A Dream Deferred

Until I was around twelve years old, I wanted to be a ballerina.  This is not an uncommon dream for many little girls, but I was slightly more serious than most of my ballet slipper-wearing counterparts in the town where I grew up.  I used to check out as many ballet videotapes as I could from my local library while also building my own collection thanks to birthday and Christmas gifts from my parents.  I’d spend hours watching Swan Lake, the Nutcracker (with MacCaulay Culkin riding his post-Home Alone 90s fame to the New York City Ballet…odd choice), Giselle with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and my very favorite: Romeo & Juliet starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.  I had at least twenty different books about ballet technique from the Ballet Book with Darcey Bussell and the Royal Ballet School to Stories from the Ballet to my favorite which was a tattered copy of A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz.  This last book chronicles the life of a ten year old student at the School of American Ballet and her role as Marie in the Nutcracker back in 1976 (hence the tattered cover).

I figured myself a ballet expert by the tender age of seven years old.  Many of my friends didn’t exactly understand my obsession with tights and leotards, dancing princes, and supernatural stories, but I didn’t care.  Whenever a touring company would come through to the University of Missouri, my mother would put me in the car and we’d drive thirty minutes to see my favorite ballets performed live, much to my (and also her) great delight.  I can still remember the way the dancers in the Corps seemed to just float across the stage on pointe with their bourrees in Act II of Giselle.  It was magic.

Though I already possessed a great love of dance at an early age, my parents didn’t enroll me in classes until I was five, wanting to make sure I was truly serious enough to pay attention in class and actually learn the technique.  So at five, I was put into classes at a local studio where I went once a week to learn to dance.  Though it was an all-inclusive studio in terms of styles, we naturally started with ballet.  I learned things quickly and thanks to my intense study of my favorite dancers at home, my technique was better than anyone else in class.  When I was around twelve, my mom enrolled me in a pointe class at a separate dance studio in town, and I soon became accustomed to the blisters, calluses, blood, and agony that is the beauty of dancing on pointe.  I was also extremely tall at twelve, standing a head above most of the other girls in my class.  By the time I graduated high school, I had reached my current height of 5’10”.  Tall for a ballet dancer usually means about 5’7″ and I was well over that by the time I started pointe.

My height wasn’t the first sign my career in the ballet wasn’t meant to be.  I loved dance and with the studying of other styles, I began to love tap and modern.  Oh that first modern class was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Other interests took over too: acting, singing, playing instruments.  And I kept reading.  The more I read about the ballet dancers I loved so greatly, the more I realized how intense and time-consuming their training truly was.  If I wanted to be a professional ballerina, I should have been in class six days a week for at least 3-4 hours a day at a serious studio in a bigger city.  Dancing is not only a profession but a lifestyle because of its grueling physical exercise coupled with a restrictive, healthy diet.  If you decide to devote your life to ballet, you really don’t have time to do anything beyond that.  I wanted to be free to explore all my artistic avenues, so my ballet dream began dying like Giselle’s weakened heart.

Or Juliet after stabbing herself.  Or the Swan Princess.  You can pretty much take your pick of any of ballet’s heroines.  For the most part, it just doesn’t turn out well.

It was sad giving up my ballet dream.  I know if I had grown up in a bigger city with more studios, I could have had the opportunity to enhance my technique and possibly progress further.  My turnout would be better.  I’d be more flexible.  If I worked hard enough, I could maybe have danced in the corps de ballet of some company somewhere.  But none of that came to pass.  Whenever I’m at Lincoln Center, I look a bit wistfully on the young girls leaving ballet class at the School of American Ballet (the feeder program into the New York City Ballet, which has been my favorite ballet company since birth).  I’m so jealous of their opportunity to study at the place that George Balanchine built, but more than that, it’s like looking at an alternate reality of me.  I could have been one of them in another life if some things had gone differently.  Some of those girls will dance roles I love, some of them will be in the corps, and some of them will turn out like me: pursuing other passions with equal diligence and love as they did dance careers.

I still have such love and respect for the ballet and its dancers even though my little girl dream never turned into a grown up reality.  I think part of me knew I’d never truly become the next Fonteyn or Kirkland or Farrell, but it was fun to pretend that I could.  Perhaps this is why I chose acting instead: because I loved make-believe and fairy tales and I was already so good at pretending.  All the lessons I learned from ballet and studying it (whether in class or on my own at home) can be applied to acting: posture, physicality, composure, elegance, discipline, respect for the art-form.  I’ve always been graceful and had a natural ability for dance, but I think deeper dreams have always existed inside of me, even if I never started unearthing them until I was a little older.

Although I’ll never dance for NYCB or ABT, I still take ballet classes once in awhile at Ailey here in the City.  It feels familiar, like an old friend, when I start my pliés and tendus at the barre.  There is a comfort in the structure of ballet: the barrework, petite allegro, adagio, grande allegro, turns, reverance.  Even the aches and pains afterward feel familiar and not altogether unwelcome.  For a few minutes, I am the realization of my eight year-old self’s dream: I am a ballet dancer in New York City.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I was just a little girl in the middle of Missouri dreaming of becoming a ballerina, but it’s close enough.

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