I had hit a wall.
I had been going to class, after class, after class.
I had been working as hard as I could.
But I just didn’t feel like I was improving anymore.
I had hit a wall.
So today, it was time to do something different.
I got up early today. Replaced my usual black tights and colored leotard with pink, seamed tights and a black leotard. Drove thirty minutes to a new studio I had never danced at before.
If I’m going to work towards this dream, I want to get the best training that I can. I had hopes that this would be it.
I arrived early, to a darkened studio and loud music. Mirrors lined three of the four walls, and a piano stood one corner of the raised, grey marley-covered floor. A couple of the male dancers carried several portable metal barres out into the center of the floor.
A few of the students were already there, stretching out, warming up, and gossiping as young dancers so often do before class. A little hesitantly, I joined them on the floor and began to stretch.
I am nothing if not shy.
Luckily, there were a few people I already knew (or knew of) in class. Several of the dancers used to train with the company where I grew up dancing. The familiar faces helped a lot, and they were happy to introduce me around to the other dancers. Already I could see this studio was different than any I’d ever danced at – I had never seen so many male dancers (there were seven or eight there) in one company.
It wasn’t long before a loud voice cut through the chatter of the room. “Walk,” she demanded, after scolding the room full of dancers from leaving the front door open on a cold day, letting all the heat out. “Walk!”
I blinked and looked around, following the lead of the other dancers. Everyone got up and started walking in a circle around the large room, so I followed. A friend pulled me aside to introduce me to the woman – the owner of the ballet school, and the woman who would be teaching class today. Then, we were off walking again.
“Trot!” The pace quickened. Dancers were laughing and goofing off, some going against the flow of traffic just for the fun of it. “Canter! Come on, canter!” We ran quicker around the room – one lap, before everyone slowed to a walk, and took their places at the barres.
From the start, the class was like a carefully orchestrated ballet. She didn’t even have to say a word – every student stood facing the barre, feet in the parallel sixth position. When the pianist started playing, they all moved as one without a word from her, doing relevés and tendus, shoulder and head rolls.
My gaze flew wildly around, watching all the dancers around me and doing my best to follow along. I was nervous, of course – I felt awkward and out of place, especially when I made a mistake doing combinations that they all knew by heart.
But moments into that first combination, the woman teaching the class stood in front of me, looking at me across the barre. “What is your goal, here?”
“I want to dance professionally.”
“How old are you?”
“Okay, then we’ll take a look at you, and see what we can do.”
I smiled, and nodded politely in response.
And that was that.
Next, of course, came pliés. Now, I can do pliés. Of course I can do pliés. I’ve been doing them since I was three, after all. Although I got a little turned around at first – it seems here they do things “backwards”, and start with the left foot instead of the right – I was feeling pretty confident in my technique as I followed along doing the plié combination all the dancers there knew by heart.
Apparently I can’t do pliés.
Almost instantly, the teacher came up to me. “What do you want from this class? Are you just looking to try out class, or would you like an assessment…”
I looked at her, not quite sure what to say. Everything, I thought. I wanted it all. I was there with only the intent of trying out class, and seeing if I thought it was worth returning. But if she was willing to give me an assessment and corrections, I was all for it…
“Just trying out class?” she asked. I nodded hesitantly, with a slightly uncertain smile. She smiled. “Okay, that’s fine.”
Immediately she stopped me in the middle of pliés. She took my shoulders in her hands and rolled them back, then pressed her hand lightly in the center of my spine and instructed me to lift my chest forward. Then she grabbed my bun and used it to shift my head back a little, so my neck was stacked straight on my spine, and then pushed upward on the back of my skull, to show how I should be lifting my head from a point above my neck, instead of trying to lift from my chin and letting my neck sink down a little, as I had been.
“There is a natural curve in your lower back which we want to preserve,” she touched along the curve in my back, right above my butt, “but the upper back should be straight.” I took a moment to glance in the mirror, and compare how I normally stood in ballet class to how I looked when I applied her new corrections. It was a world of difference, and amazed me, because I had never gotten that sort of correction before.
