What little girl doesn’t want to be a ballet dancer and wear a tiara?
Well, I never desired a tiara during my childhood. But I do remember being four years old and daring to dance my own arabesques and pirouettes through the living room to Tchaikovsky’s music from “The Nutcracker.” At the time I distinctly believed that my mind and my body had once known how to dance, but they had forgotten the precise techniques. I begged my parents for ballet lessons, and they finally acquiesced when I was six years old and my sister was four. Although I loved dance, we took lessons for only one year and, after a summer break, never returned. At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly why.
When I got older, I didn’t pursue dance (except for a tap class during college). Bodies grow big, and by my teens I had hips. Not a dancer’s body. I knew that. I also had many close friends who danced and chased professional careers. My love for dance and my glimpses into their world taught me about the foundations of dance and its history.
This summer I have taken on dance in a different way — as an adult with an open mind and capacity to accept my body, big hips and all. I’m in dance class again. Ballet. In July, with ideas much different from those I had as a child, I went to the Louisville Ballet School and began taking its beginning ballet classes for adults.
The ideas sprouted early this summer during a three-week National Endowment for the Arts journalism fellowship with 11 other arts writers at the American Dance Festival. It is an annual six-week festival at Duke University with modern dance performances and classes for hundreds of students who come to study technique, choreography and even dance medicine.
The career path that led five of my colleagues to spend part of a steaming summer in Durham began with writing and journalism, while the others had started out dancing before reaching for writing careers. Some of them were former dancers and chorographers who had years of class work in such subjects as dance theory at notable schools — New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts and the State University of New York at Purchase.
While most people attending the festival spent their days dancing, we spent ours sitting in a room listening to and talking with luminaries in the dance world — critics, academics, administrators and choreographers whose repertoire ranged widely in style. There was Robbie Barnett, a founder of the acrobatically inclined dance company Pilobolus. And there was Tere O’Connor, now a professor in the University of Illinois dance department, whose unconventional work tends toward theatrics and features unusual movements. (He also created a solo work for Mikhail Baryshnikov.) Barnett solemnly spoke of the rigorous skills required of the Pilobolus dancers. And O’Connor imparted his philosophy of dance, including the idea that pieces not limit the cast of dancers to one body type.
Listing to his philosophies and those of other choreographers. my ideas about dance began to unravel.
I got to personally experience the ideas O’Connor talked about when we took a choreography class with David Dorfman, whose work has woven the movement of accomplished dancers with that of people from other walks of life. He has included communities of athletes and of families in his pieces.
Dorfman at 51 has a solid, barrel-chested body that, at first glance, does not suggest the conventional physique of a dancer. He first asked us to listen to our bodies and move to what we felt. Some kicked. Some glided. Others swung their arms around and pivoted their elbows. I tensed my body and crouched down. I twisted my wrists and elbows. I reached my hands, clawing and stiff, upward behind my back. (It sprung from my feeling of confinement after sitting in a room all day.) No music played.
Dorfman circulated among our active bodies. “That’s a very interesting movement. I like that,” he announced after looking at me. And I felt like I, an ungainly, ordinary person, had something to offer a dance.
He then put us into groups of four and counseled us in building a dance, each of us contributing our individual movements. We finished with presentations by each group. The dances were distinctly different, wonderful — and fun.
By the end of a class, with Gerri Houlihan, I found myself splayed out on a wooden floor, folding one leg across my body before doing the same with the other to a song by The Louvin Brothers. Houlihan, a teacher, performer and choreographer who initially trained at the Juilliard School and went on to establish two dance companies during her career, had us waving our arms out in big circles and high kicking our way from one end of the room to the other. We learned most of the moves before ever hearing the music, which made the dance primary and not secondary to the tune that poured through the CD player’s speakers.
By the end of my three weeks in North Carolina, I had still spent most of my time sitting in a room. I returned to Louisville longing to move. I had heard many choreographers now working in modern dance talk of their ballet training as essential to their development much like painters who learn the masters, such as Rembrandt, to help them understand their art form and their own ideas. Ballet demands complete awareness and precision. I wanted to know and feel that and attempt to achieve artistry.
Today, my upper hips are a bit sore, but I am more aware of my posture. Last night’s ballet class with teacher Ken Brasso, marked my eighth session (not counting those I took 36 years ago).
I find I now hold myself more comfortably upright. I know that it is not only possible for me to learn how to dance as an adult. I see others in the class doing the same. They are doctors, engineers, accountants, teachers and dental hygienists. Some are older than me and some are younger. One, Michelle, is a friend from high school who danced from age 3 to 22, before marrying and having two children. (Her encouragement has kept me going and always looking forward to the next class.)
And Brasso, who began teaching adults last year and increased the number of adult classes he is teaching this year, encourages everyone. While he loves teaching children, he said he is able to teach at a faster pace with adults. Adults, he said, understand their muscles and the capabilities of their bodies. They have extensive experience with moving that they can apply and learn steps often more quickly then children.
But this is not about my body. I do other physical exercise. I lift weights several time a week and run regularly. This is about my mind.
In the past, I’ve pushed the boundaries of my intellect by traveling to and living in foreign countries. Now, I am exploring the boundaries of my own body, from how firmly and agilely I can point my toe while rounding my foot to holding my arms up rounded and relaxed.
In thinking about boundaries, I recall a sentence that I wrote during my time as an NEA fellow that sticks will me: “Dance is not a refuge from the world. It gives us something to carry out into the world,” said Suzanne Carbonneau, the dance critic and historian who ran the program.
As an adult I do not have a tiara to carry home from a recital, but I do have my share of new ideas about art and being a part of it. I’m seeing my body and my mind linked in an inextricable partnership that is not working only to keep me going but to make beauty and communicate. I am more comfortable looking at myself in the mirror. (Yes, even when my face is scrunched up in concentration during most of the class.)
After a conversation with Brasso, I realize I’ll will have even more new ideas over the coming months.
“In another few weeks, you’ll be doing even more,” he said. “You’ll see.”
I can’t wait.
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