aging, ballet, ballet photographs, ballet technique, ballet training, ballet world, creativity, dance, depression, family, Hannah Kahn, modern dance, personal history, relationship, renewal, Robert Sher-Machherndl
When I was a child I fell in love with ballet. As is true for most dancers, the love affair was almost violent in its grip on me: from the age of about eight through fourteen I thought of nothing but turn-out, tendues, grand-jetes, famous ballerinas, music and, of course, increasing my ever growing flexibility. I also dieted and compared bodies and lived through the shadow side of ballet, but the relationship to the art was for me primarily an obsessive joy.
The ballet world provides safety for young girls, particularly girls with a lot of insecurity in their lives. My family life had almost no structure: my mother and father had become parents at too young an age and had inevitably divorced. My mother had just come out as a lesbian, and my father had broken off a relationship with a woman who was a second mother to me, only to marry a woman who wanted nothing to do with either me or my sister. My mother’s partner, too, considered children to be a burden, something to “deal” with, and so we retreated, my sister to her friends and me, shy and lacking almost entirely in companionship, to the highly regimented, almost monastic world of ballet.
That world became my savior: the music was my mother, the form of the technique my father, the other students my family, and my teacher was a combination of all three. I also, by sheer luck, had talent: a naturally flexible body, good feet, a good ear for music, and a fine coordination. With the right guidance, I had the ingredients in place to become a professional dancer: an obsessive mind combined with the correct physical attributes.
Sadly, there was a great absence of one of the pieces a young developing dancer requires: I had no teacher of any merit. My teacher was a sweet old woman, devoted to her students but absurdly possessive of them, especially the students of talent. A good teacher, whether in ballet, or academics, or any art or spiritual instruction, sees his or her own limitations in the context of any given student’s development, and when that limitation is reached, also sees (no matter how painfully) the necessity of sending that student on her way toward further and more superior training. My teacher, after watching my growth, clung to me with an ever increasing clutch of jealous possession. And so my ballet family became a bit like my family at home: disorganized, and utterly lacking in awareness of my own creative needs.
I tried to strike out on my own, joining a small apprentice company, and then studying with various Vaganova teachers. But the lack of support and my own growing fear, what I now recognize as profound depression, proved too much of a barrier. By fourteen I was experimenting sexually, in a manner that was indescribably damaging to my girlish vulnerability, and the ballet world began to fade. I still attended class, but essentially I gave up on myself.
It is one of the mysterious blessings of my life that I never truly gave up dancing. I went through trauma after trauma, relationship after relationship, fell in love with academics and travel, and still the presence of ballet stayed with me, like an ethereal talisman. The longest I ever really “stopped” dancing was during my pregnancies or during long periods of travel. Ballet is home, though the home is deeply scarred with regret (oh, what might have been…) and ambivalence (should I really be here, given that my technique isn’t what it should be, would have been, etc).
As I begin the long, long emergence from the greatest period of depression I have ever known, one that did indeed come close to killing me, I find that my wild joy for and fanatic love of dance is rekindling. The love, now, is a mature one, and filled with the sort of appreciation I never could have known as a younger woman. Sometimes, when Bach is played for a petite allegro jump or Satie for a plie combination, I find myself in a state of no less than mystical wonder at the union between limbs, torso, feet and music. It is ecstasy, far beyond joy.
And now, so strangely and wondrously, that ethereal talisman of the moving arts who has been my constant, though sometimes invisible companion, is leading me to new explorations, new teachers, new physical development, despite the fact of my (for a dancer) ancient age and the myriad injuries and surgeries my body has lived through.
I have begun training with a brilliant woman named Hannah Kahn. She is a visionary modern choreographer, used to dance with the great Mark Morris, and has a beautiful company here in Denver. The dancers have been incredibly welcoming to me, as if they sense I’ve been on a long and difficult journey, and they are offering provisions along the way.
I’ve also taken the brave step of seeking out perhaps the greatest teacher in this region, an astonishing man named Robert Sher-Machherndl, who has choreographed for almost every major company in Europe, set dances on dancers from American Ballet Theatre, worked with Nureyev, and has turned out to be as patient and kind and humble as any person I’ve ever met.
Even though I have created a beautiful home with my eternally supportive husband and three lovely, healthy children, somehow ballet, and the creative impulse, continues to be another primary residence for me. It turns out I need both, and my gratitude at discovering, even at this late stage of the game, that I might have both is limitless. As limitless as the unfolding line of a ballerina’s arabesque, extending toward infinity and away from itself.