BY EMILY DOLSON
These days, whenever I find myself in socks on a hardwood floor, I cannot help stretching my toes over the smooth boards into the firm point of a tendu. Sometimes, I prance around my Brooklyn apartment pretending that I know more steps than I do, but putting on a magnificent performance for my cat nonetheless. I am twenty-seven years old, and I have just begun my journey with ballet. My knowledge of the art may be limited to tendus, pliés, and pas de bourrées, but it hasn’t stopped me from practicing whenever I get a chance.
I took my first ballet class about six months ago, in a midtown high rise filled with rooms of impressive dancer-looking people with large, well-formed calves. I was the first one to arrive, a half hour early. I waited, anxiously perched on the edge of a cracking leather couch. My friend and the class instructor, Stephanie, was the next one to arrive. A professional ballerina and hugely inspiring person, Steph was a big part of why I took the class in the first place. My jaw drops when I see her do a simple plié. It’s so graceful, so elegant. She has muscles in her feet that I will never have, developed from years of practicing the very steps that I was about to learn for the first time. Steph’s class was for true beginners like myself and about ten other adults with varying levels of dance experience. That first hour in the studio consisted of learning the most basic positions and steps, but I could already tell that ballet was a completely different way of moving than I was used to.
I had a small amount of dance experience in my teen years. As a preteen I took tap dancing, and in early college I joined a casual hip-hop troupe. In hip-hop, you put your individual spin on the moves. You have attitude. You have sass. Ballet, on the other hand, is all about precision, perfection, and engaging nearly every muscle in your body at once. I had always admired ballet dancers for their gracefulness, but I quickly learned that these dancers work incredibly hard to project the appearance of graceful ease. There is nothing easy about ballet, no step that requires less than your full attention. And there are a million things to think about, even when doing something simple like a tendu. Engage your core. Lift up, like a string is pulling you from the top of your head. Massage the floor with your toes. Keep your hips facing forward. Make your arms as long as possible while keeping them slightly rounded. Don’t forget to breathe.
I am now in the third session of ballet classes with Steph, and while I still forget to breathe sometimes, I know that ballet has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only does ballet give me a great work out, but it challenges my brain, too. Memorizing dance steps has never come easily to me, and sometimes I leave class feeling frustrated that I did not successfully complete a sequence of steps or hold my arms the right way. But it still feels good to try.
Another reason this class has been so meaningful to me is the way the ninety minutes have been structured. While the first half of the class consists of learning new ballet steps and combinations, the second half is a glorious free-for-all, where we shove aside the rigidity and constraints of ballet and focus on free movement. Sometimes we will simply move our bodies around the room to eclectic music, other times we will do solos or duets with specific instructions, like “move wherever your eyes take you,” or “explore an invisible object with your body.” The second half of the class can be downright weird and uncomfortable, but I have found that it is the perfect compliment to the precision of ballet. If ballet is more about the left half of my brain, then free movement is about the right. I find that I am able to be more unrestricted and relaxed in my approach to free movement when it follows directly after ballet. I also find that I want to incorporate my newly acquired ballet moves into my improvisations, so that sometimes the two styles begin to bleed into one another. It can be nerve-wracking to perform a solo in front of my fellow classmates, but this class has also made me more confident and brave in the way that I move. There is a sense of camaraderie with my fellow dancers. Some of us have danced before, while others are dancing for the first time. Together, we have formed a special kinship over months of watching and supporting each other in our most exposed, undisguised, raw selves.
There are only two more classes left in the winter ballet session. We will plié, degagé, and tendu. We will engage our cores and stretch, bend, and point. I do not want the session to end. As long as Steph offers these classes, I will take them. Perhaps one day I will be good enough to take a class at a Manhattan studio and keep up with a less forgiving ballet instructor. Perhaps one day I will be good enough to perform in front of an audience. But for the moment, I am happy to dance for my classmates, and my cat.
Emily is a Seattle-born, New York-based graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn with her super awesome husband. She enjoys cooking, antiquing, and going on big and small adventures.