Wednesday, November 13, 2019


By Julie Lunde

It was not a place I left behind but a movement, and the movement ended long before the song did. It is impossible for me to say when I stopped dancing, or stopped being a dancer, simply because it is still impossible to admit to myself that such things are true, that I have stopped dancing, that I am no longer a dancer. Of course these are undeniable facts, and, to me, monumental ones, yet they seem to have happened without my noticing. I have not really danced in eight years but am always telling people I do, or did, or will again, one day soon. I am not trying to explain to you, or to myself, why it is that I stopped dancing, but rather to convince myself of this basic truth. 
Ballet is a sport, an art, that is more about goodbyes than it is about greetings. Beyond a certain age you do not hear about people taking up ballet anymore. I started dancing when I was just four years old and my ballet slippers were no longer than the palm of my hand is now. It was at a school called Miss Caroline’s, and my sisters and I spent the majority of class time skipping in circles with hands on our hips. Imagination was a central facet of the technique we learned; we were always skipping towards made-up butterfly bushes or flower beds or, come Halloween, pretend bowls of candy. At skip breaks we would pretend to apply make-up in front of the long mirror, whisking invisible brushes in the hot air around our cheeks. And perhaps that was what I first loved about it, anyways; the magic games of the imagination, permission to picture any sophisticated dream we could think up.
When we are very young, ballet is all about this kind of romance; ballet itself is an infinitely romantic notion when we picture it in conversation with young bodies. In high school I worked for a summer at the local dance store, where I helped many new mothers pick out all sorts of pink, sparkly tulles for their daughters. Some of the mothers had even been dancers themselves. They always immediately gravitated towards the glittered leotards with sewn-on skirts, even when I cautioned them that these things were usually against dress code. But these outfits did not care about the rules; they were designed for the photos and memories of the first class, and sometimes I let myself get swept up in the excitement of them, too.
            For most people, both in and out of the dance world, the story goes that romance fades when reality sets in. As dancers age, I noticed, the focus always shifted towards the dark side of the dance world. People who hear about teen or adult ballerinas are always eager to ask after the horror stories, the eating disorders, the girls who ruined their feet or performed on pointe despite stress fractures and devastating injuries. I went to enough summer dance intensives to know that these stories were all true, not exaggerated, and perhaps even understatements. I didn’t just hear these stories, I saw them. But perhaps I was lucky; for me ballet held no trauma, only joy. It really was that beautiful, and I really was that happy while I did it. The worst thing ballet ever did to me was abandon my body; it left me before I was ready to tell it goodbye.

