Downtime

The Little Light

On starting ballet at age 62.

An older woman in dance getup looks out of a window, her hands on some bars
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The dance studio had just opened on my corner—I didn’t even have to cross a street to get there. So what I asked myself was just how lazy I would have to be not to try a class. I had fond, if vague, childhood memories of the weekly modern dance classes I took for five or six years at the famous Marjorie Mazia School in Brooklyn, where I grew up. Marjorie was a former Martha Graham dancer and Woody Guthrie’s wife. (I do remember Nora Guthrie as the “big girl” who danced at the front of the studio, so we little girls could follow her, and Arlo as the sullen teenager who would sometimes sit in a corner scowling over a book. I also remember Marjorie’s long green wrap skirt and tambourine and her urging us to move “like the flame of a candle.”) I quit Marjorie’s at 12, when the presumably more mature pleasures of junior high school beckoned (I was wrong, obviously; there were no pleasures, only pain), and I don’t remember missing it, but it had left its mark: The thought of a dance class did not fill me with despair or fury the way a Pilates class or the contemplation of a gym membership would have. Plus, I enjoyed dancing at parties. So maybe this would be fun, I told myself. Maybe I wouldn’t hate it.

I didn’t hate it. I didn’t hate it so much that almost right from the beginning I was in tears—that peculiar sort of crying that comes from joy that surprises you. Doing my first tendus, my first rond de jambes, I swear I felt the way I’d felt when I held my newborn daughter for the first time—that Oh-how-I’ve-missed-you! feeling that makes no logical sense. There is no reason it should have felt so right to have one hand on the barre as I extended a foot that I was concentrating very hard on simultaneously turning out and pointing—concentrating not only on that pointed foot, but also on muscles throughout both that leg and the other leg, the one that was supposedly just standing still. And on my right arm in second position. Concentrating and wondering how something that looked so simple could possibly require so much thought, so much focus, so much attention to detail, so much invisible strength.

I believe what happened that day was that I fell in love.

There were only four of us in the room that first day. Three students (two old, as in over 50, and one young, as in under 20) and Filippo Pelacchi, the teacher (who was very young himself, although not in dancer years—he had just turned 28). If I cannot recreate every one of the 75 minutes of that first adult beginner class I took in the summer of 2017, it’s because by now I’ve spent approximately 84,000 more minutes in that studio—that is, 1,400 hours, something like 950 dance classes plus rehearsals for performances, and those minutes run together in my mind. But I do know this—that in that very first class, long before I had any idea what I was doing, long before I was part of the community of devoted adult beginners that would form at Filippo and his husband Russell Lepley’s studio, I had a moment of what seemed like perfect clarity: My body and my mind were working as one.

And this was something I had no experience of. During the brief periods of my life when I’ve exercised—when I’ve taken up swimming or aerobics or yoga—I had always turned off my mind in order to attend to my body. That was why it was fun (when it was fun), and I wanted it to be fun—how else could I get through it?

But I saw, that first day in the dance studio, that it was the work of ballet that appealed to me—the mental work, I mean. Which I am accustomed to: I’m a writer and a teacher, so all my work is mental work. But in ballet there was what seemed to me a remarkable twist: I was living that mental work in my body.

In my body—with which, even more remarkably (even more improbably), I was making art.

My relationship to my body, like many women’s, has long been fraught. For many years I had hardly felt as if I had a body at all. What I had was a container for my mind. I was aware of my body only around matters of sex (at those times it seemed useful to have one) and when I was annoyed or angry or disgusted with it, which was often. My body was too fat (almost always), and while it was never that fat—never more than, at most, what Roxane Gay calls “Lane Bryant fat”—it was very often fat enough to make me angry both with it and with myself for “allowing” it to be so. I was forced to be aware of it too when it so often, so inconveniently, failed me (the tendonosis in my wrist and forearm thanks to overuse of track pad and mouse; the repeated back injuries, thanks to sitting hunched over the keyboard; so many sprained ankles ever since I’d sprained one for the first time on the first day of junior high school—falling down the stairs, my dress flying over my head—but that’s another story for another time).

The only other time my body impressed itself upon me was during my pregnancy—when, unlike many women, I was madly in love with it. That remains the only time I have ever examined myself in a full-length mirror without any clothes on and regarded myself as frankly gorgeous. I stood naked in front of the mirror every day, admiring my pregnant body. After all, I had never considered my body especially useful before—as I say, it was a mostly irritating container for what I thought of as my “actual self.” But now it was profoundly useful. And the overall shape of it, the wide hips and protruding belly and big soft drooping breasts, looked exactly right, exaggerated and necessary and important. I felt as tenderly toward it as I did toward the baby it was housing.

And I remember that after my daughter was born, I—like every other woman I have ever talked to about this—felt alienated from the body, the container, that the baby had left behind.

In ballet, my body is not a container. In ballet, there is no separating the body and the mind. I have to think hard to create the shapes, to make the movements, of ballet. Even standing still in first position—which to the observer doesn’t look like anything—requires the engagement of muscles that will not turn on without my express command, muscles that do not engage reflexively the way my muscles do when going about ordinary tasks. There is nothing ordinary, nothing of the daily life, about ballet.

And I am a sucker for the not-ordinary. For the non-routine.

