The summer before my sixth birthday, my mother asked whether I’d be interested in taking a ballet class. And so began a decade marked by black leotards and pink tights, tutus, moleskin, lambs wool, and pointe shoes.
And the custom-welded ballet barre that resided in my family’s living room.
I was struck dumb the first time I took my daughter to a dance shop, and that familiar smell uniquely associated with those years swirled round me. Is it the leather of the shoes? I’m not sure, but it is distinct, familiar, and nostalgic.
This time of year, as dance schools prepare for spring recitals and performances, I’m reminded of my love for classical ballet that began in a large Victorian home converted into a YWCA.
Larger than life to a child, this building held magic that still visits me in my dreams. High ceilings with chandeliers, hidden hallways, majestic fireplaces, and three floors of antiquated mystery. On the rare occasions when our practice was relegated to the third floor (or was it only the second?), unexplained noises led to rumors of a haunting.
In comparison to the newly-renovated exterior befitting the businesses it now houses, the home was in relative disrepair in the 1970s and ’80s, when I visited multiple times a week.
Large, but ill-suited to dance classes due to protruding walls, the building is only a part of the hazy affection that permeates my memories of ballet. My days and evenings there were inhabited by a beautiful, talented, and kind instructor, who promoted discipline and expected our best. I was surrounded by girls and women of diverse ages,who were peers and role models.
Google “benefits of ballet,” and you’ll find all sorts of lists. Here is mine:
Ballet exposed me to classical music. My instructor used strictly classical music for practice. Even today, I shun the use of contemporary music for classical performance. I listened to Chopin, Adam, and a variety of musical greats unknown to me at the time. It dovetailed with my study of piano, and increased my appreciation of music. I developed a love for the romantic artistry of Petr Ilyich Tchaivosky.
Ballet pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I’d like to think that I exhibited at least average ability, but I was consistently pushed to do better, which helped me grow not only as a dancer, but as a young lady.
Ballet constituted regular exercise. Not part of the aerobic fad ushered in by Jane Fonda, ballet provided aerobic exercise, interval training, stretching and flexibility. It required strength, precision, and grace, all while giving a great workout.
Ballet improved my posture. How could it not? How many times can a person hear, “Chin up, shoulders back and down,” and not stand a little taller, a little more confident, and comport oneself with a touch more grace?
Ballet provided an outlet for creativity and expression. More than anything else, this is what ballet has meant to me and what I believe was its greatest benefit. It sparked my imagination and enlivened my soul.
It equipped me with a mode of transcendence and elevation that I’ve not known in any other pursuit.
Ballet introduced me to a foreign language. Despite my German heritage and Italian ancestry only one generation removed from Italy, I was not exposed to foreign languages either in the home or in life in general. The small Catholic grade school I attended did not offer foreign language instruction. Perhaps the only semi-regular exposure I had was when my parish assisted a family of Vietnamese refugees, and I overheard their chatter in the back of our car.
I soon became fluent in both understanding and speaking French terms. When in high school I had to choose a language to study, I chose French.
Ballet enhanced my relationships. Ballet classes were the source of many friendships, if only temporary ones. It has bridged generations and given me a shared interest with my niece, nephew, and now my oldest daughter.
In ending, I’ll share with you my favorite scene of any ballet in which I’ve performed: Act 2 of Adam’s Giselle, The Willis (described in the previous link as “(vengeful female spirits who died abandoned on their wedding days) [who] rise from their shallow graves at night to haunt and kill men.”) Yikes!
I think the whole thing is lovely, but my favorite part begins at 6:40. I remember every last one of those hopping arabesques.
Did you take dance instruction as a child? If so, what were the benefits?