Last week, I took my first ballet class in almost 20 years. Believe it or not, it was heavenly. It felt like some sort of homecoming. And, of course, my 45-year-old body is different than it was in my youth. Yet, I was surprised by how much my body remembered ballet. The sequences. The patterns. The steps. The turnout.
In fact, it was a wise clinician treating me for a recurring hip/knee injury who noticed that my knee caps are not in the same place as most knees. The dance training that took up most of my free time from age 6 to 26 encouraged my bones and joints to develop differently: quite turned out, compared to normal joints. Although the yoga of today was keeping me strong in some ways, it was forcing my joints and bones into parallel positions that were just not normal for them, torquing my limbs.
When I started turning my feet gently out in yoga class, the instructors corrected me. Sometimes they corrected me many times. Once I explained to the teachers that in order to put my knees over my toes, which is proper alignment for a pose, I had to turn my feet out a bit and showed them my knee caps, they actually got it. I look really weird in yoga class, but thank goodness I don’t care much. And I find it a challenge to work with my strange anatomy.
An osteopath told me that the natural way for our skeletons to stand up is with a slightly open turn out, not parallel. (So much for mountain pose.) And my own particular grounding stance is a bit more turned out at the hips than this normal because of my young dance training.
So, these two healing women providers were edging me back to ballet dancing as a way that is natural for my body to move. I know I’ll never go back to pointe shoes. (Heck, I barely ever wear heels. I vowed never to torture my feet again.) But here I was being pointed (pun intended) back to ballet for several different reasons and I was really unsure about how it would be to try a class after 20 years.
I wondered if I really could dance with Beginner’s Mind. Also, could I go to class with my body as it is right now: older, less flexible, post-childbirth...?
Surprisingly, I did.
The piano started playing and with my first plie, I felt that old familiar grace. My arms and legs did what they had done thousands of times before. Since there was so much time between then and now, I definitely felt different. I was stronger in some places in my body and weaker in others. My brain and body did not coordinate as fast as they did when I was a young dancer. But I felt the same exhilarated stirring inside of me. Something spiritual. I felt strangely at home.
As the class progressed, it got more challenging and I had to exert more effort. I became more aware of just how out of shape I was (at least for a ballerina). There were some combinations that were really just beyond my coordination. I laughed at myself when my feet got twisted up. And I cheered myself on if I finally got the formation right.
And that’s when it dawned on me that I really was returning to ballet with Beginner’s Mind — and Heart. I was kinder to myself. When I knew that I didn’t look like the seasoned, regular dancers in the class, I just reminded myself that for a 45-year-old with two kids who hasn’t taken a class in 20 years, I was doing just amazing. I found myself talking to myself inside like I would to one of my daughters or a client: “Good for you for trying.” “This will get easier with more practice.” “Look at what you CAN do!”
This was SO different than how I remember talking to myself inside when I was a young dancer, particularly when I was in my teens. I was hard on myself. I pushed myself to have flatter splits, higher kicks, bigger leaps. I compared myself endlessly to the other presumably better dancers. I said punishing things to myself when I messed up the dance steps; I did not laugh with amusement like I was doing today. I did not accept that overextending my legs is not so kind. I once was very hard on myself and hard on my body.
It’s no surprise that self-critical teen developed an eating disorder. I struggled with bulimia, binge eating, and restricting food until I finally got sick of it all and worked on my recovery. I was one of the lucky ones that got sick young and got well fairly fast, with the help of good people and a strong desire to move forward in my life. I danced ballet, and eventually modern dance, through my recovery and through college and did find a more nourishing way to view my more grown-up body and self.
I had been recovered for many years when I decided to stop ballet at age 26. I was taking adult classes with the Boston Ballet while working in the city, then switched to a smaller adult class in my home town outside the city. My study of dance took a backseat to my work and other facets of my life. Somehow, though, I found that if I didn’t dance, I missed connecting with a large part of my soul.
