Sometimes you can find new interests in old places. For me, it was discovering a love of ballet more than 15 years after I started training.
Let me explain. I took ballet lessons from the second to the end of high school. Dance, in its various forms, dominated my adolescence. In high school, most weeknights and weekends were spent practicing or rehearsing.
My parents put me in the classroom when I was a kid and I kind of carried on – I mostly loved the mental and physical exercise. It’s strange, thinking back to those years now, because while I certainly didn’t hate it, I also don’t know if I had any particular passion for it. I didn’t stay after class to perfect my turns. I never looked for performance clips online. When I watch the performances of my favorite dancers now, I have rarely felt the kind of radiant energy that I see on their faces – their pure joy in movement.
When I went to college I tried a few dance groups, but never with any level of commitment. After I graduated and started working, things fell apart even more. I went to a few dance classes, but felt out of shape and uninspired. I felt like I was slowly closing a chapter in my life, with no particular sorrow about it.
It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and I moved back in with my parents that things changed.
The ladies who sparked my love for ballet
I can’t pinpoint exactly what led to my decision to start lessons at a local studio in my hometown – boredom, the desire to get out of the house, the need to shift my body to music again – but I can pinpoint what helped me spark a true love for art.
This is the group of adults I ended up taking lessons with: about 20 Chinese women, all new to ballet as adults.
Entering the studio again, I discovered a whole set of unexpected feelings. My body felt foreign and uncertain. I fell out of the turns, dizzy from the movement. I was not strong or flexible enough to perform movements that were second nature. I had to stop to catch my breath after each combination in the middle.
Most of all, I felt ashamed and frustrated with my body for what it could no longer do.
But my classmates helped. They encouraged and complimented me when I felt embarrassed, which I often did. I, in turn, would give advice on which moves they were struggling with, if they asked me.
Our teacher Miguel treated us both like real students, constantly challenging us when we mastered certain movements, but also like adults who knew their own limits and desires. It was a very different level of respect and autonomy than the training I was used to as a teenager.
John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images
Find a new purpose for my passion
The more I watched these women in class and got to know them, the more I was moved by their dedication. Ballet, like certain other disciplines such as gymnastics or figure skating, can be experienced as an intensive activity linked to the field of childhood. Statistically, a person is highly unlikely to successfully pursue a career as a ballerina if they begin training as an adult. Alternatively, adult recreational programs with structured difficulty levels, intensive instruction, and performance opportunities are rare outside major cities.
As an adult, it can seem daunting to start out in this landscape. Even as a returning dancer, I felt a lot of doubt and shame. What was the point?
But this was a group of middle-aged women, many of whom attended classes several times a week, who stayed after class to perfect their moves, who stood up for their own education and sought performance opportunities. Some of them had been coming to class for years. That was the point that stared me straight in the eye – it didn’t matter; they loved to dance.
Their passion for ballet helped me see it in a new light. He didn’t need to be competitive; it was something people did for fun, no matter their skill level or previous experience. It helped orient me when I was struggling – that I was doing this for myself at the end of the day.
Slowly it started to feel difficult in a good way. I started setting realistic goals – getting my double back bends or getting my leg extensions past 90 degrees. Gradually, it seemed silly to me to maintain all this pressure of perfection on myself.
Because really, who cared? In a way, I was totally isolated in this company – I wasn’t taking classes at my old school or with anyone I knew. I lived with my parents and worked from home, so I didn’t have much of a social calendar. My days were taken up with work and dancing. There was no big performance to train for, or anyone to stress about comparing me to or competing for roles.
Redirect energy to myself
I started having fun and I started surprising myself. I found myself wanting to stay after class with them and exchange tips. They invited me to their WeChat group. In my free time, I sometimes found myself watching ballet performances online.
They were learning pointe — why not do it too? They were performing with the rest of the school at the end of the year show – why not participate?
I have found that when you dance it is an exercise in directing your energy into a number of different areas. For example, smiling at the public, making your teachers proud or constantly keeping in mind a dozen different corrections to perfect your technique. Like all the best counters, when done right, this feat feels effortless.
I spent this year with the ladies redirecting all that energy back to myself. Asking my body what it felt ready for, or what it felt excited to do, or what was scary or uncomfortable. It was good if I had a day off from class. If an old wound flared up, it was okay to rest as long as it took to feel better. If my shoes were uncomfortable, I didn’t need to struggle with pain to perform.
When we took the stage for our end-of-year performance, I felt the effects of this sustained attention. There were the usual thoughts – paying attention to our formations in my peripheral vision, remembering last-minute corrections – but they only scratched the surface of the joy I felt as my body performed well-practiced movements. I smiled in the darkened auditorium, in front of the bright stage lights and the ghostly faces of the audience.
A college friend of mine came to see one of our shows for the first time. In the hall afterwards, after the mixed rush of greetings and congratulations, she remarked, “Wow, I can tell you really like to dance!”
I smiled and nodded. It was true.
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