Confessions of an Adult Ballet Student: IntrosteemCreated with Sketch.

in philosophy •  last year

The rumors are true.

After 16 years of rigorous childhood training, the heartbreaking realization that I could never become a professional dancer, and 10 years away from the craft entirely, I have recently become a re-committed adult ballet student ("committed" is perfect, because it harks on the irrationality of this endeavor). I will be keeping a written record of this undertaking.

arabesque.jpg
A superhuman first arabesque. I could work my ass off every day for the rest of my life and my arabesque wouldn't look this good. That's kind of the point of adult ballet.

1/22/18

I find myself strongly NOT wanting to work on Chapter 2 [of my dissertation]...not today, not last week, not this whole month. The thrill and satisfaction of completing Chapter 1 has faded and the momentum has dissipated: daycare closed for the Christmas holidays, mother in law came for a long and strenuous visit, then all of us got the flu.

These are excuses of course. The real reason I don’t want to work on Chapter 2 is because it’s about Title IX and everything about the federal government makes me want to throw up right now. I know my avoidance is avoidance because it’s not as if I haven’t been able to do anything in the past month. I’ve done a lot. In fact, after ten years away, I have found myself going to ballet three times a week for the last month. This return has been made possible by a fortuitous alignment of logistics. Six months ago, we moved back to my hometown. My childhood ballet school has recently moved to a bigger location: a warehouse in which they have built-in all the necessary amenities: four studios with sprung floors and pianos, bathrooms, dressing rooms, a lounge (still under construction). The expenses incurred have caused them to undertake significant fundraising campaigns and to seek alumni support. In addition to it’s strong child and youth program, my alma mater has a strong adult program, with 2-3 open classes offered each day, 7 days a week. As an advanced graduate student (a label that has become increasingly shameful for me as I near 30 never having had a “real job”), I still qualify for the “student rate” and pay only $12 per class. Evening classes happen after my toddler is in bed for the night, and weekday morning classes give me just enough time to drop him off at daycare and then drive to the studio in the car I inherited when my mom died in July.

But it’s not just logistics. All those years living childless in New York I could have been doing so much ballet. But I wasn’t. I went to class a few times, maybe once a year. I saw ballet at Lincoln Center, but only 2 or 3 times per season, not nearly as much as I could have with my student ID and $20 rush tickets. Of course, ballet is the sight of my first colossal failure and my first heartbreak. So it makes sense that I didn’t want to stay involved. When I left ballet at 17, I was running more than walking away. I had spent my last year, from 16 to 17, rationally knowing that the ballet dreams I had fostered since early childhood were impossible, over, done. But the emotional acceptance was much slower, and the pain of it didn’t really hit until later. I also spent those last 2 years in ballet becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the friction between my being, apparently, a lesbian, and being a ballet dancer. Which is not to say that I experienced homophobia at my ballet school in radical Berkeley, CA—not at all, and in fact my first girlfriend was a dancer in the school. Our relationship was open knowledge, although we were understated in our affections when watched. My discomfort was more about gender and how poorly I fit into the narrow iteration of ballet femininity.

Which is not to say I’m not feminine. In lesbian taxonomical terms I’m a femme, if only barely. When I first came to this identifier, it was empowering and exciting. Admittedly, the term was most useful when I was actively dating and hooking up, meeting multiple new people each week. But even in those times, I always had a slight worry that I was using femme as guise to trick the butches I brought to bed (but is this just imposter syndrome?). Femme is no longer useful or empowering for me, so I’m not so tied to it these days, but it fits slightly better than the alternative and I do still love the camaraderie it fosters. Interestingly, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and parenthood have made me feel even less femme than ever.

For the most part I’ve always had a “take it or leave it” relationship to the fact of my being female (a sentiment that I realize reeks of cis privilege). Being a woman is fine by me, and I imagine that not being a woman would also be fine by me. I’ve never seriously considered transitioning because it seems like a lot of work to end up with the same “take it or leave it” feeling about my sex. When I fantasize about what things would look like had I been born male, I believe that I would have grown up to be a pretty boy partnered with a butch daddy or being a kept boy to a phallic Mrs. Robinson, which is to say, not terribly different from my present reality. One thing would have turned out very different, and this is the thing that still hurts, is ballet. As a boy, I would have faced more social pressure by pursuing ballet in the first place, but within it’s institutional walls I would have received significantly more encouragement, camaraderie, and less competition. Perhaps I would have even been coddled. In any case, I would have been a commodity.

In fact, I feel most joyously and deliriously masculine when I’m doing ballet. Probably not what you expected to hear, but despite pop understandings, ballet isn’t just about graceful nymph ladies. Ballet is melodrama for princes and princesses. Not a princess, I must be a prince, so I show my muscles, explode off the ground and fly through the air, command the room (and here my feminist consciousness is saying: women can do all these things as women, yes, but that’s not my point here!). All other things being equal, I never would have been a premier danseur -- my flat feet still flat, and my shortness would definitely have been a big problem-- but I could have reasonably, with much dedication and hard work, built a career in a regional company or perhaps performing part time with some smaller contemporary companies. I would not have buckled under the shame of puberty, wouldn’t have wasted my best training years counting calories and wearing rubber pants. Perhaps most importantly, I would have confidence in the place of shame, and I would have had the capacity to regroup when I realized that I couldn’t be #1, I could have figured out a way to dance nonetheless instead of running away as girl-me did.

It makes me fucking angry that ballet on the whole is such a misogynist institution and that its blades cut worst the teenage girls in rueful competition for their futures. But now that I’ve been back for a month, now that I’m not a teenage girl and not so susceptible to the critical whims of my teachers, and now that I have nothing at stake, I am in love again. I am grateful to have just this class, to be able to dance at all. Each time I show up I feel a little crazy, thinking, “Why am I here? What am I trying to accomplish? Why am I spending so much time, and so much energy, doing this, when I am supposed to be writing my dissertation, launching a business, and raising a child?” It’s hard, but important, to accept the fact that it’s not for anything. It’s just for the masochism, the endless effort of attempting something so physically impossible that I’ll probably be working my whole life at it. Just that joy.

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My arabesque when I was 12. Heck, I'd be lucky to even get back there, and it's not even that good.

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This was a great insight! looking forward to checking out more of your posts!

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the best time of my life