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Buffalo in Ballet Slippers

by Joanne Zimbler
January 25, 2016
So I guess this was inevitable. As a former dancer, I avoided dance performances for years, many years. Attending was too painful: watching what I gave up pursuing, the reminder of what could have been, the nostalgia for the old abilities, it was all too overwhelming and emotionally fraught. There was always the little voice reminding me that I could still be taking classes here and there and could therefore attend performances, that it wasn’t necessary to give it up whole hog. But for some reason I ignored the voice. I steered clear of dance studios and favored yoga, which I told myself was better for my health and body, didn’t lead to injuries, and was holistically more practical. What was the point of taking dance classes if you’re not working towards some ultimate goal or performance I thought. What? Was I going to have a recital in my living room!? No tutus to wear, no applause for my efforts, no point, I rationalized. Thus, I avoided all things dance.

That is - until the day I began reviewing dance performances.

How I went from ignoring the existence of dance altogether to viewing and writing about dance is another story. The point is I did; it happened. And for several years now I’ve been attending and enjoying the performances of some truly incredible local dance companies. And as I’d anticipated, the depressing feelings I’d tried to avoid were all there: nostalgia and sadness, not to mention resentment and envy towards the beautiful dancers who moved in impossibly gorgeous ways, ways which most humans will never be able to but which I once could. Why, why, why did I give it up, I wondered? As much as I could, I suppressed the feelings, letting them fester mostly only throughout the viewing and writing process.

But something happened. A mid-life crisis, concerns over my ever elusive youth…? Deteriorating personal life circumstances that necessitated a new life challenge? A vacancy in my ego calling for a new identity? I’m not sure what it was that produced the motivation. But I have to say, whatever it was, I couldn’t be happier that I decided to embrace the yearning this time- that I dug out those old (ancient at this point) ballet shoes and donned a borrowed leotard. It was hard. I wavered at many points. I was daunted by the idea of confronting the possible reality that all abilities had succumbed to age. But I finally managed to muster up the courage and signed myself up for classes. This wasn’t just a new challenge; it was an old new challenge, something more complex and possibly harder to reconcile with the ego (which would rather just carry on believing that I had once been a fine dancer and that if I tried it again I’d be as good as I ever was - but never wanting to put that notion to a test). Watching myself in that studio mirror now once again, lo all these years later, I feel the same exhilaration I once did, the same joy in the movements, tandu-ing, port-de-bra-ing, and piquing. But I’m not going to say it’s not different. I feel this way indeed, despite a devastating realization. In the studio mirror, I no longer see an ethereal faerie looking back at me but something more, well, more akin to a buffalo in ballet slippers.

It’s not that I’ve gained weight or look out of shape; in fact, decades later I’m in better shape now than possibly ever thanks to my terror about aging and an obsessive need to work out regularly for fitness as well as emotional health. Standing still in fifth position, I look possibly more like a dancer than when I was a dancer, just ignore the old face. It’s when I start to move that things get more complicated. I mean, I’m super strong. But here is a truth which few people will ever appreciate: ballet strong is a whole other level of strong. And one I myself had little appreciation for as a younger person who started so young and knew little else, slowly developing the strength so that legs easily flew over head and standing on one foot on releve, or pirouetting on said foot multiple times in a row felt no more difficult, besides the challenge in balance and technique, than skipping down the street. But now- oy vay! The woman in the mirror is now a buffalo in ballet shoes because she’s easily dizzied, throwing her leg up feels like throwing a house, and her technique and balance, well they’re a little rusty to say the least.

And that is not to mention the rust in the brain. Wow. Those neural pathways as they call them, well they’re nearly gone and creating new ones feels akin to forging a path through the Amazon with a spoon. I haven’t even gotten yet to the point where I’m trying to remember choreography, as I’m still in a basic level class, but the simple barre routines and combinations across the floor where I constantly have to remind myself that a little humiliation is good for the soul and leads to personal growth, are a challenge to remember. That saying - “If you don’t use it, you lose it”?! Yeah.

And then there’s the language of ballet. Terms like battement sur le cou-de-pied, once rolled off the tongue. But now - degaje, retire, en croix (cwah) - excuse moi? What they are, I’ve only the foggiest. Inside a vault though deep in the brain, I know they’re there. (And if not I can always use the ABT’s dictionary on its website on my phone as crib notes).

I’ve embarrassed myself publicly now and had to reconcile with the fact that I’m no longer a dancer. To have to watch people half my age excel beyond my own shaky movements, knowing though that I once could dance circles around them, is truly a lesson in humility. My ego balked at this experience for so long and for good reason. It is painful to feel my body feebly struggle to execute a single pirouette when I could once do several on pointe. When trying a new activity, there is no reference point and one forgives herself for basic level mistakes. With a new “old” activity, it is harder, for in my mind I am still leaping across a stage in a perfect grande jete. The reality in the mirror in 2016 is another matter. What this venture promises though is another lesson that I’ve forsaken as an adult. Growth comes from admitting what we don’t know, from taking risks and extending ourselves beyond what we think our bodies are capable of. I’ve only been to a few ballet classes now. The best thing I’ve gotten from the experience is not the joy of dancing again, but rather the reawakening of a child-like mind I’d long ago abandoned. And now I’m okay with being in a basic level ballet class because I have a lot to learn, or relearn. Humiliation - bring it on. It’s all play. And I’m okay with playing a buffalo in ballet shoes.
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