Tuesday December 8 2009 700 am
Earlier this fall, on a wet, cool, New England day, I brought four-and-a-half year old “Emmie” to her first ballet class. She’d begged me for months to sign her up for ballet, and, after multiple conversations to embed in her mind the requirement that my paying money for these classes meant that she would actually have enter the ballet studio and participate (lesson learned from last year’s failed attempts at ballet and gymnastics), I registered her for class and wrote the check, and we embarked on Emmie’s balletic adventure.
That first class turned out to be a milestone for both of us.
“I’m so excited for my first ballet class!” The sentence tumbled out of Emmie’s mouth as we drove to the ballet school, her enthusiasm as contagious as her smile. I grinned at her through the rearview mirror. Then I held Emmie’s hand as together we crossed the threshold of a poster-covered storefront sandwiched between a Kmart and a strip-mall Laundromat. I pinned her long, dark brown hair into a bun and, clad from shoulder to toe in pale pink, she joined the line of tiny, hopeful dancers-to-be. They tiptoed away from their parents and disappeared behind a closed studio door. I took my place on a folding chair in the narrow hallway with the other mothers.
I was relieved that Emmie’s enthusiasm survived beyond the threshold of the ballet studio, but something else took place, too. Time rushed backward for me when I sat in that chair. It was Emmie’s first time inside a ballet studio, but I grew up in one. Decades earlier, my mother was the short-haired brunette who gathered with other mothers in the waiting area. They chatted about children and husbands, cooed over the new baby in the group and compared their kids in friendly banter that masked fierce competitiveness. I was the little girl in ballet pink, my long, dark hair pinned up in a bun. I walked into a studio that seemed as large as the world, gazed at the bewildered faces in the mirror, then placed my hand on the barre and began a life.
In the twelve years that followed, I learned to pin up my own hair, sew the ribbons on my own toe shoes and squeeze my homework into the breaks between two or three ballet classes each day, six or seven days per week. The smell of sweat grew omnipresent and familiar, the rosin I ground onto my ballet slippers and toe shoes left miniature ghosts on my clothes, and the dance floors on which I leapt gave way a bit to cushion the shock of every landing.
In those years, I learned that art—any art—requires dedicated, persistent struggle, constant thought and preparation, and love, all lessons that serve me well now that writing is the art I pursue. I learned to work when I was motivated, but also when I was tired or discouraged. I came to understand that the result of thousands of hours of training and practice can be the unparalleled satisfaction of a job accomplished to the greatest reach of one’s talents. And I knew the reward of all this effort the first time my dancing became effortless on a stage, when the music and the technique and the practice finally merged to create an illusion of weightlessness so convincing I barely noticed my whirling feet touching the stage floor.
I don’t know yet what ballet will mean to Emmie—whether it will be a childish, pink tulle fantasy or something that evolves into much more. But as I sat for the first time among the ballet mothers and listened to the chatter and the recorded piano music seeping under the closed door of the studio before me, I remembered what it meant to me. And then I knew that from my new perspective in the hallway, I could add a dimension to those memories and take something previously unknown from a world I once loved. I recorded all of the sensory details, all of the sights, the sounds and the smells and I let them sift through my remembrances. Present and past mixed and danced and rearranged themselves in my mind until finally, I had no choice but to sit down and let the words run from my fingertips onto the keyboard. I took my daughter to her first ballet class, and then I did what I do every day in my not-so-new, adult life: I wrote.