Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Didn't Always Want To Write

The blog description hints at this, but it took more than a few hyphens to make the transition from dancing to writing. To keep this from getting too long and convoluted, I'll start with the first, most basic layer.

My mother took me to my first dance class when I was 6 years old. After a few hiccups because of silly baby things like "It's too hard!" and "It hurts when I stretch!", I fell in love. By age 11, I had been competing regionally for a few years with lots of shiny medals to show for it, and went to my first dance convention, a deeply spiritual and formative experience that deserves a post of its own. My teachers admired my dedication and potential, and I'm sure my relatives were thrilled with the abundance of pictures of me in adorable outfits.

For myself, especially after that convention, I went through every day with the peace and certainty of a person who knew exactly what they were going to do with their life. I branched out from just tap and took jazz and ballet classes as well. Stretching became therapeutic, not painful. As I matured, the way I felt when I danced slowly began to match the way I moved. I say this humbly, but in truth: I was pretty darn good. By age 15, I was confident enough in my abilities to smile, wink, and otherwise emote my enthusiasm to the judges. "Go ahead, watch me."

It also helped that I had a boyfriend, I think.

But at some point, I'm not really sure when it was, I hit a wall. My improvements from year to year were less  dramatic, and whenever I competed I couldn't take my eyes off the girls from the other studios. When I was younger, I could look at them and think, "I can be that good someday." But now that I was in high school and nearing the end of my instruction I realized I was running out of time. Sure, I could hope that going to college as a dance major would help me close the gap between where I was and where I, needed to be, but financial restraints kept me from dedicating myself fully to the idea. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't. The cost would have been horrendous even if I had been talented enough to get a boatload of scholarships, and I can say with certainty that it wouldn't have paid off.

I adjusted my dreams to reality. I wouldn't own a critically acclaimed studio; I wouldn't win So You Think You Can Dance; I wouldn't be the principal dancer of a prestigious company, in New York or elsewhere. But I had a knack for choreography. I watched two studios perform to the same song and saw which one was an amalgam of formulaic crowd-pleasers and which one allowed itself to be inspired by, and beyond, the lyrics and rhythm. I wouldn't be lying if I said I became something of a snob about it. (Aren't most art critics?) 17 now, I was the early stages of developing my own style and motifs, though past teachers and routines still influenced me heavily.

Senior year. Just a little over a week until my last competition, and less than three months until recital, graduation, wedding, leaving the nest. Disaster strikes. I'm practicing a new leap I had learned and was considering adding to my solo. Something feels wrong when I land. I shake it off, tell myself it was a matter of improper weight distribution. I'll get it next time. I prepare to do it again. I never leave the ground.

Two days later, the podiatrist says I have broken a major blood vessel between my second and third toes. A freak accident, he says. Never seen it before, will probably never see it again. Recovery will take eight to ten weeks.

Until this point, I had never experienced anything more serious than a bruised tailbone. (Never take your butt for granted. It does more than you think.) Even with my distress, I knew I was lucky. The horror of the injury lay not in its nature but its location. I cannot walk without limping, to say nothing of dancing. For my last competition ever, I do not even consider bringing my costumes, shoes, and make-up. The thought of dancing is that unfathomable in my condition. Dozens of fellow dancers ask me, "What happened?" I have been at the competition site for less than an hour, and I'm already tired of telling the story. I stand in the wings, favoring one foot while the rest of my class performs. During my lyrical piece, my partner looks strange when she embraces the empty air. I don't remember how my studio placed.

I will not finish choreographing my solo for recital. My voice cracks as I tell this to the studio owner. I realize I didn't have the mental fortitude to add yet another thing to my ambitious list of things to do anyway.

Dress rehearsal for recital. I've been able to participate in the last few classes, but I'm taking it easy. I'm getting married the day after recital, and I want to walk boldly down the aisle in high heels, dammit. The next day someone posts a mid-leap photo of me on Facebook. It is one of the quintessential "Wow!" shots of my chosen profession. I've always wished someone would capture one of me.

