So this needs work with the beginning and ending and transitions and consistency in tone…
Teachers go kind of crazy in the summertime. We conceive of all kinds of projects to improve our homes, our classrooms, our teaching practice, our ambitious selves, and imagine that two months will be enough time to accomplish all this, and also take a well-earned vacation. This summer I decided to try to recapture something that I had enjoyed as a teenager: ballet dancing. I signed up for dance classes at a local university’s dance program. I’m the mom of a toddler, about to turn 31, and I haven’t danced seriously since I was 16, but I definitely needed the exercise.
I walked into the first dance class, the one advertised as “level 1-2,” and shrank inside a little. All the other women were at least 10 years younger than me, some as young as 13, barely post-pubescent, all thin and poised in classical ballet attire: black leotard, pink tights, and hair in a severe bun. I was wearing black tights and a workout top, with a ponytail that exposed my gray roots.
After I took a place at the barre, the instructor explained detailed series of exercises, demonstrating in a perfunctory way that assumed lots of knowledge on the parts of her students. She rattled off lots of steps in a complicated sequence, clearly expecting us to remember them all after hearing them only once, and be able to do them to the front, side, back and side, then turn around and do them on the left.
I was lucky enough to be positioned behind the hotshot dancer of the room, a tall girl in pointe shoes with bright blush on her high cheekbones. Keeping my eyes glued to her feet helped me to approximate the steps. That’s really as close as I got: an approximation. My mind knew the steps, but my feet had forgotten them. Before we were halfway through the first combination, I realized my ancient ballet slippers no longer fit me at all. And then we had to turn around, and I floundered until I found another girl to watch, aware all the time that little Margot Fonteyn behind me could see all my mistakes.
We spent most of the class at the barre, pausing between combinations for the instructor to talk about body alignment and which muscles did what when we did the different movements. She asked the girls questions about why they were moving the way they did and troubleshot the various steps with us. One of the messages I remember was the idea that exertion isn’t always the way to execute a step correctly: some steps must be relaxed into, or perform themselves automatically if the body is positioned right. At the very end of class, we did a combination across the floor. It included a pirouette, which I’d totally forgotten how to do. Did you pick up the front or back foot? Which way did you turn? I made sure I had a position in the back and fumbled my way through it.
Walking out of the class, I expected to feel horrible after an hour and a half of staring at my body in skintight clothes standing next to skinny girls half my age. That’s how I would have felt if I’d taken these classes when I was in high school. I would have felt chubby and outclassed, and I might have quit. But to my surprise, I didn’t feel that way at all now. My standards had been radically lowered by 15 years without dancing (and maybe motherhood had something to do with it too). Comparisons no longer even made sense. Instead of feeling discouraged and jealous, I was proud of myself for showing up at all. I was able to look at myself in those floor-to-ceiling mirrors and notice that I did still have a waist, and my collarbones looked nice, and, whoa, my feet had beautiful high arches. Yeah, I messed up the steps, but I liked doing the graceful arm movements and the way tondus and plies made my legs feel strong.
In trying to take apart my body image issues and self-consciousness with a counselor once, I admitted that what I was really afraid of was being the ugly girl in the room. I was always hyper-aware of an unspoken hierarchy of women in any room, from the most beautiful and put-together to the least, and I feared being in the bottom of these rankings. What I discovered as the oldest and least-coordinated woman in ballet class was that when you’ve already clearly “lost” the nonexistent competition it becomes fairly easy to stop giving any fucks at all. Maybe this is one of the reasons why aging is supposed to be so liberating for women. When you’re out after the first round of the continuous beauty pageant that is life as a woman, you find you have other things to worry about besides pointless looks-based competition. You can concentrate on learning the steps instead of sucking in your belly and making duck faces in the mirror.
I’ve read tons of body-acceptance essays, and seen all the memes telling moms to be proud of their “tiger stripe” stretch marks. I agree with these ideas intellectually and politically, but my emotions always refused to buy in completely. Some stubborn part of me insisted that beauty standards exist, and no amount of self-acceptance erases the fact that others will judge us by them. And no matter how much you pretend other people’s opinions don’t matter, those opinions determine the way we get treated, and it’s pretty hard to feel good about yourself if people either treat you like crap or ignore you all the time.
I’m still kind of skeptical about body-acceptance messages that dismiss the hard work of unlearning shame or that pretend self-acceptance is a thing that happens once and for all, rather than a continuing process. But I also think that a lot of that concern for other people’s opinions is sometimes just a projection of a poor self-assessment. It might be hard to believe, but other people are just as self-concerned as you are. That’s why dance teachers encourage self-conscious students by saying, “Don’t worry about the others. They’re all focused on themselves. No one is watching you.” And it was true: the other girls were just so much scenery to me after a while, something to watch to help me keep up with the steps. I wondered if they paid so little attention to me, in turn, that despite my workout top and gray hair I might have actually blended in.
Even though I didn’t become a prima ballerina, or even recapture much of the skill I had half a lifetime ago, I consider the class a success for me. I did something risky, that made me feel nervous and on display, and I survived. Yeah, if I thought about it too much, it was kind of depressing to lower my standards to mere survival, but if I never did that I wouldn’t try new things and grow. I knew I would stink at ballet, but I signed up for the class anyway, and that choice necessitated accepting failure ahead of time. Brene Brown says, “When failure is not an option, you can forget about creativity, learning, and innovation.” Maybe I can go a step farther: it’s only in the midst of failure that it’s possible to learn this lesson about self-acceptance and courage, and thus unlearn perfectionism. After all, even a thirty-year-old, out-of-shape ballet dancer in ill-fitting shoes can learn a new step, and with it, a bit of grace.