Our ballet teacher was a humorless woman named Madame Bailey (which she pronounced like Ballet--barf). She never smiled and she took herself -- and ballet -- very seriously. Everyone in our class was an adult, so we weren't alone in our lateness to the game. At 5'6" and 95 pounds, you'd think I would be perfect for ballet, lithe and graceful. Wrong! Despite my high arches ("Lovely feet for daaaahncing" as Mme. Bailey would say), I gallumped around the studio like an overweight rhinocerous. But I was undeterred (one time, Katie and I even got off school early to go meet Mikhail Baryshnikov at the old Woodward & Lothrup, but that's another ridiculous story for another time). I stuck with the classes for nearly a year. As Katie got better, I got . . . dirty looks from Mme. Bailey. She got promoted to "toe shoes" and I got asked to quit. So much for nurturing a budding talent and sparing a young person their feelings. This was, sadly, not the first time I had been asked to quit something. I had an unfortunate run-in the previous summer, when at the urging of my friend Shana, I took up tennis lessons (see, a joiner). After whiffing one too many tennis balls, the instructor told me, "Do yourself a favor, find another hobby." It was no big deal, though I had developed thick rhinocerous skin to go along with my not-so-graceful moves.
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Flash forward nearly 20 years. I had watched Turning Pointe one too many times and grew myself a few delusions. I don't know why I wiped the torture of having to do all those -- I don't even remember what they were called, I was so dedicated to my craft -- passes across the studio while everyone looked on (judging me, I'm sure) from my memory, but I did. I decided that I needed exercise and that I could certainly stand to work on the strength in my legs and core and the best way to do that was through the art of the dance. Not content to simply go to one of the myriad local studios that offer adult ballet classes (for beginners, of course -- I wasn't that delusional), I decided that The Washington Ballet would be the best place for me to go. I called to find out if, in fact, the class was truly for beginners and they assured me that it was. I merely needed comfortable, close-fitting clothing and ballet slippers, so I ordered myself a pair and packed my bag. I was going to ballet after work that day!
I got to the school and was met with a gaggle of adolescent girls (ah, just like me and my friend Katie all those years ago . . .) in tutus and makeup. I could here the lilting notes of the piano and the sound of dancers en pointe. My heart lept! Maybe that would be me in a few short months. After all, it looked so easy! (See, I told you, delusions.) Instead of opting for the $15 one-off class, I opted to purchase a 10-class package, because I was going to do this at least once a week! Then I got into the studio where we were to wait for the class to start. About 25 other adults, mostly women, in full-on ballet gear (we're talking leotards, tights, buns, and those flowy little skirt thingees--even a few legwarmers) were stretching on the floor and at the barre. I looked like a complete bonehead in my yoga pants and tank top. But I didn't care. I had "lovely feet for daaaahncing," and I was going to do this! Plus, I totally wanted to spin around in a tutu.
The instructor came in and greeted everyone in the class by name. Everyone but me. Clearly I had found my way into a class of not-so-beginning beginners. "Let's pick up where we left off last week, with blah, blah, blah something French," the instructor said. And with that we all spread out across the studio floor to get our ballet on. I stood as close to the back as I could, trying to blend in as we went through the five positions (hey! I remembered something!). Then it was time for barre work, which was great. I found my space at the barre and we went through more of the motions. The woman standing next to me even told me that I had great turn-out (she was wearing a near-tutu, so I was pretty sure she was an expert). About 20 minutes later, it was time for the hell I had forgotten. The part of the class where everyone runs across the room doing various ballet things (that's the technical French term for it, I'm sure) while everyone else watches.
I hung back and watched the others do their graceful moves, studying their feet so I'd be ready to join in eventually. Then there was nobody left in my corner of the room and the teacher finally noticed me. "Are you new? I'm so sorry! I didn't know we had a new student today! What's your name?" Grrrreat . . . now the whole class of beautifully appointed dancers was starting at me. I wanted to hang myself from the barre. After I told my name, the instructor insisted that he and I do the moves across the room together. While everyone watched. I'm pretty sure the shade of red that I turned doesn't actually occur in nature. And I was so bad, he made me do it three more times back and forth, back and forth, while everyone else stood there, probably wishing I had hung myself from the barre. This kind of awful dancing was cute when you are three, but in your 30s, it's just tragic. The instructor was patient and easygoing, but the pressure was too much for me. I didn't care how much I wanted a tutu, I wasn't going through this kind of humiliation every week.
I boarded the bus to head home, feeling sorry for myself. Then I realized that maybe I'm not good at ballet, but I am good at a lot of other things. I'm good at writing, and cooking, and being willing to try new things. And that's what it was really all about, wasn't it -- being willing to step outside of my comfort zone? I mean, I had auditioned for a play at the Kennedy Center, eaten bear meat, wandered around London and Prague by myself, and a whole lot of other fun and different things. And even though I wasn't good at it, I had danced ballet. So the next time I get an urge to do something a little different, I'll do it, because what do I have to lose? And the next time I decide I want a tutu, I'll just go ahead and buy one. I can totally wear that around the house.
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