My legs aren't straight, or as horizontal as they should be, my gimpy foot isn't pointed all the way. My arms at least in the right position, though a bit limp. My expression is too pensive for a routine meant to be joyful. I look exhausted. Worst of all, I don't look like a professional.

Recital night. I have six costumes. Tap. Graduating seniors dance. Ballet. Lyrical. Duet with my younger sister. (We hold hands for the first time in years as we walk through the dark to our positions.) Pointe. Production. At least, I think that was the order. Mistakes were minimal, though I completely forget one of the last sequences of the pointe dance, one of my favorite routines. I hold an improvised pose until I can jump back in.

By the end of the night, I'm just glad it's over.

My last few months as a student did nothing to change my post-graduation plans - move to upstate New York, otherwise known as the prettiest place on earth with my husband and get a teaching job - but it did rattle my already fragile self-confidence. I spent my first six months querying studios in the area. In the entire county, three were within reasonable driving distance. (My hometown alone had at least ten.) When I called the most promising of the three, I had to hang up before I finished my voicemail because I stumbled over my words too much. My second attempt was much better, though my mother-in-law says I left a dent in the backyard from pacing so much.

I won't detail the whole ordeal as this is already getting too long, but suffice to say that every studio was a long established, some decades old, one woman show that had no interest in expanding the payroll or the classes they offered. When I changed my strategy and asked about adult or private classes I could take to keep my technique sharp, the answer was a flat, unchangeable "no". "That is not a door I am interested in opening," one of them told me.

I kicked myself for not finding this information sooner, but again, I persevered. I didn't need a studio. I just needed to dance.

A year and a half later my greatest achievement was a ballet solo for a children's Christmas pageant. The whole thing took place in the basement of a 100-member church. I had to keep my movements small to avoid kicking my audience. When I suggested a worship dance program open to all ages, the person in charge of such things gently said it wouldn't be possible. Though I was very well received at the pageant, the woman who ran the best studio in town was the granddaughter of one the parishioners. "We wouldn't want to offend the family." No evidence was ever presented to me that they would be, or that the woman would have ever started something similar given the opportunity, but it was another wall. I could have spoken to the family myself, but at that point I was so demoralized by small town politics and its mentality that I couldn't bring myself to try.

I made half-hearted attempts to contact other churches. After all, dance was a universal blessing, and I didn't need to root it in my own denomination for it to be successful. The concept of dance as a religious expression, such a treasured part of life at home, was beyond comprehension to the people here. They were very sweet, but it was obvious they had no idea what to do with me.

A few weeks after my last phone call, I waited in my bedroom until I knew I would be alone and unheard. I let myself come undone. But just in case, I wailed into my pillow. And that was the end.

I have since decided that it was my first break-up, as devastating as the loss of any boy. Moreso, even, because the courtship was so long and I was so devoted and there was so much promise. Like most first boyfriends, a part of me will always love it, will always belong to it. I can now watch other people dance without tasting salt and my own bitterness. Thoughts like, "Should I have done more? What could I have done differently? Did I give up too soon?" no longer plague me.

Who knows, I might one day be in a more urban, culturally alive setting, and I can take a class, one hour a week. Paying per class, not month. It would be a friendship. Less intensity, fewer expectations, but perhaps just as fulfilling.

And in the meantime, I have my writing.


  1. Beautiful post Ash! Although your love of dance was longer than mine with music I can still relate to the feeling of a break-up, knowing that I would never experience anything like that in my life. There may be better things to come but nothing like that. Miss you! Love you! - Aunt Kristy

  2. It makes me sad that you aren't dancing, but I can definitely say that the investment in all of those lessons, costumes, competitions, and hotel rooms has paid off exponentially in your attitude about life in general. The lessons learned there were meant to benefit you beyond the studio and stage, and they definitely have. I'm so proud of you!!

    Confession: I didn't know you and Princess Rosebud were holding hands before your duet. I got all teary-eyed reading that. I don't think it is a coincidence that once you moved away, she decided not to continue.

    See you soon!! Love you so much!!