I'm not a real ballerina, and I'm not a little girl, so I'd walked by the ballet studio for years without ever thinking about taking a class. Even while I was reading about the history of dance and watching YouTube videos of Sylvie Guillem, I scarcely examined the wall of "not for me" I'd built around the concept. It wasn't until I saw a kids class through the window, a row of seven- or eight-year-olds at the barre, all curved arms and pointed toes, that I had a muscle memory so vivid it propelled me to sign up for my first attempt at Adult Beginner Drop-In Ballet.
I had no idea who even goes to an adult beginner drop-in ballet class, but, as I might have expected, the crowd was just people—the same as you'd see in the subway. They wore workout clothes, the men in tank tops and loose pants, some of the women in gauzy skirts. One woman was wearing those tights that go over the leotard and down halfway across her ballet slippers, which seemed really cool to me. Another had a baggy old tee shirt and booty shorts on over pink tights. There was a splendid variety of soft ballet shoes, all immensely appealing. I just wore socks, because if it turned out to be terrible, I didn't want to have spent money on gear.
There were students who look like they'd been very serious about dance recently, and maybe they still are. Real dancers. There were women who don't look like anyone's stereotypical dancer—ages ranged from twenties to sixties, all body types. They looked calm and confident, chatting with each other while stretching. In theory, there's nothing about an adult ballet class that should be so different from any other exercise class, but there was a voice in my head arguing against me. What's the point, even? How good do you think you're going to get? You'll never be dainty, you're never going to float around in a tutu. But then the teacher came in, crossing the room with understated fluidity. She radiated self-mastery rather than theater—and that's what I was there for, in theory.
Mikhail Baryshnikov was my first crush ever. Our VHS tape of his Nutcracker was my security blanket and my valentine. As a lovesick three-year-old, I said to my sister, "Look at his tights!" My sister said, "What's so special about them?" Me—"It's not the tights, it's what's inside them!" meaning his legs, of course. Of course.
What I remember from the Nutcracker years was getting up from the sofa and dancing. Watching ballet videos made me the opposite of tired. I'd dance so hard it felt like being on a swing, reaching the highest point and floating a moment before each part of me fell in unison. It was the height of happiness for me. I didn't care what I looked like, I knew from inside myself that I matched the music.
I took ballet classes, along with all the other girls I knew, from a severe woman with Italianate stage makeup and thin hair in a high, permanent bun. Several kids stopped taking classes when she stuck her fingers in a girl's ear to punish her for getting a step wrong. I stopped after a performance, after we were all given our costumes, and the other girls were handed their tiny butterfly costumes in sizes like 4 and 5, and then I realized the teacher was keeping mine for last—size 10. I was growing enormous, surely twice as tall as my next-tallest schoolmate. Among the tiny precise girls of ballet, I was a swaying colossus of flat white child. My parents guided me toward other activities—violin because I liked music, art because I liked to draw. I wrote and illustrated a sequel to Angelina Ballerina where she gets to dance more.
During the Cold War, both sides of the Iron Curtain poured money into ballet. It had cultural flash; it didn't require a common language. Whoever had the best ballet had the best culture. Funded by the CIA via the Ford Foundation, scouts visited dance classes all over the US to find the kids that would be trained to populate Balanchine's choreography and stick it to the Russians who had lost him, Nureyev and Baryshnikov all in succession. In Leningrad, the Vaganova Academy could still boast that it had trained these dancers, the best in the world. In gaining the Soviets' dancers, we had spoils of a cultural war. In training ourselves, we were foot soldiers of important, powerful femininity. Though I didn't know it at the time, my little heart's desire to be the virginal saint of ballet was part of this larger picture.
I just knew, a kid of the '80s, that ballet was a big deal. Ballerinas were a bigger deal than Disney princesses. Ballerinas were hard-working and ambitious. Suzanne Farrell was on Sesame Street. Football players bragged about taking ballet classes before the Super Bowl. There was a dance supply store in the center of our little town, and all plastic jewelry boxes seemed to have a picture of pink ballet shoes on them as a matter of course. I had countless books about the commitment and sacrifice required to become a real ballerina, the blistered feet and grueling hours—the epitome of fulfillment in my mind. I wanted to be sculpted to the bone. The hardship was half the appeal.
But then the Cold War ended, and the hope of the First World was no longer leaping around in Baryshnikov's tights. The tide of money washed out and the glamour went with it. Ballet took on a sickly cast. Parents didn't want their daughters to be anorexic pill-poppers. The stories of dedication and sacrifice started to seem freaky—if we talk about ballet these days, it's more like Black Swan, with blood on the stage and boob-grabbing choreographers. Strong ambitious girls have soccer and volleyball, activities lacking the taint of excessive femininity. Activities for girls who would say "I was never the kind of girl who played with dolls, or daydreamed about her wedding."
The Adult Beginner Drop-In Ballet teacher gave me a spot where I could follow along with more experienced students. At the first set of pliés, I could feel the muscles along my legs wake up. I thought about the jumps, about Baryshnikov's legs—pliés are the move babies do when they're getting ready to learn to walk. Those are the muscles you need to jump. With your feet turned out, the strain goes from the top of the legs around to the the buttocks. We continued to more complicated sequences, and I quickly got lost. Each leg and each arm work independently. My brain was overloaded with trying to coordinate, let alone even balance. I wobbled through gaps in my strength, barely matching the music. Unlike the sort of exercise where you just do one thing until you lose consciousness—running, biking, swimming—ballet took constant awareness of my entire body, from my toes out to my fingertips. The teacher would say things to the class like "Be sure you're not leading with your left shoulder" or "This should take you two beats, I see some of you trying to do it in one." But she didn't stick her fingers in anyone's ears. I managed to get two tendus at exactly the right time and felt an electric spark of my old joy. It was incredibly hard, but I could feel the purpose of trying.
In its original form, ballet was part dance, part etiquette, and part spiritual practice, as we think of yoga now—exercise designed to civilize the body and mind. It was art and war, closer to fencing or tai chi than acrobatics. Since the days of Louis XIV, ballet has had stretches of masculine supremacy, including the 20th century—but for most of its theatrical history, it's been about women. Dance was frequently one of few arts that European women could practice in public and earn money, celebrity, independence. Most of what we do in class was first done by a woman. It may be a tainted kind of supremacy, what with the eating disorders, the damaged feet and a concentrated version of the prejudices that permeate the rest of the world—but there's something simple and wonderful to me about being in a discipline that has been so female for so long. The leotards, tights and leg warmers aren't designed for men and reworked for women. They're ours.
I am getting better at following along in the Adult Beginner Drop-In Ballet classes. I'm not much better yet, but I have some real ballet shoes now, and I practice at home. The teacher doesn't bother correcting me, and I like that fine: it's one of the consolations of adulthood I never would have understood as a child. I'm easily the worst in the class every time I show up, but I'm learning. The adult beginners are really good, I'm figuring out; they really know their stuff. We're not a particularly decorative group, but it's strength that makes ballet dancers look like they're floating.
Catherine Nichols is writing a novel about ballet dancers. Find her on Twitter.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby