You can spend hours, years, perfecting your tendu, the extension of the foot to front, side, and back (executed above in a class at the Paris Opera). Like anything quintessentially simple, it demands rigorous concentration. From the tip of your big toe to your hip flexor, your leg has to be not just straight, but singing perfectly on a single note. And that’s just the side in play. Your other leg has to be just as straight, kneecap lifted up into the quad, which itself has to be lifted, your tailbone down, your butt tight, your abs squeezed from pelvic root to sternum. Meanwhile, don’t raise your shoulders, keep your hands relaxed, including the one on the barre, open your chest, neck, and face.
Now do it again.
I took my first ballet class in 25+ years today. Never much of a dancer, I hated ballet when my mom first forced me to take it to try to cure my bad posture. I was an uncoordinated, extremely self-conscious kid, and I thought class was absolute torture. But the last class, in one of the final combinations, I suddenly sort of got it; I felt the music more than all the eyes on me, muddled through and felt like maybe, just maybe, I had for a second started to dance.
I took ballet on and off through high school and college. I never became anything close to a good dancer, but I loved the way I could completely abandon my always over-stimulated brain, emptying it so it could be filled with the all-encompassing focus on simply getting the moves right. There is always more in ballet. You can always extend the line farther, get the leg straighter, make the joints of the arms and hands more liquid. At the barre, little exists besides your muscles, the precise and plain piano with no rubato allowed, and the hard floor that you constantly resist.
It’s an impossible art form, one that doesn’t just defy gravity but gives it a royal beatdown. Toiling away at it, trying to wrap my foot around the neck of the foot in sur le cou de pied, the inventory was showing its age. My back has turned into cement on one side and my forward port de bras looks like hell. My knees and toes threw an occasional “wtf?” at me, and sometimes my hands clutched at the air in vain for a handhold. My jumps were abyssmal; I think a pig might have been able to get more airborne, and he’d have to lift twice as many feet.
And yet, as the bright and uncompromising January sunlight streamed through the window, I felt right. After years of not dancing, my body and heart started to rouse themselves, breathe, animate, and smile. It was like when you wake up in a beautiful place on vacation and realize you don’t have to work for a week.
In the mirror, I look a mess. There are miles to go before I can execute even the simplest pattern of steps looking marginally better. But to experience that sensation of being flooded with light and with lightness itself – that’s grace.
I’ve waited a long time. Now I’m back.