Ballet


At my adult ballet class the other night I discovered my first sexy ballet move. It was a little surprising. I mean, I know that some guys consider ballet very sexy, but I always thought it was mostly a case of girls in tight clothes kicking their legs high. The movements themselves seem somewhat asexual, tightly disciplined, seeking an almost abstract purity of line and form that comes from consummate control rather than overt sexuality. It’s very, very beautiful and highly expressive, but sexy? Not so much. Last night, however, the teacher had us do a variation on our grand battements (the move where you kick your leg as high as you can to the front, side, or back. We were kicking to the side, and instead of bringing the leg straight back down you bend the knee, bring it in towards your body, then reverse it, tracing a little figure 8 with your knee. Then you take your leg back out to the side and straighten it again before bringing it down. I had never done this before, so I had to ask the teacher to show me more clearly. I picked it up right away, and as I watched myself do this in the mirror I thought, “Huh. That’s kinda hot.”

It’s been interesting joining this ballet class after taking a semester of ballet at my school. In the class I was part of before, we all started at roughly the same place and progressed together. The teacher knew that we had no technique, no knowledge of ballet fundamentals, so he always started at very basic places. Then he sometimes progressed to what my current teacher considers more advanced things. However, you can’t do everything in a semester, so my knowledge is uneven. For example, I have done five million tombé pas de bourrée’s (though it turns out I had not been doing them well), but I had never done a jeté. Also, I’m used to doing tendu’s, frappé’s, and ronde de jambe’s much more quickly than my current teacher prefers. It’s a challenge sometimes to just slow down.

On the subject of slowing down – I slept all day yesterday. I did not intend to. Somehow it just happened. I’ve been hovering on the edge of sick for a while, but I kept myself going. Then today I just… didn’t. I didn’t hear my alarm at all. Johnsy says she came and woke me up at one point. I don’t remember that at all. I was awake for maybe half an hour around noon, and then I fell asleep again until 4:30. Then I got up, drank my coffee, and had my first meal of the day. I had a commitment to keep that evening, so I did that. A quick stop on the way home for bobbins (somehow all my threaded bobbins have disappeared), and I was pretty much done for the day. So far today seems to be going better.

Lately, in the odd moments between writing feminist research papers and studying for Aquinas exams (or, rather, avoiding those things through mad procrastination and science-fiction reading, mostly a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Neal Stephenson), I’ve been musing about why it is that I enjoy ballet so much. It’s not that I’m particularly good at it, my “nice, straight back” aside. I have yet to execute anything like a passable pirouette in class. And there’s no real social interaction as an excuse. After all, you have to admit that half the charm of any social dance is that you get to do it with real, live members of the opposite sex. While in ballet you may dance alongside and, perhaps ideally, in unison with other people, you’re not really dancing with them but next to them. You don’t get to dance with someone else until you’ve gotten higher than I’ll ever go, assuming an obliging member of the opposite sex can be found. Actual men tend to be rather scarce in ballet. So… what is it about ballet that sends me hunting online bargains of cute dance warmups instead slavering over the expensive-but-exquisite goods on the tango shoe websites (ever so nice for Balboa)? What makes me willing to shell out extra money for an adult ballet class, and actually miss part of my university swing club night so I can attend?

So far what I’ve come up with is that ballet is one of the few dance forms where it’s ok for women to look serious. Most dances don’t go well with serious looks. Weekend before last I took a Westie workshop that challenged me in a number of ways, so I was concentrating hard. Towards the end the instructor reproached me a couple of times with, “You’re so serious! Smile!” See, in most dance forms you’re supposed to be happy all the time. “Big smiles, girls!” After all, a bright smile covers a multitude of dancing sins. And if you don’t look like you’re having fun, then, well, you must be doing something wrong. Lindy is very like this. I think of it being a little like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh: “Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!”

If you’re not being happy, then you’re being sexy. Think Blues. Or Tango. Tango is a very serious dance, but it’s in a we’re-barely-restraining-ourselves-from- ripping-each-other’s-clothes-off sort of way. You can be angry with Hip Hop, but otherwise it’s all looking languidly bored or playing up the sex. There’s very few dances where you get to be just plain serious. Or sad. It’s like sadness is the unacceptable emotion. Women can be happy, sexy, or (rarely) angry, but they can’t be serious or sad.