When I think back on that first day of dance, I understand that it was as if I had been built for ballet. Not in my then–180-pound, 5’2” body, but in my—if you will pardon the expression—soul.

And there is this: Almost from the start I saw that ballet would fulfill a longing I’d had as far back as I could remember, a longing that accounts for the pleasure I take in hosting and leading a Passover Seder although I am a firmly nonbelieving Jew, a longing that expresses itself in how much I have always envied my poet friends their sonnets and villanelles and ghazals. It’s a need for something that is formally specific, codified, part of a long tradition—something that not only has history but that has not changed much over time. It now seems to me surprising that I hadn’t known how much I would love making movement that so many had made before, movement that would be recognizable in previous centuries and centuries to come—and that would become mine as well, simply by my own attempts at thoughtfully performing them. Like a Seder, like a villanelle. But with my body. In my body.

Ballet is not for everyone, I know. To enjoy practicing it, you must enjoy doing the same things over and over again (and only sometimes—even rarely—doing them any better than you did the last time). In a ballet class, you feel, always, as if you are preparing for something. And for most people, it’s preparation that leads to nothing except more preparation.

And in ballet, unlike most other areas of life, “preparation” itself is an art form, or at least it is to me. I have never stood at the barre and done a tendu—the apparently simple act of extending the working leg along the floor until only the toes remain there, as the other leg remains apparently still—that I have not taken enormous pleasure in. I have never—not even in that first class—done a tendu thoughtlessly. And even after hundreds of thousands of tendus at the barre, I am still concentrating hard on each one. There would be no point in doing them at all if I were only going through the motions.

And here is a curiosity (the kind of paradox I particularly like): By definition, the 45 minutes or so I spend at the barre, the first half of every ballet class, is literally a period of “going through the motions”—that is, moving through a set of prescribed physical activities—but that phrase, which itself means “thoughtlessly, automatically,” is the opposite of what is being done. Even as these “motions” become second nature, as by this time so many of them are to me—the lift of the kneecaps, the wrapping of the muscles of the thighs around their corresponding bones, the lifting without clenching of the buttocks, the rotation of the arms, the visualization of the invisible strings (this one from hand to knee, drawing the knee up as the arm comes around; this one connecting the heel to the opposing shoulder) and of the body’s spirals and the “little light” in the chest—they still require focus, care, intention. No matter how familiar ballet gets, it remains unlike breathing or walking or what happens when we sit down or stand up. In ballet, there is a sort of tuning the mind in to the place on its dial that monitors the body’s placement and carriage. It’s like the difference between talking and singing—the difference between talking and singing well. That elevation of the everydayness.

I would dance every day, but the studio is closed on Fridays. When I travel, I find a class to take too, although even the best one is never as satisfying to me as one of Filippo’s or Russell’s. One reason for this, I’m sure, is that those two have devoted themselves to the art of working with people like me—people who come to dance late in their lives yet take it seriously once they do so. And then there is the fact that the two of them are as loving, encouraging, and simultaneously rigorous as one could ever hope a teacher would be.

And so I arrive at the studio after a long day of teaching or a day of writing or, most often, a day crammed with writing, then preparing for class, then teaching, then hours of advising students and reading and commenting on their writing. There have been weeks, when we’re in rehearsal for a piece Russell has made for us, when I’ve spent upward of 16 hours in the studio. And it’s not just me: As Filippo calls out, “Remember, a balance is not a pose! Let it breathe! Let it live!” I’m surrounded by people who are not “dancers” but have made dance a significant part of their lives. Judith is an epidemiologist, 10 years older than I am. Mallory is a pediatric nurse, Lindsey a clinical social worker. Charity homeschools her five children. Danielle is teaching 10 classes this year in seven different university departments and has a 5-year-old daughter. Rian is a fashion model, manages a grocery store, and runs a business out of his home. All of my dance friends have busy, interesting, complicated lives. And yet here we are, day after day, leading with our hearts, as Russell says.

Sometimes the ballet advice sounds a lot like life advice.

Build a solid structure, Filippo tells us, and then find the open spaces where you can experiment, be yourself, and make it your own.

With stability comes freedom. If you are strong in your center, the rest can move freely around it.

Everything is connected. Everything you do is informed by what you have done before.

Commit to the transitions, he urges us. Even though they are not the highlights, they are the platform for the highlights.

And: No matter what happens, stay in it. Even if you forget or make a mistake, keep moving. “Here I am!” Own it. And then find your way back in.

Search every moment for what is there. Especially in the pauses, you have time to find something new, the next thing.

But sometimes, of course, ballet has nothing to do with life. Sometimes Russell or Filippo offer concrete, specific, relevant-only-to-dance advice, and making use of it is so immediately effective that I am startled into laughing aloud.

One Sunday afternoon, as we balanced in passé, Filippo said, “Imagine hands placed here, lifting you up and holding you there”—and I was able to do that: I imagined those hands and actually felt myself lift higher out of my own legs, balancing, it seemed to me, both higher and longer than I ever had before. And sometimes what I feel in my body is confirmed—by a glance in the mirror, or by Judith or Cheryl or Tamie behind me at the barre. Sometimes, for a moment, I make precisely the shape I have been seeking to make for months, years, and it is a kind of holy experience, something that goes even beyond the surprise that I am fully living in my body for the first time in my life. I am in balance: entirely at one with myself, body and mind, never posing, always in flux, poised for the next thing.