Ballet in the real world

Kate_McMillan_dance2

Just balance. Plié a little better every time. Stick to the motion until the motion sticks to your body. You can always stand a little taller, and stretch a little further. Feel the rhythm of your aura. Really taste the water as you drink it. Remember that you don’t know your own strength, or your own beauty. Don’t forget to breathe.

My ballet teacher’s voice is so soothing that it makes Björk’s sound like witch nails on a rusty chalkboard, and these are the types of things she says to us, lowly students of her introductory ballet class on Monday evenings. I swim in this schmaltz like an earnest puppy, practically nodding to myself while thinking, “You know what? I CAN feel my heart beat and my cheeks flush! Heyo, my body IS capable of fabulous things! Get at me, world.” It doesn’t constantly occur to me that my form is far from fabulous, or that everyone can always feel her heart beat, or even that those phrases are definitional clichés.

For an hour and a half, once a week, I don’t question anything. There’s no unwritten rule at New Haven Ballet that I have to be critical of everything I hear or analytical about anything I do. Clichés are welcome, because there’s no pressure to be original; messing up is okay, because that’s really the only way to learn; closing your eyes whenever you feel like it is allowed, because you won’t miss eight vital things for every second your eyelids rest. This is a class not about being good, or even a class about doing good. It’s a class and a space and a time about feeling good. And for an hour and a half, once a week, I don’t worry about letting anybody down.

I’m the only Yale undergrad in the class of mostly married people who are, as they say, “in the real world.” (Note: you can change this! All y’all are wholly welcome to join before my teacher and her gloriously disarming voice move on from New Haven Ballet and go onto spa music recording stardom or something.)

I don’t know if any of the other students graduated from Yale, but I imagine some of them must have when I sense the perfectionist disquiet in the room. Some of them keep their eyes always on the teacher because trying to fouetté on their own and diverting from the exact set would be simply devastating. Others can’t stand the sheer failure of having broken fourth position two beats too soon; I can tell from their facial contortions that their self-loathing inner voices are reeling: “No! NO! Bad, Sasha, that was so bad!” The stakes are low, but anxiety runs high.

It’s an introductory course without auditions, rehearsals, credit or grading, but Sasha is enveloped in her own vanity (it seems like a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome situation to me). It’s not just that she has to look good — she also has to make it look easy. She has to do it better than everyone else in the room, and she has to get some kind of approval from the teacher.

Last week, I went in for a complicated move and laughed as I did it completely wrong. One woman rolled her eyes, and said, “You’re just so…in your twenties.” Is that how it goes, I thought, are we supposed to be footloose and fancy free right now and then become uptight and scared as we get older? Will there be a point when we stop laughing at our mistakes? Then I thought, oh right, our stakes — a B on a paper, your byline on an uninspired article, a bad improv performance — ARE so low.

Every time our teacher announces that we’ll do pliés and arabesques and turns individually across the room, the other women all pile in a corner, blushing and trying to remain unseen by the teacher and by one another. They’re totally shocked that I just go first and don’t seem to get embarrassed when I fall, which is almost always but who’s really counting? Well, maybe they are. Maybe they’re so convinced they’ll be judged because they’re passing harsh judgment. And, okay, I must look straight up foolish trying a triple turn for the first time. But at least I did something, left the corner, moved my body, gave it “great action,” as my teacher would say. Why would I care what anybody thinks of how I look flailing around, when we’re all — all of us, every single one — just beginners?

The New Haven Ballet’s Open Division Beginner’s Course meets on Monday from 6:30-8:00 p.m. at 591 Whitney Avenue. Yale students receive discounted tuition fees.

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