These days, I can get a whiff of any strong, antiseptic pine tree smell and immediately feel that I am thirteen again. This was the scent of the extra-strength aerosol hairspray I used to shellac my hair immobile, and sprayed on every fifteen minutes during performance days. I soaked my blonde hair almost brunette this way, and it was a nervous tic more than anything. The ritual of getting ready for a show was long and precise, and this was a nervous tic too. I could easily spend an hour or two on hair and makeup. Everything I had learned about applying makeup by then was in service of these shows. The first time I ever wore lipstick was for a dance recital. As the dances grew more complex, I eventually learned how to layer concealer, foundation, blush, and bronzer, apply fake eyelashes, curl hair, and even glue on eye jewels using the semi-permanent eyelash adhesive. In my regular life, I did not wear makeup at all.
By high school I had been dancing quite intensely at a different studio for many years. It was far from the end of youth, and farther still from the beginning of adulthood, but it was true that, when I did begin to transition away from girlhood, it all took place within those studios. One morning my partner had me lifted over his head, promenading me around the room in arabesque, when I spotted, in the mirror, a small red dot peeking out from the leg of my leotard. I was sixteen. I excused myself and ran to the front office, where one of the teachers made a big fuss over me. “I only have a tampon, have you used one before?” She asked. I said yes even though the answer was no, then hustled to the bathroom and pretended this was not a big deal. I borrowed a pair of warm-up shorts from a younger girl hanging out in the dressing room and raced back to the studio five minutes later, where we rehearsed without another issue. 
When I was even younger, just starting middle school, my favorite dance teacher instructed us once to treat the barre as if it were a boy we had a crush on, and we all giggled. In keeping with this directive, we were not supposed to turn our backs on the barre, instead turning in to face it when we switched sides, and we were meant to touch it delicately, even during difficult balances, as though we were only holding hands with it. Outside of the dance studio I did not hold hands with boys, or even talk to them. This made it especially exciting when the barre was switched out for real, live men, when I first started partnering. 
At home, during Nutcracker season, I was usually paired with Jamal, a dancer from Julliard who commuted to Connecticut for our rehearsals. In our first roles together we danced as Clara and The Prince, and my mom, when she met him, shook his hand and said, “My daughter’s first prince!” 
At dance camp partnering went a little different. Because we were all young enough, on the cusp of puberty, I was larger than almost all the male dancers my age, though still smaller than many of the women, which meant that I was paired with one of the smallest men in the room when we learned a contemporary pas de deux one day. My partner was supposed to stand bent over, torso parallel to the ground, while I balanced atop his back like a starfish, legs and arms outstretched in opposite directions. We were supposed to hold the pose for sixteen counts, but only four counts in, I began to feel a vibration. His legs were shaking, and it became clear that his body could not support my weight. I was about to remove myself when the instructor noticed us, and anticipated my deliberation. “Hold the pose,” he ordered. I tried to think myself lighter, and, with a rash desperation, did not breathe. There were four counts left when his legs gave way. I pancaked him, two ballet bodies splayed out on the marley, mine atop his. And then rose, and stood, heavy, counting every pound of my weight. 
It was only a moment, and when it was done I went down to lunch with everyone and bought a small cup of vanilla soft-serve, which, yes, they allowed us to purchase at the café. I ate a cup nearly every day, which perhaps suggests I was not serious enough or committed enough to be a dancer anyways, but still, I look at photos of my body then and think a few more cups of ice cream probably wouldn’t have hurt.

In the years after college, when I lived in New York City, I took up classes at the Joffrey Ballet School downtown. By then I hadn’t been dancing seriously for at least four years. I usually took Beginner Ballet II or Intermediate, though often I preferred the first. In this class, first of all, I could be almost assured that I would be the best dancer in the room. But the main reason that I liked it was that I could know nothing would be beyond my reach; I had found I could no longer command my body to move as it used to. Some nights I woke up elated from dreams where I did eight, nine, ten pirouettes, totally effortless, but found in class that my body could not get the balance right anymore. On my first day at Joffrey, I had forced myself into splits when I felt the instructor’s eyes on me, and now my hip flexors seemed permanently injured from the effort.
The intermediate class, because it was more advanced, was a more mixed bag. There were dancers there who took these classes recreationally, who had started from scratch with Beginner I, and then there were dancers who had grown up with ballet, as I had. It was easy to tell the difference, both by technique and by attitude. The recreational dancers were more motivated, more eager to improve, but also seemed to have more fun. The ex-dancers, on the other hand, were all very serious, not looking to make friends, and sour, as though we’d all been forced to come here. We got to class early to stake out our favorite spots at the barre and then scowled if another dancer tried to stand too close.
            For a few good months I successfully made it to the intermediate class at least once a week, but it didn’t last. One day a recreational dancer came up to me in the dressing room and told me she looked forward to coming every week because she loved to watch me dance. She asked, “How long have you been taking the classes here?” It was a very generous compliment, but of course I took it the wrong way, and so I skipped class the next week. Even this was a gradual stop; I went back to Joffrey a few more times, but much less frequently, and then I eventually moved away and it didn’t matter anyways.
For a long time, after I stopped dancing, my interactions with ballet were pervaded with this kind of rank bitterness. My parents brought me to see Misty Copeland in Don Quixote and as we walked out of the theater I remarked that she seemed to be “having an off day.” I was bitter that ballet had not chosen me, that it had picked seemingly everyone else. I was always seeing Facebook photos of home friends and camp friends who were dancing in companies, who were corps members or soloists, who had made a career out of the thing that I loved the most. Meanwhile I was working at a publishing company, which I did like, but I was crushed when my boss told me that she had actually deferred college for a year so she could go dance in a company. My boss worked at the same company as me now, even, coincidentally, had the same name as me, and it was easy to see her as a doppelganger, the owner of a life I had failed at. She had managed to do both, company and college; I had not known this was an option. 
Of course, the truth is that I made several small decisions over time that, step-by-step, led me away from the studio and stage, and I had done this for a few reasons, and many good ones. These decisions were sometimes things I did, but more often, things I didn’t do. For instance, I did not commute into the city every day for preprofessional lessons at one of the serious schools, as the head of my studio had suggested when I was twelve years old. I did not choose to be homeschooled so I would have more time to dance, nor did I even insist on dancing every day. I did audition for a chance to attend the summer dance school year-round, but declined when they offered me a partial scholarship. After high school I did not go to a conservatory or audition for companies; I picked my undergraduate school on the basis of academics alone. I didn’t even take dance classes at college, though I puttered around on a Bollywood dance troupe for a semester before I quit that too. And, somewhere along that path, the doors began to close to me, and I found myself unambiguously locked outside, not only from the elite ballet world, but also from the dance world in general. There was a time, during the winters, when I would put on Nutcracker music and perform my old routines in the kitchen, but I stopped doing this, fearing that I would not remember the steps anymore. 

