This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
There’s something about a warehouse dance studio. The exposed beams in the ceiling, the grayscale filter thrown across beaten pointe shoes, forgotten leotards, broken bobby pins punctuating a tired rug. I grew up in places like this, small feet held in pink leather shoes tucked beneath a soft leotard with a matching skirt, watching the big girls practice through variations, pointe blocks slapping against the vinyl flooring.
I was never the best ballerina. Even in middle school, I floundered through frappés. Flexing my right foot and switching between the front and back of my left in sheer, true panic, barely keeping up with the music, barely holding my arms in second. I was, too in my head, constantly overthinking without grasping at the terminology or timing, throwing an eight count out the window and guessing through the musicality.
In high school, I stopped dancing. Last week, I began again.
The open adult class I go to is at one of my area’s best dance schools, with a dancer-to-company-performer pipeline and students that get to be part of my city’s Nutcracker show every year. Inside, the walls are littered with Julliard posters and professional photographs of ballerinas both present and past.
I never would have been good enough for a place like this.
In the lobby, two moms rock babies in their arms as their other children dance down the hall in some closed off, cavernous room. They’re talking about breastfeeding, how difficult a decision it was for them both to stop. “What’s important is the baby is fed and you’re okay,” the one in white says. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
I never see the littles since they’re always finishing up when I arrive. But the thought is enough to make me weepy-eyed: their small outfits and shoes, the ways in which they awkwardly move to the melody, how dance is the most natural thing for their bodies to do. When the mirror isn’t yet a villain, an antagonist pointing out their worst flaws. An old friend of mine used to dance here and talked about watching the mirror for her spine to pop out in arabesque, the beautiful way her bones would dot her allongé.
Last week, I barely made it through the hour and a half.
Returning to dance, I worried how I’d compare myself to everyone else, how I’d expect my body to become a principal dancer in one class—pointe shoes seemed to call for my weak ankles like a siren at sea. It’s how I usually am with everything else: impatient, insecure, intense. But, shockingly, I’m not.
It’s clear that I’m the weakest link in the class; everyone else has been going for years, and a handful were company ballerinas that still have full extension and turn out in their hips. My feet are barely finding the pulse, the steps. Even as I barrel across the floor soaked in sweat, dormant muscles aching awake with each relevé, head throbbing as I arch my back not too much, squeeze my abs and lengthen my knees, tuck my tailbone under in everything, smiling. I’m smiling. I’m tuned into every second. I’m incrementally getting better each time. I’m accepting the long game.
The one thing, though, with the class is that we spend nearly an hour at barre. Which I love. I love the safety of the wooden beam, the space I’m confined to, the isolation that occurs when everyone down the mirrored wall is only focusing on themselves. But by the end, I’m exhausted—legs already sore, breath hitched, shoulders pinched. And, really, we’ve only just begun. Because that’s when we move to travel and jump, when my memory is tested and my lungs scream. We save the worst for last when I have barely anything left in my system.
We do that because our limbs are finally warm enough to be thrown down the diagonal or into the air. Less chance of injury, so they say.
All of this reminds me of my current writing process. Where I feel barely limber or strong enough to make it through this third revision, where I’m exhausted by the work that’s come before it and nearly ready to give up, to fall to the ground and stay there with my knees tucked towards my chest. Kailey Brennan DelloRusso, who runs this show, wrote in her most recent newsletter about her novel, “As I was reading, I felt a flutter in my gut. A sort of tingle in my fingers. A whole body surge of sparkles. Holy shit, I thought. You did that. And it’s working.”
I’ve been dreading my third draft, fighting for each step, each pirouette. I haven’t felt a flutter in a while. The jubilant naivety is gone. I’m no longer the fresh faced writer post graduate school, it feels like years have passed and my recall is fading.
All of this to say, I want to—wish to—relish the challenge like I’m doing with ballet. What if I acknowledge the work? Find the joy in doing something difficult? To understand each tweak and pull and cramp (gosh, the foot cramps) as a necessary evil to making art beautiful. To not compare where I’m at in the work to others; to not let my father’s comments about Tess Gunty winning the National Book Award at 30 and know that my mastery will come once I’ve earned it.
No dancer, principal or otherwise, is having an easy time. Even the most skilled—perhaps especially the most skilled—ballerina is going to feel pain. Is going to throw their body through the ringer and jump back up, prepared to do it again. Until the move defies itself, until the reconstruction of your very body look effortless.