Two weeks ago, on my 32nd birthday, I took my first ballet class. As I wrote in this post , I didn’t begin dancing until my mid 20’s. After my mother informed me that it was not too late to become a dancer at 23, I took the plunge and enrolled in an 8 week session… of salsarobics. It seemed like a non-threatening soft entry in the dance world, and it was. I convinced my friend Rebecca to join me. The first step was to tiptoe into an intimidating dance store full of tutus and buy leotards- entirely unnecessary, but deeply satisfying. Rebecca and I have always believed in the power of costuming. We put our hair in buns, applied eye liner, and strutted into salsarobics like we were seasoned professional dancers. We were not, but the power of our belief did convince our salsa instructor that we were former ballerinas.
The next class was a disastrous flirtation with tango. At six feet I towered over my partners and felt like a clumsy oaf. At one class, I insisted on wearing oversized scuffed cracked leather cowboy boots. The leather bottoms were worn smooth, and I slipped and fell, pulling my partner on top of me. I never returned.
A year or two later I stumbled into the world of bellydance, and never left. Bellydance is full of adult beginners- people who have never taken a dance class in their lives. The bellydance community tends to be warm, welcoming, and supportive. It is also a bit of a wild west situation, dancewise. American bellydance brings together a wide variety of dance forms from the Middle East, Africa, India, and Polynesia, as well as balletic influences via Russians who spent time in the Middle East. There are tribal dancers and cabaret dancers, spangles and sequins and feathers and leather, troupes and soloists and fusion artists incorporating hip hop, Asian, modern, vaudeville, and circus influences. There are incredible teachers steeped in history and knowledge, and there are people teaching who have taken less than six months of classes themselves. The bellydance world is vibrant, open, and rich, but it is very much in the process of becoming a codified dance form. In many ways, it is pretty much the opposite of ballet.
Over the past several years, I have taken several bellydance classes a week whenever possible. I’ve dabbled in african dance, hip hop, afrocuban, and even lurched and rolled through a few unforgettable modern classes. After years of serious study, I teach bellydance classes and love doing it. I dance in a Turkish restaurant and recently performed a solo set on the main stage at a huge downtown benefit for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. What I hadn’t done was take a single ballet class.
In a strange sort of way, not having taken ballet made me feel like I wasn’t a “real” dancer. Often when I tell people I do bellydance, they think I am saying ballet dance. Their eyes light up and they nod, envisioning white tights and pointe shoes, and then I clarify and their eyebrows raise up and their head bobs and they sort of sputter a bit, at a loss for words. I have also meet a surprising number of people who have a hard time believing that you can be A Dancer if you didn’t start at the age of 4, in a tiny tutu. I think I even have a hard time believing it myself now and then.
And so, at the age of 32, I put on my leotard (yes, the one from the salsarobics class! It finally came in handy!) and headed to an Intro to Ballet class at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The PBT school is ten minutes from my house, located in one of the warehouses along the Strip District, near the yoga studio I wrote about in this post. According to their website, the PBT school is recognized as “one of the nation’s finest” for dance education and training. I don’t know whether to be grateful, amused, or embarrassed about that fact when I walk into the cavernous studios with acres of barre, walls of mirrors, and a harried piano player staggering in with 40 lbs of sheet music in her bag.
Intro to Ballet is a bit of a misleading title for the class that I took. I suppose that “Re-Introduction to Ballet for former ballet dancers who spent their entire childhood in tights and then went to college and got married and had children and now have enough time and money to take ballet classes again, as well as various student dancers who weren’t able to make it to the Advanced Class” wouldn’t have been as catchy. The class immediately assumed position at the barre and began piques, or something to that effect, and many other french terms for delineated movements as familiar as breathing to the former and current ballerinas behind me. I loved watching dancers of all ages, from young teens to women in their 60’s, gracefully and joyfully moving, borne aloft by the spirited accompanist- who actually seemed a bit furious about something, which added to the vim and vigor of her playing.
In the corner of the room, a dancer was lost in a world of her own. The quality of her movement was entirely different than anything I have ever seen. She looked exactly like a swan in the midst of a flock of chickens, gliding nobly through the water with her head held high as we squabbled in the dust. I found out later that she is a soloist for the Pittsburgh Ballet- the soloist I have seen for years on huge billboards advertising the ballet. It was obvious that this woman was completely at home in the studio, and completely immersed in the practice of constantly refining and perfecting her dancing. Although her carriage was the proudest I have ever seen, there was a humility in her approach to dancing- a willingness to completely commit herself to a basic combination, at a beginner class, over and over again.
This week I will attend the real beginner’s class, where they define movements and terms for those of us who missed that class when we were four. I hope that my years of dancing have taught me grace and humility. I know that they have taught me to let go and laugh while attempting to leap across the floor, to bend my body in a manner that is more supple and to let go of my pride so I can bend some more. I have also learned that it is can be beneficial to begin at the beginning, over and over again.