Common Wisdom: Shall We Dance?

It became apparent to my mother early on that in terms of height I was headed in my father’s lofty direction. My vertical climb was slow and steady. I never experienced the horror of being the gawk at the end of the line — but I was close. Observing the tendency of tall girls to slouch, Mom sought to avert it in me. Destined to be tall, I would learn to carry those inches with grace and since the epitome of grace is classical ballet, I found myself its pupil at the age of seven. It would become a lifelong addiction. Of the many good things my mother did for me, this decision enriched my life in ways she could not have foreseen.

Except for periodic lapses, I continue a ballet student. My love affair with the barre began in tights and a peach crepe tunic with lavender satin belt, denoting beginner’s level. I walked, hand-in-hand with another little girl, across a daunting space to separate and curtsy to my imposing teacher, Madame Else Heilich. The exhilaration of the moment never left me. I hear myself saying to a succession of teachers, “this is the best hour of the week.” It is only a slight exaggeration.

Something happened when I encountered focus on, esteem for, belief in the perfectibility of the human body, raised to its apogee by professionals in performance. I saw this variously shaped clay housing the soul, the vehicle through which that spirit is expressed, transformed into a vessel of beauty.

Certain moments in life simultaneously explode upon the senses and the spirit, an awareness that “this is it,” this is man at his best, this is reaching another realm. On first hearing Handel’s Messiah. Seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta. Entering Cologne’s cathedral. It is poignantly perceived in the presence of the exquisitely honed ballet body because ballet is unique. Unlike other art, which requires external means for expression — paint, stone, keyboard — ballet uses the raw stuff, ballet uses the body. It affirms that flesh: it bends it, makes it sweat, and changes it from an undistinguished lump into a taut, flexible conduit of limitless emotional range.

A lot of people don’t know ballet and don’t like it—cause and effect. Some have been traumatized, others are intimidated by the unknown. My husband falls into the first category, although he is a recovering balletophobe. It was his plight to be exposed in junior high school to an assembly featuring a second-rate troupe who lumbered across the stage, pointe shoes striking the floor with resounding thuds. Marrying me was a great step forward; he got a second chance to reassess his dismissal of the art. While it cannot be said he would pass up a superbowl for Coppelia, at least he is at the intermediate level of appreciation.

Those in the category of fearing the unknown, who regard ballet as esoteric and tutu much are simply awash in misconception. Ballet is not all tulle and sequins. For every Swan Lake there are leotard ballets, against stark scenery and contemporary scores. There are whimsical ballets like Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, a droll send-up of various types who frequent the arts (in this case, a piano recital); wrenching short ballets, which are comparable as novellas to the novel, such as Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire; and the delicious interpretation of Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite by a guy in pleated pants and a gal in a spaghetti-strapped slip of a dress wearing heels (I was lucky enough to catch Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo in this one). What impresses is the knowledge that, behind all the amusing posturing and shenanigans of The Concert or the deceptively effortless, seamless partnering to Ol’ Blue Eyes, is a performer possessed of an intensively trained ballet body, one for whom muscle insubordination is intolerable.

Unlike Baryshnikov and Kudo, I never translated a foxtrot into art, but I did rebound from an inauspicious entry into partner dancing.

Each summer my family vacationed in Cape May, New Jersey, which had a large auditorium on a pier. Early Friday night dances were reserved for pre-teens, and I used to sit on the sidelines with my grandmother, never wanting to participate. One evening the inevitable happened. A boy appeared, looking very much like Dennis the Menace and clothed, no doubt to his distress, in jacket and tie. Cocking his head and squinting at my grandmother, he pointed to me and blurted without enthusiasm, “Does she dance?” My reaction was to sink into the vinyl chair, close my eyes, and vigorously shake my head in the negative. It is the last time I ever said no to an invitation to dance. Whenever I hear music, my shoes turn red.

