A little more than a year ago, I returned to the ballet studio after a long break from all forms of theatrical dance (note that I didn’t say all forms of dance, period: historically, every time an opportunity to own the floor has arisen, I’ve grabbed it by the horns and spun it like a top).
I didn’t see that as the Beginning of Something, because of course we almost never* spot the Beginnings in the ongoing string of serial novels that comprise our lifetimes, but that’s what it was: a Beginning.
*I think we most reliably notice them when they coincide with a life-milestone recognized by our culture — a birth, a death, a matriculation, a graduation, coming out, a wedding, a divorce… Those ones are easier to spot.
It was a beginning that had been much-rehearsed and much-prepared-for, in a way.
I’d made a lot of changes in the three years prior: met the love of my life; figured out I was unhappy not just with my job, but with my entire career path; left a stable job with decent pay and fair opportunities for advancement; left the field in which I’d accrued all of my meaningful professional experience; returned to school; got married (another Beginning); finally started to get my head around the fact that bipolar disorder was a thing in my life whether I admitted it or not, so I’d better just admit it; etc.
I had been doing a lot of foundational work on myself. Returning to ballet was the outgrowth of that foundational work.
What I didn’t expect was the transformative effect of that return to the studio.
If you’d asked me before I returned to ballet what kind of dancer I expected to grow into, I probably would have pointed to the most fluid, most gender-bending member of the Ballets Trockaderos and said, “I’m going to be him.” If you’d asked whether and how I expected ballet to transform the rest of my life, I might have said, “I dunno, I’ll be more fit, I guess?”
Instead it turns out that, as a dancer, my style is traditionally masculine in the balletic sense (I’m trying to figure out how describe what I mean, here), and that ballet has sent its tentacles into every nook and cranny of my life. Surprise**?
**Anyone who saw me performing either gymnastic floor exercise or ballet as a kid probably wouldn’t be surprised at all, come to think of it. Why am I always the last one to get the memo, even when the memo concerns myself? Likewise, anyone who has been Into Ballet for a while is probably enjoying a knowing snicker at the naivete of my initial thoughts about how ballet would impact my life.
I suppose I can’t be entirely surprised that ballet just kind of took over. That’s how I roll. I don’t do hobbies; I do consuming passions.
That said, I was quite surprised when ballet almost immediately eclipsed cycling. Somehow, I expected them to coexist. Instead, cycling has been recast in a subservient role — still wildly fun, still great for keeping up the cardio and getting from here to there, but let’s not overdo it, because it’s bad for the turnout. Casual centuries are still A Thing from time to time, but racing? Not so much.
Perhaps more genuinely surprising is the fact that I — perhaps not the most incendiary of flamers, but still sufficiently alight to say of my husband, “His steadiness allows me to be the airy-fairy faggot I was built to be” — feel so at home and “right” and comfortable as a danseur.
Historically, I’ve found it kind of awkward to be who and what I am: this boy who is not “straight acting” and has no desire to be, but who nonetheless doesn’t fit neatly into the “total flamer” box either.
I recognize that this is mainly because the limits we’ve drawn around that box are, well, silly — and, actually, quite sexist, in a “flamers are like girls and girls aren’t bold and athletic” kind of way. I’d like to see someone tell Misty Copeland or cycling great Marianne Vos that girls aren’t bold and athletic!
I can’t help but toss an eyeroll at the over-compensating “straight acting” types — not the ones who are just being themselves, but the ones who are trying too hard; the ones who make “masculinity” into some kind of cult object and wear its trappings like ill-fitting trousers while cloaking their own feminine or androgynous sides in shame. The problem is, I also don’t quite fit the mold at the opposite end of the spectrum … and, curiously, queer culture seems to leave precious little room for the recognition of anything else (okay, except bears, wolves, and otters — but I’m not any of those).
I am someone who by his nature likes categories and wants to belong to at least one, but I am also someone who appears to have been created specifically to defy categorization. I am eternally consigned to some kind of purple area, when all I want much of the time is to know whether I’m red or blue. Yea verily, this hath vexed me: I have really, really always wanted to fit somewhere. It never occurred to me that maybe part of what I missed about ballet was that I fit.
