Keep Going

Early Spring, 1992.

Me, in the studio. 1994

I sat on the floor with my tights rolled up past my ankles, one leg out to the side, and the other right in front of me so I could tape up my toes…  

My hair was in a perfect bun (I had done it 3 times, just to make sure it really was perfect), I had on my favorite black leotard and my lucky warm up pants.  I was sitting in the hallway in the midst of a huge crowd.

I was very nervous, of course.  I was getting ready to audition for the ballet summer program that I had my heart set on, and I was new to the whole auditioning thing.  My audition photos were turned in and I had filled out all of the registration paperwork.  My audition number sat on the floor next to me.  My mom and sister were chatting with me as I finished taping my toes.  I started stretching my legs and circling my feet to loosen my ankles.  As I looked around, I saw the many other dancers doing the same thing I was.  I’m sure my eyes were huge; I felt like a deer in headlights.  What is the audition class going to be like?  How much are we going to have to do on pointe?  Will we find out today if we got in, or do we have to wait for a letter? A multitude of questions did their own dance around my mind.

My sister looked around at the mass of us, bouncing and stretching.  I found out later that she had remarked to my mom how nervous and twitchy everyone was.  She didn’t understand how we could put ourselves through it, when all of us knew that most of us wouldn’t be accepted.  But there we all were, anxious and hopeful.

The instructor came out of the studio, telling us to come in and line up in numerical order.  I pinned my number to the front of my leotard, ripped off my warm ups, and grabbed my pointe shoes.  My mom and sister gave me hugs, my mom yelling “DYBO!!!” which stood for “Dance Your Buns Off!” (the fantastic words of encouragement that my family developed for me).  I flashed them one last smile, joined the other dancers, and shakily made my way into the studio.

Fast-forward 18 years:

I stood in the studio where I teach, facing one of the students.  I could see her face turning red, and the tears forming in her eyes.  But she wasn’t sad; she was frustrated.  Honestly?  She had just about had it.  Her usually bright and smiley face was tense, her jaw clenched.  She stood in the center of the studio in fourth position, with her arms dropped and her gaze focused in the mirror.

“I know you are upset.  I know that you have been working on these turns for a while.  I also know that turns on pointe can seem impossible,” I said.  “I am standing here giving you corrections not to be critical, but to help you do this.  At this point in your training, double pirouettes are essential; you need to be able to do them.  And you will be able to do them.  They just need work.”

Her lips tightened; she nodded. It seemed like only yesterday I was standing in her shoes; fifteen years old, training as hard as possible for audition season.  Anxious and hopeful.

“Summer program auditions are coming, and you will be asked to do double pirouettes.  Now, we can either keep going with this, make this turn happen right now, or we can just forget it, and call it a day.  What do you want to do?”

I knew that if she didn’t get those turns, she would be that much more nervous at the auditions.

She was feeling the pressure; at that moment she was at the breaking point, that place where you are tired of trying so hard because it STILL doesn’t work and you know you have to get the step because it will be expected from you everywhere you go, and you want SO BADLY to get it right, but you just can’t and it makes you want to either scream or throw your shoe across the room, or scream and throw your shoe across the room, and then storm out the door …

I took a deep breath, hoping it would somehow benefit her.  I waited.  After a few seconds, she lifted her chin and said, “Let’s keep going.”

She made the right choice.  Because that’s what she needed to do to move forward.  She was determined to conquer those pirouettes, and she knew that walking away that day would get her nowhere.

She is a student very much like I was growing up: focused, driven, a perfectionist. Essential qualities for studying ballet, really.  Just like everyone, she had things to work on when she first came to the school where I teach.  Her technique needed to be refined, and her legs and feet strengthened on pointe.  As one of her ballet teachers, I was part of the team to help her do that.  She took on the challenges with a vengeance, improving quickly.

But, as I did, she would sometimes get so wrapped up in controlling each step, and doing it just right, that the step simply couldn’t come out; it would get locked up.  Things like turns, which require a degree of abandon, were a struggle.  She needed to loosen the reins a bit.  Which can be difficult to do.

“Don’t worry about falling,” I said.  “So what if you fall?  I’ve fallen down trying to turn.  More than once!  Everyone falls down; it just happens.  It’s part of learning.  If you fall down, you just get right back up and try again.”

She took a deep breath, headed into a turn, made one revolution, and then came down with an abrupt clunk of her pointe shoe.

“Okay,” I said.  “You started the turn well, but it looked like you stopped yourself.  You have to let the turn happen.  You set it up, but then it has to go.  Try again.  But this time?  I want you to try and fall down.  Seriously.  Don’t control it.  Go for it; give me a turn that could put you on the floor.”

She looked at me quizzically, shrugged her shoulders, and then gave it a shot.  She pushed off, made two full turns, stumbling a little as she came down.

“Good!!” I exclaimed.  “Now you know how it feels to go around twice.  It’s not so scary, is it?  It’s kind of fun, huh?  Do another one.”  She did another double turn, with a smoother landing.  A smile snuck onto her face.

“There it is!  One more time!!” I said, clapping my hands.

She had made it over the hurdle; the double pirouette was achieved.  That, combined with all the work she had done that year, helped give her more confidence for her auditions.  And audition she did; she went to many.  Which is terrific, because each one becomes less traumatic than the last (it gets easier to handle the pressure of wearing a number and having strangers squint their eyes as they inspect every position and every movement).

It was so spectacular to see the joy on her face every time she told me she was accepted into another summer program.  The next challenge was deciding which one to attend.

***

I adore ballet, and I adore being able to pass on the experience and the training that I was lucky to have received growing up.  As a teacher, I must not only explain and correct, but also encourage.  “Keep Going;” I say it often to students when I teach, and I used to say it to myself when I was dancing.  Ballet is no walk in the park.  It’s a wild mix of anatomy, physics, and emotional expression. As another student I taught used to say, “It’s beastly.”

And she was right; it’s a beast.  Ballet puts up a fight, and you have to be ready to fight back if you want to progress and move forward.  And it is so worth it.  Ballet is indescribably wonderful.  There is such a thrill in the movements, in performing, and in reaching the next goal.  That is exactly what makes ballet so amazing.  It forces you to work, which makes you stronger both physically and mentally.  You have to get through the nerves and frustration, put yourself out there and just, you know, DYBO!

This story was published on AltDaily in June of 2010.

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