Through the years I’ve had scores of partners and moments of pleasure in the arms of strong, graceful leaders. Unlike Gloria Steinem’s feminist plug for Ginger Rogers greater achievement over Astaire, I do not mind in the least dancing backwards in heels. What I do find unbearable is being in the grip of a man unacquainted with rhythm. I tend to resolve the problem. Having experienced my solution more than once, a neighbor declared, “Okay, now, let’s get it straight. I lead.” To which I replied, “Okay, as long as you have the beat.”

There’s no doubt ballet prepared me for ballroom dancing, not to mention imparting confidence in carriage which allowed me to enjoy modest success at runway modeling during a rather extended professional career. Ballet certainly undergirds most beautiful movement, nowhere more evident than at the Olympics in Albertville, where ice dancing and figure skating captured the gold in terms of viewer interest. Audiences and judges alike expect artistry to equal athleticism, and the loudest applause went precisely to competitors who delivered both.

It is heartening to see male Olympians literally skate into the center of attention because it generates admiration and forces us to rethink our supposition that a graceful male is a sissy. Patrick Swayze, who caused an epidemic female swoon in Dirty Dancing (an unfortunate title for a romantic film featuring dance). He detailed in many interviews the challenge of being a boy who sometimes wore tights. His compelling intensity and mastery of dance to a variety of tempos in the movie is the direct result of Swayze’s extensive years in ballet. For him, ballroom dancing is gearing down. He did for dance in 1988 what Gene Kelly had done three decades earlier: he gave us a very masculine physique and presence executing moves of incredible grace.

Male superstars who defected from Russian companies on tour deserve credit for sparking interest among Americans who otherwise would not be found in a ballet audience. Alerted by the media to the phenomenal virtuosity of a Nureyev, a Baryshnikov (to mention two), and curious to see what all the fuss was about, attendance soared. Many became enthusiasts, subscribing to their local companies. I envy the excitement of their belated discovery but, like a cradle Catholic, I’m grateful I had it from the beginning.

I was lucky. I was both participant and observer. Not only did I take lessons as a little girl, I was escorted to the estimable New York City Ballet when George Balanchine was its extraordinary director. I watched Maria Tallchief and Melissa Hayden and Tanaquil LeClerq (later crippled by polio, an ironic analogy to the deafening of Beethoven); I saw the electrifying Edward Villela, and Jacques d’Amboise hurtling like a sleek missile through space. I owe to ballet my love for classical music, introducing me as it did to the lyricism of Tchaikovsky and the complexities of Mahler. In so many ways indebted to ballet, I am puzzled as to why it is the orphan child of the arts. School children are taken regularly on field trips to museums, to opera and symphony matinees. But it is in ballet where color, drama, and music meet. Since the impulse to move to music is universal (one sees it in toddlers), it should follow that it would be the easiest appreciation to cultivate, instilled as it is by nature.

I never expected to encounter ballet stars off stage, but circumstances propelled me at various times into just such personal contacts. The most startling proximity, if not the least bit intimate, was at Zim’s on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. While savoring a hamburger, I noticed the arrival of a couple who sat across the counter from me and shortly proceeded to munch their own burgers. It was Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. Had I bumped into Princess Di at K-Mart I could not have been more stunned.

The most astonishing incident, however, occurred when I stood on a stage and introduced the daughter of a legend. I remember the impact of looking into a face so reminiscent of her father’s pictures, the realization she was flesh of his flesh, and the wildly unpredictable scenario that Madame Heilich’s pupil from New Jersey would be presenting to an audience Madame Kyra Nijinsky.

So this week, as every week, I will take my place at the barre. I will stand with Ingrid from Switzerland and Orli from Israel (Stanford post-graduate students), as well as assorted home-grown teens and adults. Once class begins language barriers fall, age differences disappear. We are one in focus as we melt into plies, at the same time lifting our torsos, instantly challenging rebellious bodies to comply with opposite commands. We see ourselves in the mirror reaching for perfection, inspired by those epiphanies when we looked on a stage, and saw it could be done.

  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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