Ballet embraces a kind of bouyant masculine grace (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily have to be constrained to male dancers; more on that in another post; G-d help me, I am backlogging myself with “…in another post” posts lately!) that is at once strictly counter-cultural in our modern age of male buffoonery and strictly classical in the sense that gentlemen were expected, Once Upon A Time, to know how to cut a caper or a rug and how to recognize a well-cut suit.
So I am learning to live into this kind of weird masculine grace that’s apparently a native part of my being — I say “weird” because I have, of course, thought of myself as male, but not particularly as an exemplar of any flavor of masculinity; that has, simply put, never been one of my aspirations. And, in so doing, I am learning to live into the whole of my being more thoroughly.
In short, I am feeling at once more whole and more real and developing a burgeoning sense of agency that threatens to topple my lifelong assumption that I would live out my days as a sort of domestic, dependent figure.
I say all this by way of a discovery: earlier today, I read a really cool article on Serious Eats called Friday Night Meatballs, immediately Had A Sad because it reflected something I’ve always wanted to do but felt I couldn’t because The House and Where Will People Park and Nobody Wants To Visit Our Neighborhood and Nobody Ever Comes To Our House, etc…
Then, immediately, I thought, “Well, why don’t I do something about that?”
Like, point the fourth, there? Of course nobody ever comes to our house. We never invite people to our house. Maybe if we invited people over on a regular basis, people would come to our house. Maybe that’s how all this works!
You guys, what the heck is happening to me?
It used to be that I would get to, “…but the house” or whatever and stop.
This isn’t to say that our current house is ever going to be ideal for entertaining. It’s not: but that’s life. I can’t practice big jumps in my basement, either, even though it’s the largest clear-span space in the house (our living room, meanwhile, is roughly one tour-jete across, if I keep it small). I make do: turns in the kitchen (because that, as we have established, is what kitchens are for), the occasional big jump in the living room, adagio in the basement. Balances everywhere, on every possible surface.
So packing ten people in for a sit-down meal in our dining room probably isn’t going to happen, at least not unless we get rid of the china cabinet and buy a different table. So what? Who cares? That’s why the human race invented this little thing called “the buffet.” It worked a treat for our family holiday shindig, and I’d like to do more of that: china and food on the dining room table, however many people arrayed on sofas and loveseats and chairs and giant ottomans in the living room. It works, and it actually feels rather nice and friendly.
I’m going to give this a spin, though first I’ll have to get off my butt and finish the Great Spring Break Cleaning.
I’m feeling this way about my life in general. You figure out what you’ve got and you go from there; there’s no point in worrying about what you don’t have right now. I don’t know if coming from a background in which I pretty much had everything made this harder or easier to learn — like, seriously, it seems like it should be easy to learn how to live on a much smaller income. You just spend less, right? But, in fact, it’s actually not all that intuitive when you’ve grown up never really having to worry about the expense of anything.
The difference is that when money really is no object, you can usually make things happen the way you envision them by just laying out some cash. When money is an object, you have to be a little more flexible and a little more creative. You have to learn how to work with what you’ve got.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
You take what you’ve got and you make the most of it, and while you’re doing that you figure out how to make the next step towards realizing the whole of your vision. Except in the most dire of circumstances, you cancel out the negative side of the equation (our dining room is definitely too small!) by recognizing a positive (but our living room is a really fun place for a group of people to hang out!). Then you figure out how to use that positive to meet your goal.
That’s the secret, apparently. That’s what keeps the here and now from seeming like nothing but a grinding wait ’til you get to where you want to be (now, if I can just figure out how to apply this kind of thinking to our bathroom, which I despise with the fire of a thousand suns, and to the fact that our kitchen feels like the most isolated room in our house…).
It’s like the principle of keeping Shabbos: from every Friday at sunset to every Saturday at sunset, the perfected kingdom of G-d is already present; sacred time descends upon and perfects our imperfect world. We invite the Perfect Someday to be here with us, now, and for a little while even our imperfect world is lifted up and perfected. Things still get spilled and little kids still burst into tears for mysterious reasons, but those things happen in the context of the Perfect Someday, and they too are sacred events.
