To be a ballet dancer is a calling from God, a life experience like none other. It has to be because who in their right mind would choose to study ballet if they didn't listen to a little voice inside of them that says "dance." It's hard. It hurts. It's really not normal to move your body in all the many different ways any trained dancer does. I only got "this message" after studying for 20 years when one day in class, my teacher at the time, Natalie Rast said, "stop beating yourself up if you don't get something right away, it takes a very special person to study ballet."
This is true. Because it is hard, it does make your body ache, but through dedication and discipline, you learn the technique that makes the art of the beauty that is dance. So why study ballet?
Because there is something that stirs inside of you as a child that makes you spin uncontrollable like a whirling dervish as you stare into the sky with infinite possibilities surrounding you.
During your first year of classes you learn the five positions of the feet and arms, pile' (to bend the knees, which you later learn is the alpha and omega of all jumps) tendu, to stretch the foot, dégagé: to disengage the foot from the floor, releve: to rise, pointe and flex and the other basic ballet steps, and strengthening and balancing exercises that seem very tedious. This is the were many young students give up because they don't understand the point of all of this.
Learning technique is hard; it is a discipline. You have to learn every small detail in order to build a dance step, just like building a house. You have to dig a hole, pour the concrete, then add the bricks. You can't just pile bricks on top of each other and expect it to withstand the elements. Young students want to pirouette, leap, jump but they need a solid foundation to do this.
I was lucky to see this, maybe not see but to feel this. Dance is a visceral effect on the body because in class it is the only thing you can concentrate on; like a sacred meditation. To me, it didn't matter what was happening at home or school, I was free, even just for a moment in class. Ballet is what kept me on the straight and narrow path. It kept me out of trouble, it was a place to escape to were I was distinctly unique. The bell would ring at 3 o'clock, friends would ask to hang out after school, I'd say no, I have ballet. Mom would pick me up, drive to William Reilly Academy of Ballet. The drive was just long enough for a quick snack and to put my hair in a bun. Upon arriving, just enough time to change because being on time to class was to be early so that you were ready to dance by 4 o'clock.
Discipline started with a checklist:
hair in bun
pink ballet slippers, bows tucked in
stretch, stretch, left hand on the long, wooden barre''
4 o'clock, "Good afternoon, Mr. Reilly."
I don't know how many times I've done a plie'. It is the first exercise you do in every class. It is what starts off the ritual of the class, in which everything builds on top of each other giving you the fundamentals to dance in the center of the room and hopefully, center stage.
Coming center to dance is a test of everything you have just learned on the barre. You are out there on your own, no wooden pole to hold on to you when you lose your balance. It's just you. It get harder but inevitably you learn more putting what you have learned into practice.
No pirouette turn is perfect at first. First, you learn to balance on the ball of your foot, the a quarter turn, then half turns and once you've mastered this you finally are allowed a single turn. To turn your body isn't simply enough, you have to remember the placement of your head, your arms, and landing the turn.
To balance, it is really a division of the body, an oppositional pull. You have to push down into the ground with your leg and pull up with your torso and finally, hold your arms in place. Putting the steps into action to make a pirouette turn, you have to put forth just enough force to get it in motion but trying to hard or giving to much makes you fall of balance. But that's all just part of learning to dance.
Some of us go onto pointe shoes, the classical image of Ballet but once again, this is not for all. This is not normal, seriously, who in their right mind would wear pointe shoes and learn to dance on literally, their toes! If you can get past the bloody toe nails, blisters and many sprained ankles, you find out why.
Just like when you first start learning Ballet, you have to learn the building blocks. Holding onto the barre, strengthening the foot and learning your new center of gravity is challenging. Months later you graduate to the center, where once again, it is just you, putting into practice all you have learned. You fall in front of your classmates, wondering if you ever studied Ballet in your life and question if you should and can dance? This is another moment where dancers give up.
For those of us who continue to listen to "the calling" that voice gets stronger as we see and feel our bodies move, we begin to tell a story. Each of us has a story. Some are lucky to tell that story center stage, sharing our gift with others. The work is in the classroom, in the rehearsal so that the performance just happens. In rehearsal, you start by asking yourself, what do I say? Through much experimenting, trial and error, like a mad scientist trying to discover the cure for what ails us, we create a story with our bodies.
Many times the ideas, concepts and movement comes pouring out like a summer rainstorm that you can see, hear, and smell. After rehearsals, just like when the rain stops, everything looks fresh and new. Everything that is new becomes old. The dance that once seemed innovative is now a little boring, it gets frustrating. This always happens more than once in a rehearsal process and instead of blaming others, I ask myself, "what am I doing wrong, not communicating?" This is the chance to take a step back and look at it from fresh eyes, ask for help, and figure it out. You rebuild, restructure, take things out, and finally, the dance starts to work again.
It is now time for the performance. Standing backstage, waiting to go on, two things happen:
I always have to go to the bathroom, which in a costume isn't always accessible.
I forget everything, a moment of shear panic. "Oh, my God, what am I suppose to do, how does this all begin, what if I screw up?"
But then the music starts and you just know. This is the dance. The moment where all the technique, the tears, the years unfold and you know what to do, without asking the music guides you as you glide, turn and hold the moment.
