Sometimes I still fancy myself a dancer.
When I’m alone and a piece of waltz-y music starts playing on Downton Abbey, I get up, bourrée across the floor, and step into an arabesque. If I angle it right, I can catch a blurry glimpse of myself in the living room window. My leg doesn’t go as high as it used to, my turnout is less, but my arms and hands are still pretty. I still have that going for me.
I ache to take a ballet class again. I know within a few weeks that my leg would be back up there, my turnout 180 degrees. I know that everything would come flooding back to me, and I’d smile at myself in the mirror.
We dance girls who spent all of our time in class know what it’s like. You’ll still catch us standing in first position when we’re in line at Starbucks, doing a quick tendu or plié because we can. We see a stretch of open space and think, “Step pas de bourrée, glissade, grand jeté.” We hear music, and choreography comes to us out of nowhere, the Muses whispering combinations to us from across time.
We still have jumbles of old pointe shoes with the satin peeling away from the toes, the soles rough from resin and wear. Our soft ballet shoes are stiff and crisp with months of dried sweat. Wads of leotards—pull them out again and they look so small, put them on and they stretch to fit. Ragged legwarmers, nylon warm-up pants, knitted shorts. Masses of tights in every shade of beige and pink and black, with the toes cut out so they could be pulled up the calves. Lamb’s wool, gel pads, surgical tape, band-aids. T-shirts from every recital since the dawn of time, the necks cut out, hems frayed. All the paraphernalia. All the memories. All the costumes and head pieces and pictures, too.
I tell co-workers and strangers, “I used to be a dancer.” They look at me like I’m cute. I want to take their arm, press them: “But I was.” They don’t understand what that means. How even if we technically weren’t professionals yet, we acted like ones. How the studio held its own politics and rules. How we suffered from all the insecurities about our bodies and our levels of talent, clamoring to be in the front or eying those who were. But also how we learned discipline and respect and hard work and the noble pursuit of perfection. How we could do a complete costume change in 30 seconds flat. How most of the girls I knew back then are still composed and self-motivated and capable today; we are different in a way you can’t put your finger on.
We did not watch sitcoms at night; we danced. We didn’t always have boyfriends; we danced. We tried to play sports and be cheerleaders and join clubs and do activities, but we always came back. We always danced.
I can’t stretch very well anymore, and I used to have darn good flexibility. Everything hurts. I go to a chiropractor once a week so he can crack the years of torture out of my spine. Turns out I had an old neck injury, sustained somehow, perhaps when my pointe shoe slipped in class once, and I came crashing down—a five-point landing—hitting my chin on the floor, spraining my wrist, shaking me up. All I know is I wake up every morning with lower back pain and a hip that snaps at the slightest provocation. But at least my neck is fixed.
It’s not age—I don’t play that useless game. There are 70-year-olds who take yoga every week and can bend themselves in half, no problem.
I think, maybe, it’s letting go that brings pain. Letting go of dance leaves space behind to be filled with the rust and cobwebs of memory. Letting go of the idea of making a living at it. No longer walking onto a dark stage and waiting for the curtain to sweep open. No longer standing at the barre and waiting for the music to cue. No longer clutching the hand of my best friend as we watch a pas de deux by two masters that is so beautiful your heart comes out of your body and floats in aching rapture as the dance goes on and tears run down your face. No longer having this practice in my life which was the only thing I lived for back then.
I have other things to live for now. Life is good; choices have been made, even the right choices.
But I still, sometimes, fancy myself a dancer.
For Debie, Laura, Rachael…and all the others. And for Sarah, who is.