My Hardest Class
by Nicole Freire
When I was 12 years old, I had one all-consuming passion. I loved ballet. Especially toe shoes. I wanted to be on-pointe so badly. I took ballet classes but was never very good and my instructor would always say, "Well, your ankles just aren't strong enough for pointe shoes." But just ballet. No modern dance, no jazz hands for me. Just the classic ballet, which asks your body to move in ways that just aren't natural.
Within months my ballet lessons stopped, to be replaced by back surgeries and braces and casts. But I never stopped loving ballet and would constantly search for anything related to ballet and ballerinas - reading any book I could find, watching every television program, seeing any ballet-related movies, and as I got older and lived on my own, spent my money on ballet performance tickets.
I usually went by myself, mostly because I like to do that sort of thing, and partly because I didn't want to have to explain why it mattered so much to me.
Looking back on it now, I see my passion for ballet was directly related to childhood years spent confined in a back brace. It doesn't take a degree in psychology to put it all together. I desperately wanted what I could not have.
When my daughters were little, I signed them up for ballet lessons. Waiting for them on the benches outside the dance studio never felt like a burden. (A true burden for me would have been soccer practice on Saturdays at 7:00am, which is why my girls don't play soccer.) Any performance they had made me ecstatic. I loved their little shoes, the tutus, the insane cuteness of it all.
But my girls weren't that interested in ballet and eventually it became a huge hassle to listen to their complaints and so they stopped. (Their biggest complaint by far was having to sit still while I brushed their hair to put it up into a bun. The screaming and the yelling were too much.)
About a year ago it occurred to me that, DUH, I could now take a ballet class all by myself. So I signed up for a beginning ballet class at UCSB. This means that I am surrounded mostly by undergrads with little to no body fat and minimal sun damage to their faces.
I love it. I love it. I love it.
It is also one of the hardest things I've ever done. Yes, it involves me donning a leotard and tights. But I love the regimentation of the uniform. Black leotard, pink tights, pink shoes, hair up and off your face. Unlike my children, I don't cry and scream when I have to brush my hair up into a bun. I take immense comfort in the barre routines because they never vary. You could take any level ballet class anywhere and be able to do the barre routine.
It is hard because of the 337 muscles that never get used otherwise (Hello my good friend Aleve!) and protest greatly when asked to perform. It is hard because there is no one else at the barre except you. Well, there are others standing next to you, but you spend your time at the barre solely in your mind. You compete with yourself and your own limitations.
Discovering that my uneven hips and legs will keep me doing exactly what I want my legs and hips to do is a never-ending mental and physical challenge. But if I work hard enough, I can make my legs and hips and arms to do what I want. I sometimes think it must be like mountain climbing, constantly pushing yourself and your body beyond what you think it can do.
I don't think I'm much better than when I was twelve and I know that I'll never wear a pair of pink satin toe shoes. But I get into that dance studio at least once a week and do battle with myself and it's one of the happiest hours I have.
There are a few women in the class older than me, some much older. And now I know why they are there. It's not that we'll ever don a tutu and perform onstage. Despite the small humiliations of age and loudly protesting muscles, we're all there because inside we know we have to, that we love it.
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Nicole Freire is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.