In a way, Sarah Grey’s Friday Night Meatballs, with its recognition that the house is going to be messy and that you might be asked to read picture books, is its own Shabbos***. The world doesn’t stop being imperfect and chaotic (this isn’t to say that having to read picture books, by the way, is imperfect: it just probably isn’t what people think of when they think “Friday evening dinner party”), but for a little while, a different kind of perfection — a transcendent perfection — is invited in.
***Oddly enough, I hadn’t finished reading the article when I wrote this post — but author Sarah Grey calls out the same association!
I’d like to live my life a little more like that. I realize that’s what I’ve been hunting, in my endless journey for a spiritual practice that answers the calling of my soul: something that lifts up the Holy Sparks in all things. I just didn’t realize that it’s been sitting right here in front of me all along. (Voila! Isn’t that always where it is, though?)
It really helps to have an Organizing Principle, of course: Zen, or Yiddishkeit, or Catholic mysticism, or Quaker discernment, or secular humanist discernment, or bike racing, or ballet. Some organizing force that helps you untangle the threads and gather them together and weave them into a tapestry (and to know with ease that there will be imperfections in the tapestry). For whatever reason, Bike Racing didn’t really work for me — perhaps because it wasn’t my Vocation, in the old-school sense of the word.
Ballet has become exactly that in my life. Ballet is, at the moment, a kind of functional Kashruth. It is the thing that helps me decide, and at the same time it’s a sacred aspiration. This is, I think, the heart of the ballet aphorism, “I can’t; I have class.” What we are saying when we say, “I can’t, I have class,” is that we serve a higher calling, and that calling comes before so many of life’s distractions****.
****Of course, it’s possible to misuse this calling; to hide behind it in unhealthy ways — but the same can be said of any calling. To use a calling as an excuse to hide is wrong.
I am not living the kashruth of ballet perfectly, of course, because I am human and because I am just learning: but still it is working in my life, opening roads for wholeness that weren’t there before. It’s like pruning a tree, in a way: you prune away the suckers and the weak branches, and you are left with a strong and graceful tree that bears good fruit.
Ballet is the thing for which I am willing to shove everything else to the side, to make sacrifices that a year ago I wouldn’t have thought possible (Give up bike racing? Take any old job just so I can afford my training? Do :::shudder::: upper-body work?!).
I don’t think I would actually have bothered seeking out medication for my ADHD if it weren’t for ballet — but I realized that I need to get better at handling the other stuff in my life so I can keep dancing and so I can achieve my long-term goal of becoming a Dance-Movement Therapist, and I realized after a while that I wasn’t going to be able to do it without help.
I don’t know if, without ballet, I would have ever been as comfortable being who and what I am. I would have continued to feel weird, out of place, even in the outsider community that is the queer universe. I would have continued to hem and haw about having surgery for my gynecomastia, forever suspended between “living with this body limits me and makes me uncomfortable” and “the whole idea of surgery both makes Denis uncomfortable and reinforces the idea that there is only one right kind of male body.” I would have gone on not deciding until the accumulation of years rendered a decision for me. Ballet makes that decision easy: this is the thing I need to do to be able to move with freedom and strength. I can’t imagine regretting it, but I can absolutely imagine regretting not doing it.
Then again, that was the first bit of wisdom I learned from Denis: in the long run, you rarely regret what you do — instead, you regret what you don’t do.
So, yeah. I think I’m going to finish cleaning the house and try my own Friday Night Meatballs experiment, though maybe I’ll do something other than meatballs (but maybe not). We’ll figure out where to put people and where to put people’s cars and so forth (and if my friends come, they’ll probably come on bikes anyway).
I also think I’m going to keep working on moving forward, on stepping out onto this stage. Because, bizarrely, that’s what this all feels like: so much of my life, up until this point, has been rehearsal.
Now we step onto the stage. Now we take our place before the eyes of the world.
Now we begin to dance.