Returning to Ballet as an Adult

There are five pairs of pointe shoes in the dance bag that has tagged along even as relationships have come and gone. They’re all at different points in the pointe shoe lifecycle. One is nearly new, the satin still fresh and shiny, and the shank and box, though clearly beaten up a bit, still stiff and resistant. Another bears a cut shank, an attempt to make the shoe conform a little more to my arch. And yet another is nearly so soft as to be used as a flat shoe, the satin dull and scuffed, the ribbons beginning to fray, showing the marks of multiple applications of jet glue to attempt to make this beloved pair last a little longer. 

I’m not sure, looking back, when each of these pairs is from, or when they fell into disuse. Surely, there was a ‘last time’ for each of them. Perhaps that last performance in the corps de ballet of Giselle, willing my leg to stay up in one more arabesque so that I wouldn’t be the target of that evening’s dressing room dress down. Perhaps that Raymonda variation my senior year of high school, caught between caring so much and wondering whether it was worth it to care about something that I had decided not to make a career out of. Perhaps that stray class in college, resenting myself for even going because I wanted so badly to find out who I was outside of ballet but somehow unable to stay away. 

At some point, maybe during college, maybe in that strange transition period after where we try to find our place in the world and instead just find a job, I put ballet away. Firmly. Definitively. 

But then a bit of music would catch my interest, and I would feel the impulse to move. Or a bluebird would flit by and I would feel that pull to flit, too. As I moved through my day I would find myself exploring all the different ways to do a simple movement. As I walked down the street I would explore my carriage and poise and how my foot hit the ground and observe how people around me reacted. 

A brief stroke of rebellion found me back in a ballet class one evening. My brain knew what to do, but my body lagged and cramped. I was done, washed up, not a dancer anymore. It was confirmed. 

A couple of years later, still stuck in the same strange life I had landed in, going from home to job to home with the occasional vacation to try and escape what I had done to myself, I found myself in another class. My body looked uncoordinated and disjointed in the mirror, bits and pieces flailing about. This one I left in tears, angry at myself and not quite sure why. 

Somewhere in there, I found classical music again. It felt forbidden and strange. There would be moments when my brain went totally still and I was all feeling. I felt guilty whenever I jolted out of one of those brief reveries, like I was doing something that I wasn’t allowed to do any more. Like I was indulging in something that wasn’t for me. But I couldn’t stop. For a while, I would only listen in my car, or at my desk, somewhere I knew I would both be alone, and where I couldn’t move. And then, slowly, I started listening in my kitchen, my living room, and that feeling would become a compulsion to move, no longer a choice. 

I was still resisting, trying to maintain the wall that I had put up between what I thought of as myself and my artistry. But it started to weaken. I picked up my viola again. It felt less dangerous than dancing, without all the weight of once thinking I could do it professionally – really with the safety of knowing it was something outside of me, an object that I could pick up but then neatly put away in its case so that I could return to ‘real life’. 

And then, the movement of my arm drawing the bow became a dance. The movement of my left hand along the fingerboard, the way my arms would close in towards one another to pull power from the instrument and then spread and become expansive to draw the line out all the way to the end of the bow, all of it became a dance. The music itself was a dance, it breathed and it moved and it had shape and form and direction and velocity and texture and feeling. 

First it was one ballet class. One where I could hide out, an adult class with no requirements and no expectations and where I could just find my body again. It was still clumsy, but the impulse – the reason for moving – was there. So I went back the next week. I didn’t allow myself to imagine at all. I just was in class and there I moved and I worked as hard as I could, and then I went home, decidedly not a dancer, and lived my life. And then the next week I felt a little more coordinated, and as I walked home I felt my legs moving with a sense of purpose and relationship to one another. A few weeks later, my arms connected into my back, and I felt a sense of grace that spoke directly to that reason for moving.

There is no identity separate from being a dancer. The more I moved and allowed myself to begin experiencing the world that way again, the more I opened up, the more I engaged with the world, the less I worried about who I was or what my identity was. And so I keep going to ballet classes, to find more of that connection and to dig deeper into that reason to move and to find better and clearer ways to express it and share it. I work towards improving my technique and developing my artistry because it lets me share more and give more. 

The pointe shoes came back out the other day, after several months of making it to class more or less consistently. I tried each pair in turn, feeling where they resisted and where they were soft. Each one was a memory, and now each of those has the chance to live its full life.

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