“When I grow up,” I wrote for a first-grade assignment, “I want to be a ballerina.” At this point I was taking one ballet class a week, at a studio 30 minutes south of my house. I loved the routine of this: my mom pulling my hair into a bun and helping me shimmy into my pink tights and baby blue leotard. Each week I silently walked into the studio and stepped into first position, my left hand on the barre.
Every ballet class has the same structure: the first half is at the barre. Your movements grow progressively larger, warming up the different muscles you need to dance. The order of combinations is always the same: pliés, tendus, dégagés, frappés, rond de jambes, fondus, grand battements, adagio.
When you start, the ballet barre is on your left side and your left fingers rest on top of it. Your heels touch and your toes point away from each other. The turnout of your feet should spiral up your legs, so that if you were to draw a line up the front of each leg — from your third toe up your shin and through the center of your thigh — the lines would face away from each other. My teachers always told me to pretend my legs were barbershop poles: energy spiraling upward and outward. This is first position.
The combination for pliés generally doesn’t change at all.Two demi pliés (bend your legs a little) and one grand plié (bend your legs a lot) in each position: first, second, fourth and fifth. Somewhere around eight, you age out of third position. But the rest hasn’t changed. This is how I started ballet classes at age four; this is how I start ballet classes now.
After pliés, the combinations vary from class to class. The teacher creates a sequence of steps for each exercise, sets it to piano music, and teaches it. You do it on the right side, and then the left side, and then probably never again.
My obsession with ballet took off two years before I wrote this in my first grade class, when my mom and aunts took me to see “The Nutcracker” for the first time. I was four years old and entranced. At the end of Act I, fake snow falls from above the stage while the corps de ballet waltzes below. This is one of my most vivid early memories. I wanted, more than anything, to be onstage.
My chief goal, then, was to be Clara, the show’s young star. Clara receives the titular nutcracker for Christmas and is so enamored that she sneaks back to her living room after dark and sleeps under the Christmas tree, clutching her doll. In my favorite pictures of myself from these years, I’m trying to do the same: curling up in the space between the bottom boughs and the floor, pretending to sleep, and holding a nutcracker as if it were a stuffed animal. Maybe I was hoping to live out Clara’s storyline — to be transported to the Land of the Sweets. More likely, I was wishing that one day I’d be doing the same onstage.
In second grade, I quit. I had grown bored of the repetition. My mom sent my ballet teacher a letter saying she was pretty sure I’d find my way back to a studio, and in a few months, I did. Other than this, I never waivered. Flouncing around my house in tutus as a four-year-old became practicing pirouettes as a 10-year-old. By the time I was 12, I was dancing around the house with such abandon that my parents had to institute a new rule: no dancing in the kitchen. Until I was 18, I took class six times per week and rehearsed for hours afterward, until my feet bloodied and my toenails bruised.
At barre, you focus on your technique. Are your knees pulled up? Are your abs engaged? Shoulders down? Arm lifted and sloped? Fingers separated the right amount? The second half of class is called center, and you think about these things then, too. But the theory is this: if you work hard enough at barre, your muscles will know what to do when you get to center. Then, you can focus on coordinating more challenging movements. Center is where you turn and waltz and fly across the studio. Center is where you dance.
I don’t know when I stopped saying that I wanted to be a ballerina. I don’t remember ever feeling faced with a decision: I knew I wanted to go to college, and I knew it wouldn’t be for dance. I dance for fun now. I’m far too old to dream of professional ballet — often, you have to set on that path by 15. I don’t think I’ve made a mistake. But it’s hard to shake the feeling, tugging deep in my chest, that I’ve lost touch with who I was and who I wanted to be.
A ballet class is a warm up: by the end, your body is ready for a rehearsal, when you learn choreography. Class is where you improve, too. Ballet doesn’t have an end point — you can always be better.
But classes are rituals, too. Even the best dancers in the world take class every single morning, for their entire careers. These days, this ritual restores that connection with my childhood self. Every version of me has done pliés followed by tendus and rond de jambes and has carried my arms through the same pathways. Every version of me has tried to turn faster and has felt the strain in my back from pushing my arabesque higher.
The longest I’ve ever gone without a class was 13 months, during my gap year. The second longest was three months, this past summer. If I took three days off when I danced seriously, I’d come back feeling like my body didn’t quite fit together. My standards are lower these days. I peaked at 17; I won’t ever be that dancer again. Ballet class is no longer 90 minutes of trying to fix what’s out of place. It’s 90 minutes of remembering how it feels to be me.