Bad Day for a Ballerina
By Kathleen Flinn
I’m a geek. You might not know it to look at me, but trust me I have most of the credentials. It was worse when I was younger. My saving graces came from ballet.
At age 8, I saw “Giselle” on PBS. The dreamlike images of the sylphs seemed like magic conjured in the form of idyllic, radiant beauty. I decided that my goal to become Wonder Woman wasn’t all that realistic. Instead, I begged my parents for ballet lessons.
Eventually, they relented. I entered the sacred world of Davonne’s School of Dance, a storefront with opaque, light-blue curtains that hid the bustle of a busy street. In my first class, I learned the five positions, and to plie, point and jete. I was in heaven.
Now, admittedly, I was a complicated kid, given to bouts of deep daydreaming and easy dips into mild obsession. (A year earlier, I was transfixed on UFOs, for example.) It’s not surprising that I took the whole thing a little too seriously.
While my friends bought Van Halen records, I snagged tattered classical box sets from yard sales. I checked out all the books about ballet from the library, including heavy tomes on dance theory. I practiced relentlessly. At night, I would head outside to the cooling Florida evening, move the patio furniture and dance under the cover of fragrant trees until bedtime. In makeshift costumes, I took on all the parts to the major ballets, sure that one day my performance as the White Swan would move sold-out crowds at The Met to tears. I even practiced my curtain calls, cradling imagery roses.
At 13, additional begging got me into a summer arts camp. I choreographed several pieces, including one to Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and always made sure to give myself plenty of solos. A local newspaper photographer wandered in one day, took some photos and wrote a story. The result was a two-page photo spread under the headline, “Dreams of a Young Ballerina.” My father proudly bought 25 copies. He joked about the big scrapbook we’d need, once I grew up to be a famous dancer.
Three months later, he died.
My father had been suffering with cancer for a long time, but I never thought he’d actually die. Life changed. Money got tight. Ballet lessons didn’t fit in the budget for a time, so I arranged to clean the studio in exchange for classes. This arrangement offered me a key. After hours, I would play Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite, and dance and dance, as if to push the sorrow through my pores like sweat.
At 15, I started skipping the occasional sixth period so that I could take private lessons and not miss track practice. Secretly, I made plans to audition that summer for two dance companies and a chance to study at a school in New York. I figured that I could tell my mom if I got in. In a family where it’s assumed you’ll go to college, preferably to get a graduate degree, how do you announce that you’d rather be a ballerina?
But first, I had another goal: getting to the state track meet that May. I’d joined the team a year earlier to be close to a boy I liked, and fell in love with the hurdles instead. I discovered they were like ballet; it was about form, strength and control.
At the district competition, though, my right heel caught the top of a slightly askew hurdle. I crashed hard.
My injuries did as much mental harm as physical damage. I missed the auditions. Then, teenage life got complicated. I got a part-time job, a boyfriend and a driver’s license. Dancing drifted to second place, then third. People started asking me what I was going to do with my life, and expecting an answer. “You can’t be serious,” one friend scoffed. “Dancers make like $10,000 a year, their careers are over at 30 and then where are you? You’re smart, you should go to law school or get an MBA.”
I decided she was right. At 18, I moved to Chicago, went to college and declared pre-law as a major. That was that, or so I thought.
My sophomore year, I talked my way into a job teaching ballet.
As I walked into the studio, a small storefront where opaque pink curtains hid the distractions of the outside world, I felt a tinge of melancholy. The girls, 5- to 7-years-old, stood up along the barre. As if I’d never left, my feet fell into first position, the piano music wheezed from an aging speaker and we were off. “… And two, point, flex, point, and back, first position. That’s it. Good.”
For the last 15 minutes of each class, the girls would sit in a semi-circle and I’d tell stories from the great ballets. Sitting there each Thursday, watching their eyes widen as a heroine faltered or a hero revealed his tenderness, I realized telling stories was the thing I wanted to do. I changed my major to journalism.
Not long after I started my first full-time newspaper job, my brother and his wife gave me a present. Unwrapping it, I saw the yellowing face of a young girl I’d all but forgotten. They had framed the only surviving copy of the newspaper story my father thought would be the beginning of a fat scrapbook.
They turned out to be the only published photos ever taken of me dancing.
I’ve never regretted the years that I spent pursuing that young ballerina’s dream, or even giving it up. Dancing gave me many things, in addition to poise, strength and confidence, at a time that I needed it.
In a way, everything I needed to know, I learned in ballet.
- Balance is vital.
- Timing really is everything.
- Nothing is magic, or flawless.
- Beauty is often the result of good lighting and makeup.
- Anything that looks easy usually isn’t, but hard work pays off.
- Exercise makes you feel better.
- Occasionally, to do something right, you really dohave to practice.
- Listen to teachers, then study hard.
- Looking at yourself in a mirror all the time does weird things to you.
- You canbe too thin.
Sometimes, as I look at that framed story in my living room, the little girl reminds me of what I once wanted. I put on the pointe shoes my mother bought me a couple years ago, I move the furniture and I dance on my hardwood floors. But now, those shoes hurt my feet.
What I worry about is whether I was too quick to give up being Wonder Woman. I really dug the uniform.
(Originally published on underwire.com 1999)