Here's to a moment of nostalgia. I'm skimming through pages of ballet terminology and admiring the pictures associated with the movements. I find myself drawn to the faces of each ballerina. Some seem to be in no pain, as though the movement they are captured creating is second nature. Others don't hide the pain quite so well, and my heart reaches out to them. I long to tell them that it's okay not to be prefect, and that all that matters is the beauty of the art they create and the story they portray. But they know better. I know better.
My brain is suddenly racked with invading memories I've kept stashed away and hidden for so long. As painful as they are, I succumb to the invasion. I've returned to that day in the hospital. I still vividly remember my conversation with a ballerina from the San Francisco Ballet. She spoke of her once-successful ballet career, and as I listened with much intensity I could not grasp why she didn't miss it. She didn't miss dance. She stated without hesitation that she had no desire to return to the studio or to the highly acclaimed ballet company. I simply could not wrap my mind around it. Dance had engulfed and swallowed my existence. I had dreamt many times of being in a professional ballet group as prestigious as hers and could not imagine why a person would ever want to leave that sort of incredible opportunity.
I was so young. I was so naive, so blissfully unaware of the answers that would soon find me.
We were, after all, hospitalized for the same general problem. We had an inability to allow ourselves to eat, and we would rid ourselves unnaturally of any food that was consumed, however small the amount. Anorexia and other types of eating disorders are common among dancers. There are endless standards and limitations to meet regarding weight, figure, the lines the movements are supposed to create which, of course, cannot be displayed with the same effect if the ballerina is even "a few pounds overweight". It was almost fate; a simple nudge was all it took to steer me, and countless others, towards a path of self-destruction for the sake of attaining and mastering our art.
We came from different states, different lives, this ballerina and I; but we shared the same world of unreasonable expectations to be met. In class, you dance in front of a mirror that stretches floor to ceiling and wall to wall. There is no escaping it. You measure yourself from all angles, double and triple checking every line, every curve, every bulge that should not exist. Every individual must measure up to the standard. Our instructors determined our diets. They ridiculed our every move. If a triple pirouette wasn't landed perfectly, it was to be repeated until it came as naturally as an exhaled breath. If a grand jeté didn't reach the expected heights, it was done a thousand times more while instructors endlessly echoed phrases such as, "one must float across the stage with effortless ease," "one must be light on the toes; lose contact with the floor," "one must leap through the air at heights unattainable and hang as though suspended from a string; poised in mid-air, should someone desire to take a snapshot at that very moment." No hair must be astray. No finger or limb out of place. One must not even show ripples in the muscles required for executing such strenuous movements repetitively. One must be a machine of the art of ballet; a mechanical masterpiece.
This ballerina and I shared many commonalities. We shared the same passion. We both lived to create the art of movement. But she was older and wiser than I; she knew the ugly side of the art form far more than I was aware, even if I did see it to a small degree. She knew the truths that I was yet to discover.
The ballerina is seen, but not heard. The beauty and grace of her movement is witnessed and appreciated, but the pain and suffering required to create it is only felt by her. She glides and twirls across the stage in a cloud of dreams and whispered promises. Later that night she'll be tending to her bleeding, battered feet and bruised body, which now feels 10 years older than 22. All the while she'll be wondering if her performance was good enough. She'll replay every step in her head, over and over. Did she live up to her choreographer's expectations? Did she tell the story like she was supposed to? Or did her own story of pain and anguish seep through the movements so deeply that it could be felt by every member of the audience as they held their breaths, hoping to high heaven that she wouldn't fall from her position of suspended grace above the hard, unforgiving floor?
She may never know the answers. The following day, friends and instructors will rave and applaud her performance, but she sees only empty faces and unmet demands. She is incomplete; drained from the inside out. Perfection is something that can never be achieved. She knows this. Still she beats herself up even more than the rock-hard box that contained her fragile feet the previous evening. If only I'd landed that jump more solidly, I wouldn't have stumbled into my fouettés, she thinks to herself. Her movement will never be good enough; not for her.
I soak in these memories of a life that now seems to belong to someone else. I am sitting alone in my cold, empty room. I am healthy now; I have a woman's figure that took getting used to. I'd always been rail-thin. People didn't recognize me anymore, and I slowly came to understand that as a good thing. I am no longer physically sick with an unreachable ideal of perfection. But no matter what, I will always be in love with the movement. A smile creeps upon my lips as a slideshow of images play through my head of ballerinas I admired, performances of Swan Lake I yearned to learn, and my own performances as a young girl. I felt so alive on stage; vulnerable and exposed
and free. My father always said that I was "poetry in motion" on stage. I think that is, to this day, the greatest compliment I've ever received.
I am reminded of the last time I truly felt the movement in an unguarded way. I was dancing in my living room barefoot. There was no music, save the rhythm of my soul. No taunting mirrors. No peering, critical eyes. It was my spirit and the movement, nothing else.. I wasn't dancing ballet, not in any traditional form. I was letting movement overtake my body and escape freely without regard to the correct position, or the perfect line or angle. I felt it surge through me with such intensity I thought it would take away my breath, my life. I would have let it. Every ounce of energy drained from my body in the most gratifying way, and just when I had none left I kept moving, kept flowing, kept breathing. I just let the current of expression come pouring out through every seam that has held me together all these years. I've never felt so complete, so absolutely whole in all my years of existence.
Then it hit me. This was all I ever wanted; my own creative current of expression seeping through my veins and a body to exert the movement that would create the story. My story. These were my words, crying to be heard. But I didn't need the approval of instructors holding impossible standards or an audience expecting perfection.
I just needed to dance.