Once upon a time, I was part of a small army. The army was not made of soldiers, no, it was more like a children’s crusade, a throng of aspiring young ballet dancers that marched up and down New York City’s long avenues—Broadway, Seventh, Eighth—that were dotted, in those years, with so many studios. The School of American Ballet, feeder for the New York City Ballet, was the most famous, but there were others too and it was at John Barker’s studio on West 56th Street that I took classes six days a week for most of my high school life.
Weekdays, class was from 4:30 to 6:00; Saturdays, it was at 11:00 A.M. The studio itself was unremarkable: ruined wooden floor, bleached and pocked by the amber nuggets of rosin ground into its surface, long barres that lined three of the walls and full-length mirrors that lined the fourth. We spent about forty-five minutes at one of those barres, perfecting a series of exercises that had been born in the court of France and refined in the glistening winters of Imperial Russia. Pliés, tendus, and rond du jambs, all executed to the strains of Chopin. The barre was followed by work in the center: an adagio, and petit allegro. Then there were the big jumps, like grand jetés, and some point work, which allowed us the giddy sensation of rising up on our toes, defying nature and even, for a moment, mortality itself. Finally, there was the obligatory reverence, in which we curtseyed to our supremely difficult and demanding teacher.
After that we were free—until the next day, when the ritual began all over again. For it was a ritual, and, as such, had its sacred preparations. The brushing and winding of our hair into the tight bun, the sewing of ribbons on our ballet shoes, the donning of the requisite pink tights and black leotards were acts performed with both sanctity and love. The studying of ballet creates its own kind of religious order, and the girls who do it are akin to eager novitiates, fired by their all-consuming faith and their utter willingness to undergo daily mortification of the flesh. And as with any religion, the ballet hierarchy decreed that there was an established scheme of things and that a young dancer could have a secure and known place within it. When class was over, I once more joined the swarm of girls with turned-out walks and bony shoulder blades, girls who paraded down the street wearing the marks of their collective discipline: the buns, still wound painfully tight, the big, punishing bags weighed down with their heavy loads. We knew we were of a different tribe—recognizable and unique—and it filled us with pride. We were purified by our discipline, etherealized by our shining goal. Read More »