As I hoisted myself out of the pool this morning after my ritual 3,000-yard workout, a woman in the lane next to me said, “You have such lovely strokes.” I was about to thank her when she added, “It was like watching ballet.”
Clearly this woman had no idea about my brief and unfortunate history with ballet.
When I was five or six, my mother enrolled me in a weekly ballet class that took place in the cafeteria of Hunt Valley Elementary school in Springfield, Virginia, and was led by a lady named Mrs. Sardinia. Whether because I lacked coordination, didn’t like my teacher, or was constantly distracted by the lingering scent of tater tots, I failed to achieve minimal competence, even by six year-old standards. After a few months, Mom gave up on my ballet career and signed me up for soccer and swimming, two sports that have a fair amount of mercy on people who struggle to remain upright.
Ballet and I didn’t cross paths again until the summer of 1997, when my dear friend LC called, hoping to enlist me to join her in taking a class of some sort through Arlington County Parks & Rec. I asked what she had in mind.
“I’m interested in lots of things,” she said, “like volleyball, badminton, archery and tennis.” I rejected the first three summarily — they reminded me all too much of my seventh grade P.E. curriculum—but told her tennis sounded great. She volunteered to get us signed up for it, which required some effort in those days. You couldn’t just hop on a website, you had to do something outrageous like place a call or, even worse, show up.
When LC called again a week later, she told me she had good news and bad news. I requested the good news first.
“We’re signed up for a class!” she said.
Since that eliminated what I thought was the worst-case scenario, I asked for the bad news.
“Tennis was full, so I signed us up for something else,” she said. “Intermediate ballet.” Ballet would have been bad enough, but intermediate ballet? It implied the successful completion of a prerequisite. Not only that, but I had no gear for any level of ballet. When I expressed my reservations, LC offered a reassuring, “I’m sure you won’t be the worst student in the class.” As a peace offering of sorts she volunteered to pick up ballet slippers for me.
When the day of the first class arrived, I still had no ballet-worthy attire above the ankles. I’d also had a root canal that morning and was operating under a slight Percocet haze, which made a shopping trip on the way to LC’s seem like a perfectly good idea. I stopped at a discount retailer and went to the activewear section, where an alarming array of neon and animal prints assaulted my eyeballs. When I spotted what looked like an inoffensive, solid blue leotard I grabbed it off the rack, made a beeline for the checkout and drove to LC’s apartment.
We decided to change into our clothes there, in case the community center where we were taking the class didn’t have a locker room. I donned a pair of standard-issue white tights, ripped the tags off the leotard I’d bought, and pulled it over top of the tights. Something didn’t feel quite right about the coverage as I walked out of the bathroom. Either my butt had grown, or I’d grabbed a seriously irregular factory second. I took a few more steps and realized I’d bought…a thong.
On seeing me, LC collapsed into a giggling heap. When she regained her composure she offered me a pair of shorts to wear as cover, which I gratefully accepted. I’d like to tell you my indignities ended there, but that was only the beginning.
Our instructor, a sweet, petite, graceful woman named Doreen, spent the next several weeks doing the best she could with me. She showed us how to cross our legs and turn our feet out, but I couldn’t replicate it. Whenever I tried, I always wound up looking like a first-grader in desperate need of a restroom. Doreen taught us other ballet essentials like the jeté, a step Wikipedia describes as “a leap in which one leg appears to be thrown in the direction of the movement.” My inability to initiate the movement portion left my leg disoriented and prone to throwing itself in the direction of other dancers, some of whom apparently failed to appreciate that yes, ballet is a contact sport.
I might not have worried about any of it had Doreen not informed us right up front that our class would culminate in a recital. I made the mistake of mentioning this to my parents one night over dinner. The news spread far and wide, or at least far enough to reach my sister Lynne, who at the time was going through a rough patch. On the day of the recital, Lynne called me at work sounding particularly blue. She’d been having a terrible day, she told me. Ever the concerned sister, I asked if there was anything I could do to help.
“I don’t know,” she said. She waited a few beats to make sure I grasped the depth of her despondence and then said, “You could let me come to your recital.”
I knew I’d been had, but I caved. Doreen had wisely hidden me at the back of the class, so I figured no matter how bad I was, Lynne wouldn’t see much of me anyway.
As the recital got underway, it didn’t take long for my sister to start convulsing with laughter. When I made my way over to her after our performance ended, she was doubled over, gasping for air and barely able to speak.
“You…jump…like…an…elephant!” Her congratulations complete, she resumed cackling. So much for my invisibility theory.
The material I gave Lynne not only got her through that dark period but has sustained her ever since. She tells that story every chance she gets, occasionally swapping out the elephant for a water buffalo, yak, or other animal of appropriate enormity, and she always earns rave reviews.
If dancers are the messengers of God, as Martha Graham famously said, the Almighty had told me in no uncertain terms to trade my slippers for flip-flops and stick to the pool.