Already it was obvious to me that classes here were an order of magnitude above any classes I had ever taken elsewhere.
We finished the first side of pliés, then turned around to the other side. Already I was breathing hard, and sweating a little as I tried my darndest to apply her correction – one that took a lot of effort for me to sustain, since I had danced for so many years with incorrect posture.
“Allison!” she called out, when we were stretching toward and away from the barre. “Arm in fifth, then over.” Okay, I could do that. It was slightly different from what I was used to, but not so extreme that I couldn’t make it a habit. Sure, I still forgot a few times, but this was far easier for me to apply.
There was no break after pliés, no rest before the next combination – we turned around and went straight into tendus. I hadn’t been expecting it, but I faltered for only a moment before following along. Some were easy, others tripped me up over and over again. (There is a tendu/temps lie/chasse/glissade combination that is going to haunt me until I get it right.)
And time after time, the teacher would show up by my side, manipulating my arms, shoulders, and neck until I stood in the posture she wanted. I was trying my hardest – oh believe me, I was sweating buckets and gasping for breath, almost shaking trying to force my body to apply corrections that it wasn’t used to – but these new habits are definitely going to take a little time to form.
“Stand closer to the barre, you’re too far away.” “Allison, don’t let your arm go behind you.” “Shoulders, Allison.” “Lift from your neck.”
A barrage of corrections. I loved it.
And then, “I’m sorry, I’m torturing you. Would you like to be left alone, or shall I keep torturing you?”
Although I was out of breath, I looked up at her and laughed softly with a grin. “Torture, please!”
So it continued.
I could have been self-conscious about my dancing, and feel foolish for how bad I must have looked, especially in front of those dancers who had seen me perform years ago. But by then I was too busy and focused on myself – my body, my corrections, and just trying to do the combinations more or less correctly while still trying to show the teacher that I wasn’t completely deficient in ballet technique – to care what the other dancers thought.
When we did fondues and developés, she stopped me again. She took my leg in her hands, told me to relax my hip (because I was tensing, as I always do), and rotated it in a slow grande ronde de jambe. “You have more turnout than you think,” she told me, as she used her hands to manually point my foot as far as it would go – I hadn’t realized it, but I had allowed my foot to get lazy… did I always do this? It was worth paying attention to, “we’re just going to have to learn how to use it.”
Okay. I can learn, certainly.
By the end of barre my lungs were burning, my heart was racing, and I felt more out of shape than I have in months. The last three exercises (including grande battements and jumps at the barre) really did me in.
It felt like starting from nothing all over again, just like I did way back in August when I decided to go for this dream.
I have a long way to go.
Since the class was a company class (yep, I was dancing with a bunch of teenagers) and it was only barre (they had a costume fitting, then rehearsal after), I’m not even going to worry about how poorly I did in center. Since the women’s fitting was first and the men were later, there was a short center geared entirely towards male dancers. Hah. I’ve never done so poorly in center as I did today. But you know what… I’m okay with that. First classes are always the worst, due to nerves and just trying to acclimate to a class so different from what I’m used to.
After class, I was able to have a long discussion with the teacher about where she thought I should go from here.
Auditions this year? Hah! Just judging from today’s class, I’m not going to be ready to dance professionally so soon. (But damn it, I sure as heck am going to try.) But she did seem to think I might have some potential. Maybe. I know I’m willing to work for it, and I’m hoping she saw that as well.
She placed me in level 5 (out of 8). Okay, I can deal with that. But, she said, only if I were able to dance there six days a week.
That’s a problem, considering I live half an hour away and have no car. But it seems I’ve convinced Son to let me borrow his car, so I can do it. He’s not happy about it (not surprising) – he hates the idea of me driving so far every day. He’s overprotective like that. But he’s allowing it, for the time being. I’m jumping for joy, because I know I will improve quickly and vastly, dancing here.
So we’ll see where this takes me, as I continue to follow this enormous dream…