Not in ballet. This is a dance form in which one of the definitive performances is Anna Pavlova performing The Dying Swan. Death, sorrow, revenge – it’s all there along with the lighter, more acceptable emotions. You don’t have to be happy or sexy all the time, although ballet can definitely be both. When I dance ballet I can be myself, concentrating hard on the muscles I’m using, the line I’m reaching for, not worrying whether I’m looking happy or cute. When it comes time to let the emotions through I can mourn my friend’s rapidly approaching death from liver cancer. I can express how much I miss Joe. I can be myself, my whole self, not just the fun parts of me. And that, I think, is why I love ballet.

This past week I watched a new baby dancer from my university’s swing club get hooked on swing dancing. She came to the lesson and dance on Monday for the second week, then to Balboa Night on Tuesday. On Wednesday she ducked out of class early and totally ignored stacks of homework in order to come to Wednesday Night Swing. It reminded me of when I got my first taste of swing and went dancing three times in four days (there was no Tuesday Night Bal back then).

Dancing is addictive. When you find the dance that is really yours, the one that just gets you, you start fiending for it, spending all your available free time dancing, finding the thinnest of excuses for why you should ditch the rest of your life to go dancing. They say you’re really hooked when you buy the special shoes (something my friend has resisted so far). Some have questioned whether you can really be addicted to more than one kind of dancing. I think that often we have one dance form that’s our dancing drug of choice. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t easily have multiple addictions! Like addicts who hit several kinds of 12-step meetings, you’ll find swing dancers showing up at salsa night, belly dancers taking a shot at Lindy, and ballerinas who find they have a natural posture for ballroom.

I consider myself to have two dancing addictions, and am adding a third. Lindy Hop and the other vintage swing dances (East Coast, Charleston, Balboa) are my drug of choice. My life-long love of swing music and vintage style, plus the easy availability of vintage swing dancing in my area (I can go dancing at least four nights a week without having to drive more than fifteen minutes) ensures that this will probably stay my drug of choice for a long time. But I’m also addicted to West Coast Swing, which totally captured my heart last December. I’ve been willing to do crazy things to dance Westie, including spending money I don’t have on workshops I’m going to forget, and driving two hours each way to dance for an afternoon. Lack of ready cash is the only thing that has kept me from doing more, and I’m actively looking for ways to overcome even that obstacle.

Then this semester I signed up for Beginning Ballet. When I was little I took lessons for a few years with a professional ballet company. I loved it, but quickly learned that I did not have the body of a ballet dancer and never would. When band lessons started, I decided to play the trombone instead. Now I’m back to the ballet, and just like when I was a child, I love it. I love the calmness of it, the way you do these amazing things with your chin up and your back straight. I love the grace, and how the most commonplace movements become full of beauty. I love the way my body does things I never knew it could. I even love the way I look in my leotard and tights. (It’s amazing – I put those things on and suddenly I look like a dancer.)

Mostly, though, I love the way that ballet is improving my Lindy. The recurring issues that I’m always, always working on are my balance, especially on spins, and keeping my feet underneath me. Ballet is all about that. Twice a week for a month now I’ve been practicing being controlled and balanced, making smooth weight transfers and keeping my body properly aligned. It’s making a difference. Wednesday night I hit a break when I was dancing with Trey. I was balanced on the ball of one foot with the other foot in the air, and I stuck it for the whole break until Trey let me down again. I couldn’t have done that a month ago. It was freaking awesome.

If I was pushed, could I choose between my dancing addictions? I don’t know. I know that I can’t not dance anymore. I am a Dancer. I need to dance. Could I be content only dancing Lindy? Only Westie? Only ballet? I don’t know. Each one satisfies my heart in a different way. Each one contributes, in its own way, to making me a more well-rounded dancer. Without the ways that Westie and ballet are helping me improve, my Lindy would soon get very frustrating. Without the interaction of the social dances, ballet would get very lonely. Without the fun of Lindy and the training of ballet, Westie could soon become just a dance I’m not good at. Each of my dance addictions contributes to making me a more complete dancer.