there were as many moments when I watched these people — twenty-somethings from Brooklyn and Washington Heights, dancing around a refrigerator — and felt as if I had been let into something more intimate than a show. There, in the kitchen, I had the sensation of walking through a door that I wasn’t supposed to have opened, and, upon entering, being welcomed in. This was not dance as I’d known it, but the people I saw were unafraid of letting me see them try something new. When they were finished, I felt admiration and envy. They had found for themselves a way to move.

Erick Hawkins started his career in the inaugural class of Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, met Martha Graham, married her, divorced her, got into Buddhism, and choreographed a show about a July Fourth party called “Hurrah!” His productions included “Early Floating,” “Naked Leopard,” and “To Everybody Out There.” (Dance names are weird.) He was famous for saying, “The body is a clear place.” That was the title of a book he published in 1992; ballet is a “diagram,” he wrote, in which “too much of the indescribable pure poetry of movement had to be left out.”

Language and dance are allies, but exist in different hemispheres. If ballet, the root, is like Latin or Greek, nearly all dancers are expected to be fluent, even if only to apply the terminology to new forms. This is why many dancers know some French, or at least useful conversational phrases like saut de chat (jump of the cat), pas de cheval (step of the horse), cou-de-pied (neck of the foot). The aim is for the steps, when realized onstage, to become so fluid and specific that they become something else, as individual letters are to a poem. Hawkins, my friend Adrianna — and most interesting choreographers these days — got somewhere by learning other languages, but they all had to study the diagram.

It didn’t occur to me until I started working at literary magazines that my childhood ballet teacher, Alexia, had been a brilliant describer. Great dance teachers, like great writers, distinguish themselves through evocative language. How can one learn to move the body in a precise way, so that your back and neck and legs and arms and feet are positioned exactly as they’re supposed to be? So that your mind doesn’t intervene, and topple you over? There were many times when Alexia would come over to me and move my hips or shift my shoulders, but even more often she would say something like “Imagine that there is a string holding you up, and you’re a marionette.” And I knew in my body exactly what she meant.

Other great metaphors I have heard: “You know those ringed red-and-white spinning stripe signs outside barber shops? Imagine that’s your turned-out thighs.” “Every movement is a photograph.” Adrianna told me about a time when she was in class, and a teacher said: place your foot in cou-de-pied like you’re caressing your lover’s face.” Adrianna tried her best, but soon the teacher walked over, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You’ve never been in love.”

This was the profession I found myself in as an adult, reading copy and wondering about the best ways to express ideas. I took to in it much the same way as I had with dance: when I read, I am lifted. But this I could do while eating a sandwich. At various points over the years, I fact-checked, researched, wrote, made comments on structure. Sometimes I sat at my desk and believed that I’d made it — like when I was two, and I was part of the show. Much more of the time, when my suggestions were tossed aside, or my pitches were trashed, or my prose failed to impress, I sensed that I was merely spinning in darkness, adjacent to the real talent. But I couldn’t pretend that this was some childhood lark; mastery didn’t depend on being lithe.

One day a few years ago, I was summoned by an editor to answer a ballet question for a caption. By then I had apparently let slip that I had been a dance kid. He called me over, pointed to a picture of a ballerina, and asked, “What’s she doing here?” I looked and immediately melted. It was the most elementary query. Anyone who has ever taken ballet should be able to identify the steps; it’s basic diagram stuff. But when I looked at the image my mind was totally blank. Her leg was in the air — not arabesque, what’s that other one? I had the sensation of having lost the ability to speak a language that I had known as a child. “I forget that one,” I said, pathetically, lobbed some dumb joke — I was still good for being the jokiest girl in the mirror — and rushed away.

Back at my desk, I sat staring at my computer screen, my brain sputtering. Was this my first encounter with severe memory loss? But I was twenty-five! How could I have willed myself to erase dance so completely from my mind that, when trying to recall the name of a simple position, I came up empty? It was as if, after having determined to extricate myself from the person I’d failed to become, I had sacrificed a decade of earned education. I sat for twenty minutes, confused and remorseful. And then, finally, out of the farthest, rustiest cabinet in my brain, I retrieved the word: attitude.

