I was never very good at ballet. I danced at Ballet Hawaii for thirteen years, beginning in a pale blue leotard and just learning how to plié at the barre, progressing to a demure black leotard and perfecting my pas de bourrée, and finally culminating in a leotard of any color –a privilege given to those who have made it to the highest level– and doing fouettés rond de jambe en tournant. As someone who isn’t gifted with natural turn out, flexibility, or turning ability, it didn’t take long for me to accept the fact that ballet was merely an extracurricular activity and would not turn into an eventual career.
However, an extracurricular activity is a weak term for the role that ballet had and still has in my life. Growing up, I continued to take lessons due to a variety of forces: friends, parents, and an unwavering respect for the greatest dance in the world. Thanks to ballet, my circle of friends expanded beyond schoolmates. Class, to an eleven-year-old, unsurprisingly functioned as mostly a social affair, as some of my fondest memories of ballet consist of playing games before class, gossiping during class, and going shopping after class. In a way, the relationships formed while learning a choreography that relies on each individual dancer are more personal, more instinctive than those formed while sitting at a desk facing a teacher in a classroom at school.
My parents encouraged me to commit to just a few activities outside of school because “one must develop, not just dabble”; and so, ballet lessons, piano lessons, and even art classes in the summer persisted throughout my childhood. This commitment to… commit is something I value even more so now. Ballet and piano, my two most consistent extracurricular activities, define the way I view and appreciate the world.
I stopped dancing ballet as soon as I started college — and ballet is not something one can just pick up again after years of inactivity. Regardless, I still catch myself pirouetting in the living room, doing grand jetés through the hallway, and standing on demi pointe when washing the dishes. I even attribute my ability to walk briskly [and in little to no pain] in four-inch heels to all the years I spent dancing on the balls of my feet.
Ballet is basically doing everything your body is not supposed to naturally. I’d argue that no other form of exercise or dance [for, is ballet a sport or an art?] comes close to the same level of physical activity and grace that ballet requires. Constant criticism from instructors, judgments from other dancers, and, perhaps most acerbic of all, one’s own insecurities can undoubtedly scar a malleable teen. I don’t know any friends from ballet who aren’t at least a little hesitant to eventually send their own daughter to ballet. Yet, in the end, most of them probably will — not just because parents tend to replicate their own lives through their children anyway, but because, after practicing technique after technique, performing in concert halls alongside symphonies, and setting their standards of refinement so, so high, anything else would just seem like a cop out.
You can spot a dancer a block away: her steps are more agile, her posture is better than average, and she can pull off tights way better than you can. Every time I wander around Lincoln Center, a little part of me always feels a twinge of jealousy as I watch ballet dancers, in their neat buns and Capezio bags, saunter off to another day of dancing at NYCB. However, this jealousy always becomes overshadowed by both my happiness that, for at least a short time, I was once learning what they have accomplished, and by my awe that they, in a world of bent knees and flexed feet, made it to the top.