As I saw it, there were two possible narratives for any ballerina. One, less favorable, was an early retirement. As my dance class aged, we got smaller, a general whittling away that occurred as the pressure ramped up and people got injured or lost interest. This narrative belonged to those who danced, but were not defined by it. The other narrative followed the young heroine (or hero) who, despite the odds, made a real go of it, persevered, succeeded and was a dancer. For a long time, I saw only these two options, and no in-between. Either you were serious or you were not.
I did not think that I would be whittled away, did not imagine that there would be a last time I wore my pointe shoes, or at least did not think it would come before my thirties. I did not notice as the time between dance classes stretched from one week to two, then to months, and then to years. When I finally did notice, when it was impossible for me to continue hiding in my denial, I saw that I was in fact a part of the first narrative, and I felt like I had given up. 
When you are at the ballet, certain decisions are irrevocable, but that does not mean everything is forever out of reach. If there is a moral to this story it is something about what really happens after the curtain falls, the final curtsy, the hairspray bottle finally emptied. After I quit ballet, and then, after I quit my job at the publishing house, I landed at a graduate program in creative writing, where the games of imagination are equally inviting, and I am just as happy. Thus the same cracked hubris that had me criticizing Copeland has now led me to repurpose the iconic Didion essay as a vessel for my own goodbye. 
It is a little different to say goodbye to an activity than it is to say goodbye to a city, though I do not see this difference as fundamentally altering the storyline. Eula Biss, who wrote her own masterful response essay to Didion’s, a Goodbye cataloging her own experience leaving New York, wrote in a craft essay that Goodbye To All That is “a narrative about narrative.” She wrote: “I tell you this just in case you are still tempted to believe that Goodbye to All That is about New York.” It was not a place I left behind, but it was the same story regardless; not a place, exactly, but the first of many possible narratives I had to bid goodbye to.
When my parents came out recently to visit me at the grad program in Tucson, I asked them to bring the dead pointe shoes I’d left behind in my closet, the ones I’d saved—six or seven pairs. Then I sat on the bed and pulled out a shoe, turning it over in my hands as if it were a foreign object. I did not put it on at first because I was worried that I would not remember how to tie the ribbons, worried because, if I did not remember, I would not be able to look it up; it would be too painful to have to read instructions on the thing I loved best. Then I did it anyways. I put a shoe on my left foot and my hands automatically began wrapping the laces, tying the knots. I could not tell you how I did this, but my body remembered for me, effortless. The shoes are on now and I have overcome the first hurdle. Perhaps I will take another ballet class soon; yet I have to imagine that, one day, this knowledge will leave me too.

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