But I also started to find other forms of dance that were fun and joyful for me: swing, barefoot boogie, African dance, and contact improvisation. Other, freer dance forms were calling to me and encouraging my self-expression in ways ballet never had. Swing dance is really a very improvisational form and I had a lot of fun with that. African Dance spoke to my spiritual connection to Nature. Contact improvisation, a partner dance form that involves shared weight, really cracked me open.
The community that dances contact improv is so different than the ballet community, and the dance form felt so alive to me. It called me to be in the moment. No choreography. Just whatever arises between a dancer and the floor and the partners that come along. Instead of following a prescribed sequence of steps that someone else taught me and I memorized; I was creatively moving in real time. It was so much fun to see what arose!
I needed to get away from structured, rigid dance forms and find my own creative expression. At the same time, I got more creative in my work with clients. I looked more critically at many things in my life. I started to dance to the beat of my own drum in many ways. Eventually, it was contact improvisation and a curiosity about dancing on stilts that introduced me to my current partner and truest love. So, it was with consciousness that I had decided to give up ballet and never looked back.
Well… Two good clinical opinions told me that my hips and knees move better in turnout than parallel and that certain parts of my body needed strengthening. While I had to reject choreographed dance in order to really find my own creative voice in movement — and probably in my life in my 20s and 30s — I can now, at 45, return to choreography and rhythm and routine with new respect and a stronger sense of self. Today, I also know well and honor my body’s limitations and preferences. I haven’t rejected the more improvisational dance forms. I enjoy being spontaneous and creative in my body more than anything. DJ’ing a dear friend’s 50th birthday was one of my music and dance highlights of the last several years.
Creative expression and dance is important to me and it allows me to write and practice nutrition therapy with fluidity and fresh energy every day. But I don’t need to fully reject ballet anymore, a dance form that trained my body to move in certain ways and still feels grounding and familiar. In fact, it connects me to a younger part of myself. Instead of focusing on the aesthetic of ballet, I found myself just being present in the sheer joy of moving.
I'm not used to dancing with mirrors anymore, and I found myself forgetting that there were mirrors on one of the walls of the studio. Every once in a while, I would glance at myself in the mirror and be surprised at what I saw. I looked at myself in a very matter-of-fact way, with far less judgment than I did as a young dancer. I felt how different my relationship with the mirror was today. I felt reverence for my older but able body. I felt respect and not criticism.
My comparing mind didn't shut off completely, but instead I noticed that there were several people who were also on the wrong foot, like I was. I chose to focus my attention very differently and less critically. I chose to go across the floor with some of the really talented dancers because I knew I could follow-the-leader behind them. When I was a younger ballerina, I wouldn't dare do that because I didn't want to look clumsy next to more graceful, capable dancers. As an older woman, I danced across the floor with others with so much less ego. I was surprised at how different and liberating this felt.
I didn't push my body too much. I felt only a little sore the next day, as if I had used muscles that I don't use regularly. But I didn't feel some of the more stabbing pains that I sometimes felt in my joints after yoga. I began to truly believe the clinicians who told me that that perhaps ballet suits my body better than yoga and may potentially help to heal some of my alignment challenges, particularly if I can really listen to my body as I practice. How interesting that a form of dance that was both a childhood joy for me and, in some ways, encouraged my teenage eating disorder, could now heal my body 30 years later. The experience of dancing ballet again also showed me how far I had come in healing my relationship with my body and self.
How amazing it was to connect with that younger part of me and treat her more kindly and gently! How freeing it was to return to ballet class for the sheer joy of moving with flowing grace to live piano, focusing on pleasure, feeling my body grow stronger and more fluid. How grounding it was to feel at home in my body, despite it’s limitations and battle scars and history, and to just appreciate the things that it can do. How healing it is to respect and feel grateful for a body that can move in some of the ways that it always moved as a child -- a child who loved more than anything to dance…