I am sewing elastics onto a fairly new pair of Sansha canvas ballet slippers. The stitches hidden inside the shoe as I have been taught to properly do and the elastics fixed at the perfect place in order to accent the lines of the foot’s arch. Two pairs of ballet shoes and one pair of pointe shoes have traveled with me from New York City, to Hong Kong, and now here to Singapore. I have held onto them knowing that they still fit and still have a lot of “life” left in them. The leotards and light pink tights with the seams up the back had been forfeited a while ago — donated during a closet purge. I looked for a Graham modern dance class to take but I couldn’t find any in Singapore so here I am, sewing elastics on my fairly new pair of Sansha canvas ballet slippers because I am going to an adult ballet class tonight.
I recall writing an essay in college at UARTS on comparing art forms. In it I suggested that dance is the most fleeting art form. A visual artist, after going through the creative process, has a sculpture or painting which stays in the world. A writer has the book. The musician at least has the notation and recordings for it’s re-creation. The art lives on and therefore the artist can continue to be called such. When the dancer steps off the stage, both the artistic process and the thing which has been created is over and done.
So when the dancer stops dancing, are they no longer a dancer? I’ve let the name go. Though not without —at least in the beginning— a struggle. It was something that defined so much of who I was for almost two decades of my life. It was everything! But, now it is not.
I’ve since taken on new names that suit me better; yogi, teacher, wife, cat and dog mama, traveler, and expat. I sometimes awkwardly call myself a writer though that’s still a word my soul is growing into even though I have been paid for my words and published in actual ink. Dancer is now only something I put on when practicing Natrajasana on the yoga mat. “Dancer” is not much more than an imprint left in my body from a past life; the cause for why I can’t easily turn my legs inward, the reason my hamstrings are still long and open, an explanation for that callused-over spot on my second toes, and that cracking sound in my right ankle. It is the reason you should thank your teacher at the end of class, whether it be with a curtsy or a namaste.
There was once a time, in that past life, when dance was the single greatest thing ever and my entire reason for being. Something to immerse myself endlessly in. It wasn’t necessarily the time spent performing on stage, but the journey of self-discovery that an intimate relationship with your body can offer. A way to translate all that you are feeling, seeing, and learning from the world into the art of movement and discipline of the body. I was in love with everything about it as the very image of perfection. So I wanted to make a career of it and keep it as my everything.
I graduated college with a BFA in Modern Dance Performance and left the safe cocoon of school for New York City with a five-year plan tucked into my notebook. There was no other choice. New York was where I belonged. New York City was as important as dance itself. I got an apartment in Washington Heights, a job at a restaurant to pay the bills, and hit the dance scene. While I found some great teachers downtown to take class from, I quickly learned that I hated professional auditions and performed badly in them. I did a few projects with lesser known choreographers but it felt like a huge compromise to the expectations I had for myself. After meeting some like-minded dancers, we started a collaborative modern dance collective. We shared the costs of renting studio space, theater space, production costs, and festival applications. We danced for one another and managed to co-create for about two years together but I could tell that my time as a dancer was drawing to a close. At the same time I began to feel about yoga the way I once did about dance. I had gone through a teacher training, was rock steady in my yoga practice, and had a talent for teaching. It was a passion that could actually be a career. I looked around and saw too many compromises in order to dance — an extreme lifestyle that was no longer worth the sacrifices. It no longer felt as though it helped me be that favorite version of myself. I turned fully to yoga for a way to translate life through the body and it was one of the best choices of my life.
Yet still the urge to fly across a floor whispers to me when there is a large empty room before me. The grace of sweeping movement calls to me. The yoga mat is medicine. The yoga mat is meditation. The yoga mat is where I find my primary practice but dance is an old lover inviting me to the stage. I am now far enough away from New York to feel anonymous in class and therefore less vulnerable so I tuck my freshly sewn ballet shoes into my bag for class later tonight.
At home I click over to Pintrest on my iPad in search of a few inspiring romantic images to keep my motivation going. I type in “ballet” to the search box. Instantly I am bombarded with the all to familiar images which have discourage my adult self’s attempts to re-enter class; svelte bodies that I have never looked like — even at my skinniest, an article entitled “The Seven Deadly Sins of Dance”, overstretched and hyperextended joints that make my alignment-conscious yogi cringe. My pulse quickens as I feel like a voyeur in a world that is not my own. It’s not only my body which has changed but my outlook on how to relate to it. THANK GOD for yoga. Dance may have been a journey through the physical body but it was an extreme one at that. I moved from dance to yoga because a nourishing, reflective and conscious practice is what I was dying for. How am I going to make it through a ballet class? What am I thinking for even considering this as a good idea? I could still back out and just not go. Yet I also see refreshingly different images in my search as well; Misty Copeland’s unconventional, brown-skinned, and strong ballet body and quotes like “Hard times require furious dancing”. Lisa at the barre will look different than it did ten years ago and it’s a definition that I can craft for myself.
I take the dog out for a quick walk before leaving the house. I hop on the 145 bus packed with evening commuters on there way home and make my way over Singapore Dance Theater. I make it into class just in time. Jake, an unintimidating young man who is probably about the same age as I am will be leading class this week. I quickly ask him if I am in the correct studio and tell him it’s been forever since I’ve been in a class but I did go to college for dance. He assures me that I will be fine and I find my way to a spot at the barre.
Class begins. Pliés. Turn out. Balances. Oh my goodness — pointing your feet! This stuff is HARD after years away. My arches cramp and my calves become knots with repetitive relèves. Yet it’s not as foreign as I expected. My legs still fly up. It feels thrilling to work to the beat of the music rather than just the breath. I sweat. I mess up. I get back on the count. I breath through my mouth the release the building tension and fatigue in my muscles. My body is entirely unable to do some things it once found quite simple but I make it through the beginning of class. We shift the barres to the side and begin floor work. It’s challenging to say the least. I wobble and I stabilize. Pirouettes are virtually impossible but I remember the moves that were once my favourite; sweeping balancés, grand jetés across the room, rond de jambe, and tour jetés. The teacher encourages my successes and kindly ignores my wobbles. I humbly incorporate corrections given to the room yet also treat my body as my main teacher. I’m not the worst in the class but I’m not the best either. I make it through the ninty minute class and gratefully thank the teacher on my way out.
At night it is hard to calm my mind down to sleep even though my body is tired. It’s as if years of stored energy have been unleashed through one ballet class. I feel good! I’m gonna be sore tomorrow but I feel good. Maybe I should do this every week? Maybe I could be in the party scene next Nutcracker season? Or — crazy thought — maybe I could just enjoy it? I finally sleep and feel graceful in my dreams. Limbs extended and a soft femininity to my form. In the morning I wake and get myself to a yoga class that happens to be full of internally rotated postures hitting all the places I worked the night before. It feels like a lovely balance and could possibly be the formative work for me to redefine what it means to be a Dancer.