Her Favorite Pursuit

January 31, 2007

Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Ballet class is indispensable to me. Ideally it is my first destination of the day, as essential as waking up and drinking a cup of coffee (Balzac’s favorite elixir). At dawn, I don’t want to fight a duel, read the newspaper, or linger over breakfast. I need to dance. The anticipation of this sublime exercise propels me into action. My determination to be in class on time imposes a shape and rhythm to my early hours. Other necessities can be gracefully swept aside like housekeeping and writing Christmas cards (the latter up to six months). However, my style always remains the same—I dust and dance impressionistically. Every square foot of my apartment becomes a trampoline and launches me outside, onto the sidewalk, and into the crosstown bus, where I look for a seat and discretely start to stretch. Unlike Mary Poppins, I don’t arrive upside-down and in fifth position.

By shaping my muscles, I feel I am shaping my future. Anyway, with extensions lower and desires higher, I plunge ahead. My objective is similar to the English officers of World War II, who, when captured, always tried to escape. I reflect their spirit by refusing to be imprisoned by the boundaries of slightly older age. My perennial quest for improvement involves constant daily practice and a springing leap of imagination. In my youth, I often wondered if functioning at a lower level later in life would still be gratifying. The answer is yes. Class is still satisfying, but I’m not delusional. I compete only with myself—the self of yesterday, not yesteryear.

Although ping-pong and pick up sticks are engaging, ballet is my game. I remember when I did my first tour jeté—it was thrilling. Every day in class, I try to recreate that feeling. Often stray thoughts occur. For instance, when did caveman notice that most of their friends favored their right hand when picking up little pears and throwing spears? (Almost everyone pirouettes better to the right.)

A dance class is at the core of my physical and spiritual life and helps me maintain my stamina. I find it intoxicating. The barre exercises have an orderly design enabling the body to warm up and progress to more difficult steps and absolute wonders of movement. That is why I’m head over heels in love with class, where I literally do put my head over my heels. And so, I have sold my soul to dance.

Before class, in the spacious hallway at Steps, students are doing very odd motions—for a defined or undefined purpose—involving mind-boggling extensions and stretches. At the end of the preceding class, I walk into the studio and take a place at the barre like a heron finding her spot on the pond. My belongings are tossed to the side. My endorphins are deployed, and my body becomes their playground. I try not to stand next to someone who has over-the-rainbow extensions and 180-degree turnout. It’s obvious why.

I have devised a suitable outfit for the occasion and wear a variation of it almost every day. This is so I can recognize myself in the mirror. The teacher demonstrates the first exercise, usually a combination of various plies.The pianist transforms the pattern of movement into a musical piece, and the landscape of sound emerges. I employ my hearing like a fox. Listening to sound in an animalistic way, I try to reflect its distinctive quality. Beautiful melodies and buoyant rhythms are ever so appreciated. I retreat deeply into myself to explore coordination and the texture of sound. Class also has a social aspect. It’s not exactly the equivalent of the venerable English Reform Club, which was politically liberal. My club is dance, and I only attempt to reform my body.

Sideways, I look into the mirror. Oops! My plié is not so deep. I obliterate this observation and switch gears from neutral into first. My fantasy life sparks my internal combustion engine, and I realize that my honeymoon with dance has never ended. My stage life has transmogriphied into my studio life. I keep my eyes open. Great professionals may be present, always an inspiring surprise; other folks are also interesting.

My teachers are ever so generous to me as I try to apply every correction and idea expressed, my spirit, ever so pliant, my muscles less so. When the law of diminishing returns sets in, I curtsy, throw a kiss to the teacher, and leave, wondering if he or she thinks I’m giving into laziness. I think I’m being wise.

Many of my friends have continued to take ballet class after their performing careers were over. But when Nora Kaye retired, she was famously remembered for throwing out all her toe shoes from the window of a fast moving train (one per mile).

Taking class makes me feel as if I’ve entered a special kingdom where movement and music unfold together and the outcome is not always predictable. When you really do a step well—even a humble tendu—you can take pride in it. If I were living in a castle I might get bored, but in the world of perennial pliés, I don’t. That’s why I visit the classroom every day that I can. I want to improve; it’s fun, and dance still speaks to my imagination.

Allegra Kent, who teaches ballet at Barnard College, is author of
Once a Dancer.