The hardest moment for any performer on stage is stillness. It is when your inner voice can come out and distract you or the guy sleeping in the third row annoys you and you notice just how bright the lights are on stage. You could lose focus or just let it go, staying on the music. When the music ends, the curtain calls comes, you hear the applause from the people who shared in your story, it becomes worth it. Even the guy in the third row gets it, realizing he just wasted his $25.
At some point the body changes and you ask yourself, what do I do now? I still want to dance, I need to dance. At that point, I started teaching, horrible at first, not understanding the wisdom my teachers had to give. Their is a saying in the arts that those who can't make it as a performer, teach but really, it should be, those who can do and teach.
I love seeing my students push pass the building blocks until they get it. Their eyes light up and a sense of calm takes over as their imagination grows. You have passed on the passion.
In us all is a voice, a feeling, a breath that unifies all humankind. The arts witness this. If we listen, we find it in nature, the breath of a new day, a baby being born and what separates night from day. This is the voice of the Beloved.
When we listen to this voice, we know God all in our own way. We begin to seek God, meaning, a sense of purpose for life. Just like the child dancing in the background, the beginning steps to a spiritual connection is pure and innocent. We seek out a practice by observing others, reading and learning until we make a choice to follow a specific path.
There is a feeling of excitement, just like your first day of Ballet Class but as time goes on, you find it's much more complicated. In Ballet, you learn a new language to communicate. In learning Sufism, my practice, I'm learning a new language and it's frustrating to memorize each meaning to each word written in Arabic. But slowly, the connection happens.
Learning the basic Ballet positions and steps doesn't make a dance, it's the connection and flow from one to the other that makes movement. Learning prayers and meditations are not enough, you have to connect them to your life. Going through the motions of praying is meaningless unless you deconstruct what it is that you are saying and asking for. Like a pile' it isn't enough just to bend your knees, when you deconstruct this simple step you have to make sure your pelvis is not tilted, knees are in alignment with the feet and there is a flow to the movement.
Asking the Beloved for forgiveness isn't enough if you don't try to make amends with those you've done wrong. If your praying for peace but yet you don't apply it to your life, your not listening to what you are saying. If you harbor anger in your heart, you have no peace. No amount of prayers will matter until you release the anger, hurt and any other negative emotions. Just like the young dancer who gives up when they don't understand the building blocks of technique, many people stop their spiritual practice here. When the euphoric state ends and they don't feel God or things in life don't get better, you can't seek to others to heal you, only yourself. Sometimes what you are asking for from God is not what he wants you to learn at that moment. If you can remember why you started on this spiritual journey, you continue to seek, learn and grow.
Starting in pointe shoes, you deconstruct your knowledge, body memory and push pass the falls, missteps until you regain your balance. At this point in a spiritual practice, when the initial high wears off and what you are practicing isn't fixing your life, you have to deconstruct yourself. What is it that the Beloved is trying to say needs change. Can you look at yourself and honestly see what you are doing to cause the situation in life to worsen. Do you control your anger, biting words or outlook on day to day situations. To much force in a pirouette makes you lose balance, ask yourself what do I need to do to regain balance.
This is hard, no one wants to admit they are wrong or have done others wrong. Sometimes one little lie can start a ripple affect and the lies and the guilt that comes from it get so big, that it ruins the dance. We have to stop beating ourselves up, let go of guilt, ask for forgiveness from the Beloved. But asking for forgiveness isn't enough, just like learning dance steps don't make movement. The dance begins when we can forgive ourselves and then the duet begins when we ask others for forgiveness. We regain our balance but their is more work to be done as we step off the barre into center stage of life's classroom. We still have spiritual teachers to guide us but the real work comes to play when we apply what we have learned.
Surrounding ourselves solely with like minded people on the same path as you is easy. Can you step into the middle of life's classroom facing temptations and challenges and stay connected to the Beloved? Many people can't, so they give up or run back to the "barre" where it's safe.
Eventually, life's performance begin, each of us on own path but all responsible for the dance, the voice of God is like the music whispering in our ear. Backstage we are nervous wondering if we'll mess up but then the music starts, we know just what to do. We trust God's music moving us in many ways, at times we follow others moving like the Ballet de Corps, sometimes we step out alone. A solo, the scariest yet most liberating test of our knowledge, we may stumble during the performance but we need to let it go, forgive ourselves, understanding that is what makes us human.
Dancing a duet is balancing a relationship. We have to give to our partners but not so much that they take all of our weight because eventually they will fall. Pas de trio, the dance of three, balance is tested once again, a choice to be made, one is a negative choice, the other is positive. Temptation makes us go back and forth until we find peace, balance again.
Sometimes you are standing center stage and the ballet de corps is dancing all around you and like in life, it's hard to stay focus when so many people are telling you what to do, the guy in the third row is not paying attention to you but you have to trust that God has got you. Holding center in life is hard but rely on your technique, your spiritual practice and the voice of the Beloved playing the music that stirs inside of you.
When the Beloved plays the last bar of music in life and the dance ends, we can only hope that people will clap for us, celebrating our life and the impact we have or made on others by being a performer and a teacher, leading by example, being one with the Beloved. The guy in the third row may wake up and stop sleeping through his life's performance once he's noticed your gone.
When life's curtain closes and you've taken your last breath and it is just you and the Beloved, will we be able to say that our performance was the best we could have done?