Other people do not get hung up about their childhood pastimes. They join a pick-up basketball game or buy a piano, and even if it doesn’t come easy, it’s fine. They find some way to transition from kid play to adult satisfaction. Dancers, on the other hand, are never really playing. They are striving in a room full of strivers. And it’s possibly because of this that adult dance classes always bummed me out. Who were these losers? What could they be striving for, at this point? There wasn’t even a recital to prepare for. It wasn’t just me. “I felt like, if I was dancing, I was training for something,” one of my former dance-kid friends said. “If I didn’t have a show, it didn’t seem like there was a reason.”

There is something odd about dancing without performing, sort of like hitting the batting cages without ever playing baseball. But now that I was a dance amnesiac, I started to get curious. And now that I was striving for other things, I wondered what it would feel like to strive in a dance class for its own sake. My failure to become a dance virtuoso had already passed me by. Maybe in my age of advanced concerns, it would be O.K. to just be O.K. Balanchine would have approved, I thought, since he was known for saying stuff like: “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for — for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

When my birthday came around, my boyfriend — a strong receiver of hints — gave me a gift certificate to take five classes at a studio in Brooklyn. I sat on it for five months, psyching myself out. Then, finally, I used it. I decided to subject myself fully to whatever trauma might be merely lurking if I attempted some other kind of dance, so I went for beginner’s ballet.

The first thing I had to do was get dressed. I had thought of this in advance, so the last time I’d gone to visit my parents, in New Jersey, I opened the bottom drawer of my old dresser and pulled out the single remaining intact leotard — I’d hacked up the rest, during a cut-up-my-clothes phase — and lifted my dusty dance bag from the back of the closet to find my ballet shoes. They were stiff, but still usable. I brought them back home to my apartment, along with a pair of pink tights, which I knew would make me look like a dork, but at every other ballet class I’d taken they had been the required uniform. To be safe, I brought shorts, too.

When I walked through the door to the studio on that first night, everyone was wearing shirts and sweats; the only person dressed anything like me was a tiny person with her hair pulled back in a tidy girl bun. Right away, I felt the dread of regressing in public. I took my place at the barre. Everything was where I had left it: the mirror, the gray Marley floor, the sequence of steps; it was only I who had changed. We began with a simple routine to roll out our feet, and then moved on to pliés, tendues, dégagés, and rond de jambes, all of which my body remembered before my brain did. It occurred to me that, months earlier, I might have been able to recall attitude much more easily if it hadn’t been a matter of naming a word. The “indescribable pure poetry of movement” is the stuff internalized without language — the feeling of a step. “Connect your belly button to your spine,” the teacher said, and we all shifted our posture. Then we got to grand battements. My legs felt like overstuffed suitcases that I had to carry over a subway turnstile. When I lifted them, I believed that I had made it to my old 125 degrees or thereabouts, but when I peeked, I hadn’t cleared 90. Then I thought: Something to strive for.

I went back the next week, and the week after that. When my gift card ran out, I bought myself another one. I came after days of work where I felt like I’d achieved nothing, and in class, I accomplished something. I invested in a second leotard. A few months in, when I had the nerve, I invited one of my fellow former dance kids to come along, and afterward she didn’t stick with ballet, but she started going to hip-hop. She still finds the performance void to be odd. “In the back of my mind,” she said, “I’m thinking, maybe something more will come of it.”

I started a new job, and left the beginner’s class. One night, I ran into Adrianna. She’d been taking three or four classes a week — always including one in ballet — but she wasn’t interested in the exclusive club of ballerinas. “Dance is a spectrum,” she told me. “I’m a dancer, you’re a dancer, too.”

Two years in, a new person came to class. She had her hair tied into a ponytail, and wore a purple tank top and gray leggings, with socks, not ballet shoes. The teacher asked, as she did every week, if there was anybody who might be unfamiliar with the steps. The new dancer raised her hand. The teacher looked around. “Let’s put you between two people you can follow.” She turned to me — me! — and asked, “Can you stand over here?” I breathed out a yes, and smiled deliriously. After barre, the new dancer shook her head, looking flustered, and said by way of apology to the teacher, “I haven’t done this for 16 years.” The teacher said not to worry, and flashed a generous smile. “We’ve all come back to it.”

In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.