Trip the Light Fantastic: Finding Love at the Barre

How one sixty-something writer found euphoria at the barre — even if she's not good at it.
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Illustration: Getty Images/Trigubova.

I am frozen, stage left, and the five-year-old corps de ballet is clustered stage right. Perhaps the audience is merely delighted at the sight of little girls in scratchy tutus with crests of pink tulle on their heads, twirling to Mussorgsky’s “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.” Or maybe they’re mocking the carrot top who doesn’t know her right from her left.

In my memory, it’s the latter.

It was 1961. Young Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Kirov Ballet at the Paris Airport, while the U.S. State Department deployed dance companies abroad as a counterattack against Soviet cultural supremacy. Ballerinas became celebrities on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In search of the next star, America’s middle-class suburban moms herded their daughters into dance classes.

My mother, who, at age three, famously earned her older siblings a quarter or two singing “Minnie the Moocher” on her father’s bar, and claimed a connection to show biz via a distant cousin who was a burlesque comedian, was determined to make a performer out of one of us. So, ballet it was.

I was no budding Margot Fonteyn. Obviously. The recital movie in my head features a kaleidoscope of jeering adult faces — a mortification so nuclear, it obliterated all recall about the end
to my ballet career.

Sixty years later, though, dance classes are the pinnacle of my days. I take my place at the barre after eight hours hunched like a stone gargoyle at the computer, and I feel tall: gaze level, chest lifted, pelvis slightly tucked, shoulders down. Or, I’m head-bopping to Lizzo, lost in the music, ready to explode into the first eight counts of a hip-hop combo. Or, the entire class just nailed the choreo in Jazz, and our teacher pronounces: “That was legit!”

It all makes me so happy.

Adult life is freighted with chores: Going to work, mopping floors, hauling the children, cutting the grass.

In the fragments of free time, we might do something enjoyable. But going to the movies doesn’t produce euphoria. Drinks with friends won’t reveal a talent you didn’t know you had. Dance class is the one-hour vacation from the rest of life. It demands total focus: Leave your marital spat, aggravating co-workers and climate anxieties on the other side of the threshold. You can walk into the studio in the blackest mood, seemingly sapped of all energy, and bounce out of there smiling — even if it wasn’t your best day on the floor. Dancing is pure joy.

I became a late-in-life dancer the way any person winds up in an improbable circumstance: by degrees. Dance kept sneaking into my life. I folk-danced in summer camp and made the high school cheerleading squad. We clapped and pounded our saddle shoes in straight-arm routines that were more military drills than dances. Still, there were leaps and splits. We fanned out in synchronized formations. (I still went the wrong way sometimes.)

In the 1980s, I took up figure skating. I was just beginning what would be a short stint as a high school English teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools. Teaching was not as I imagined it, and I was failing miserably at a job I thought I was born to do. One Friday night, a group of colleagues headed down to the city’s outdoor ice rink. I had never ice skated in my life, and ankle-slogged it around the edges for a couple of hours. My attention was on the skaters in the center. They sailed fearlessly on a knife blade, and defied gravity with such grace and speed. I wanted to do that. I took lessons from a husband-and-wife team of old show skaters, and my troubles did not follow me onto the ice. As my teachers guided me from waltz jumps and back cross-overs to axels and illusions, I briefly enrolled in a dance class to improve my form, capped by another embarrassing appearance in the studio’s all-classes recital.

I eventually converted to the church of Jazzercise. A devout follower, I mourned when the trend died out. I still wanted to do something dance-y. At forty-two, I decided to try an adult contemporary dance class. The teacher accepted me into a group of lifelong dancers. Regardless of their body shapes, I saw in their turned-out legs and the curve of their arms the years of practice and lessons I hadn’t acquired. My skills lagged so far behind, I became discouraged and quit.

Then, a dozen years later on a beach vacation, I was strolling the hotel’s back patio when I saw fifteen women madly swiveling their hips to a beat that reached to the back of my belly. It was like getting hit with that lightning bolt at the ice rink. Zumba, with its hot-colored music and shoulder shimmies, body-rolled me right back into dance. Back home, one teacher — a dance instructor elsewhere — kept pushing us a little further past the borders of salsa and dance-adjacent exercise. The Tuesday-night regulars begged for more complicated moves, and our teacher obliged. We discovered in each other an absolute allegiance to dance. It has bound us as tightly together as any tribe of passionate hobbyists, and occasionally leads us out of town for country line dancing at the Mishnock Barn, or to catch an Island Moving Company performance in Newport. When a new studio opened in town, we signed up for all of the adult classes together.

I have always exercised. Kickboxing, spin, step aerobics, weight training – whatever the gym offered, I accepted. Dance is the most difficult physical activity I have ever tried. It requires you to will every synapse in your head to fire so that your limbs obey the commands from your brain. Place your head, your hips, your hands just so. Do that over and over again in a sequence of different movements and combinations without the crutch of repetition. Take directional cues. Count; find the space for each step. And while you are doing all of that, emote along with the music. Be sassy: Throw that shoulder, or melt with yearning.

Now, you are dancing.

Science says it’s good for you. Several small studies have shown that dance requires complex mental coordination, stimulating different parts of the brain, reducing stress, raising serotonin levels and improving memory and physical coordination. Dance is thought to lower the risk of dementia and blunt the effects of Parkinson’s disease. I saw this in an older gentleman who joined our Zumba class to relieve his symptoms. He loved it so much he became certified as an instructor. The last time I saw him was at a Zumba belly-dancing event, hip-dropping amid 100 women. “This is so much fun!” he shouted.

To be clear, I am not a good dancer. Ask anyone in my family. They call me Elaine, after “Seinfeld’s” Elaine Benes, who danced as though she was extricating goldfish from her underpants. My oldest niece does a pretty funny parody of my Zumba. They will be talking about one 1984 lyrical performance at my funeral.

“I always remember that,” my sister says.

“Why?”

“Because it was hysterical. It was all little kids in a recital and then you two came out. You were in nightgowns.”

(They were costumes.)

Ballet is a struggle. My muscles have no memories; my brain never learned the terms. The sturdy balance I once relied upon departed sometime around age sixty. Pointed feet quickly devolve into cramped feet. The saut de chat thwarts me. It requires a dancer to push off the back leg, and kick out the front leg. At the height of the leap, the arms sweep up and the legs flare out, toes pointed, scissor straight. Mine calls to mind a burglar vaulting a fence with cops in hot pursuit.

At the same time, I am not a bad dancer. I remember the choreo. I keep up. And I’ve made progress. Dance, like everything else, improves with practice. I no longer lose awareness of my body in space when I turn, and my assemble doesn’t look so disassembled anymore. I am proud of every nanosecond I stay aloft on one leg with my hands off the barre. Ellen-1. Gravity-0. When I catch myself slumping in the grocery store, I assume the posture of a proud queen. “You are a dancer,” I remind myself.

Listen: I’d love to be good. I’ll settle for credible.

No matter what the mirror says, when I dance, I feel beautiful, powerful and in control. At the same time, I feel free from the limitations of age and life’s great weight. It pulls me back to childhood, when I was little and fast. I’d run for what felt like a long distance and, when I realized I was not winded at all, I thought I could run forever.