A Forgotten Vocabulary

February 13th, 2009 § 0 comments

“What kind of class do you want to take? Anything but ballet.”

paloma herrera

When I think of the ideal dance class I remember a particular night in San Francisco, a night class that took place while I was studying at a school there. After our “required” classes that lasted all day long, we used to crash the beginning adult classes at night. The teachers were two Russian twins, dancers for SFB, who had enough energy and charisma to bring the best out of weary feet and legs. Male ballet teachers are by far the most “fun,” they indulge in the steps they know best, jumps, turns, and fast (loose) footwork. Women are constrained by being ever attentive to perfect technique and impeccable execution. Without the pressure of our daytime teachers, without the nitpicking of our artistic director, it was the perfect time to experiment. We were brats, flaunting our training for the benefit of the beginners, but we were humbled by the local professionals who came to dance with our twins. It was as democratic as I remember ballet ever being, it was ballet without pretensions, and we were always at our best. It is that kind of class I want to find again.


(a very young Suzanne Farrell with a less youthful Balanchine)

I took my first class in four years when I was twenty in Chicago, and it was a grand experience. For some reason, however, it only happened once. This week, trying out the open classes at Alvin Ailey, I took my first class again in four years. It was certainly not a grand experience, it was disappointing and slightly depressing. Muscles take a long time to forget, in the first years of dating the Fossil, a year or so after I had returned from Frisco and quit, I was still absurdly flexible. At twenty I was out of shape but I made it through a class full of jumps and turns without too much trouble. At twenty-four, well, I must be getting old. It was certainly not the right level, the right teacher, nor the right group, but I was surprised by my own limitations, and by the manner in which my body protested against the abuse. It seemed to remember just where and what the strain was leading to, and it rebelled. I have known for a long time the joints that have been permanently damaged, I remember how many years it took to have toenails again, but I never really expected them to act damaged. The slowness of the class felt right, however, as though long lost movements, gestures, pains, muscles, and words were all coming back together into a form; it was a lovely feeling of waking up. At the lunchroom the next day at work I found myself, for the first time in a long time, using the vending machine as a bar.

What I want is my hobby, my love for physical movement back, I would like to use my vocabulary, so extensive and yet so rusty it clanks and squeaks in my head and feet. I might as well take advantage of being so well trained to move, but I realize, the moment I step foot into a dance studio, it will never be “just a hobby”. The mirrors, the bars, the teenage girls in pink tights, the rules for forming lines and staggering bodies, brings back a lifestyle, a group of stereotypes I know too well and still resent too much. I vividly remember the moments of extreme frustration and confusion, the enraging remarks I vaguely knew were wrong—girls wear make-up because they can’t handle the truth, ballerinas aren’t brown, my rules are the rules—the degradations and the insults, the insinuations and the lies, the power plays, and the cruelty of teenage girls under male rule will never fade from my own teenage memory. As in the years before I quit the passion and desire I once felt for the art form are buried too far beneath layers of distaste. I remember telling my mother, in a fit of self-pity, that if I had a daughter I would never let her dance! Ah, then, what is it that draws me back? Pleasure, satisfaction, masochism?


(Gelsey Kirkland, 17 and almost unrecognisable. )

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