(Originally published Sept. 6, 2008, Austin American-Statesman)
My 5-year-old daughter this summer completed a six-week pre-ballet course at Ballet Austin, under the kind and firm guidance of a graceful teacher named Toni Bravo. The name Bravo connotes a certain destiny, I think. To teach preschoolers both the creativity of movement and the discipline of ballet requires an unusually well-balanced demeanor, one comprised of the opposing forces of levity and rectitude. I chose this pre-ballet program carefully. I gave much consideration to my daughter’s stubborn temperament and kinesthetic nature, her fascination with ballet, and my own desire to introduce dance without relying on sparkly costumes. I aimed to bring her into the dancer’s creative but disciplined world. But I didn’t realize then how much the class would bring to the surface my own buried need to dance again.
At the last class, parents, siblings and friends file into a small studio with gray walls upstairs at Ballet Austin. Late afternoon sunshine streams through a pair of large windows opposite the mirrored wall. I sit next to my husband and toddler daughter on plastic chairs placed in front of the floor-to-ceiling studio mirror. I watch the treetops swaying as 12 little girls in robin’s egg blue leotards and pink tights and shoes line up at the door. They tiptoe single file into the center of the room to the encouragement of Ms. Bravo’s voice with its pleasing accent, not from a country associated with ballet, such as Russia or France, but Mexico. Her nurturing tone seems appropriately Texan, yet her tutorial manner is pure ballet. Aurally and visually, Ms. Bravo communicates to her tiny students that when class begins, so does another standard for their behavior.
The girls form a straight line, hold hands and spread arms’ length apart. They zig-zag to create two lines, giving them ample space for the next 40 minutes of movement. They plié in first position. They point their toes and connect imaginary dots on the floor. They place their hands on their shoulders and awkwardly but successfully sit down without touching the floor with their hands. Ms. Bravo applies natural metaphors to their simple movements – they are caterpillars, they are butterflies. They stretch to the sky and curl into a ball. They inch across the floor. When they stand up again, they go to a circus, where they walk a tightrope and jump off. They creep like cats, arms swinging opposite their legs. They form a circle as elephants and use their trunks to drink, to shower, to water the ground.
As I watch this class, I am reminded that my daughter seems happiest when she is moving her body. When she stands on a single spot and listens to Bravo, she fidgets, chewing her finger or pulling her hair. But as soon as she is given permission to move, her body and mind enliven. It is not prodigious movement, but I observe her body and her eyes and I see how the freedom to sway, prance and pretend fills her with joy.
After class, our family wanders the hallways of the Ballet Austin school, peering into classes where young students practice jazz, ballet, musical theatre. The pleasure and labor of movement permeates the environment. I walk away from my family who are watching young women on pointe, and I go to the front desk. For six weeks I have been in this building as a ballet student’s mommy. But at that moment, I decide that I am here to dance, too. It is 5:20 p.m. I buy a four-class pass to the Ballet Austin community school.
There is a 6 p.m. jazz class called Musical Theatre. I confer with my husband. He will take our 3-year-old daughter home. My 5-year-old will stay and watch me. I am going to dance.
I take my daughter’s hand and we rush into a nearby sporting goods store, where she helps me select brown Lycra cropped pants and an orange halter top. Twenty-five years ago, I might have needed a black crew neck leotard and pink tights to enter that dance studio. But at age 38, taking a dance class is not about discipline, uniformity and perfect technique. It is about moving my body. It is about forgiving its imperfections that loom large in a 12-foot-high mirror. It is about admiring your lines, no matter how they have changed.
Ninety sweaty minutes later, after wobbly grand plies, awkward chassés and shaky arabesques, I am inspired and obsessed with two questions. Why did I ever stop dancing?
What is the value of dance without a professional dance career in my future? I began dancing in 1977 and leapt my way through numerous studios, auditions, recitals, and classes until 10 years ago. When my own age and ability extinguished youthful dreams, I stopped. I couldn’t answer the second question, and I put my shoes in a drawer.
But last month I returned to Ballet Austin once a week, re-learning jazz and trying hip hop. After one Saturday afternoon class, I wept in my car because I realized that I never should have stopped dancing.
Bravo’s inspirational pre-ballet class held lessons for me, as well. We dance for its sake as well as our own.
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(c) Laura Bond Williams, 2008-2011. All rights reserved.