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History In Our Tights

When you have a ballet company full of people who need to be able to to lay hands on the the right costumes at the right times, there are any number of ways to keep things sorted. 

One of them is to write the name of the dancer who’s using a given item somewhere inside said item.

Our fitting today was peppered with exclamations of, “I’m wearing Bovard’s tutu!” and the like.

As for me, I have no idea whose tiny, tiny, tiny little shirt I’ve got—honestly, I was too busy being afraid it wouldn’t even go over my head and failed to look—but I can at least identify the history of my tights(1).

  1. SPOILER ALERT: they aren’t BW’s, though that would have been super cool.

I know the dancer, KW (no relation to BW, though they both have beautiful eyes), whose name is written inside my tights. He’s very good. I hope some of his excellence rubs off on me!

I was, in all honesty, really rather surprised that I fit into the positively miniature clothes I tried on today—I was particularly alarmed about possibly exploding the tights, as they just had me slip them on over my own tights, since we trotted down for our fitting in the midst of barre. But they went on just fine and did not experience catastrophic seam failure and actually felt quite nice (and silky: I don’t own any shiny tights, but maybe I should). 

The funny part is that I got completely re-costumed at the last minute(2) because BW spotted a shirt that, while stylistically quite different (like, night-and-day, ancient-and-modern different) from his original idea, really fit into the look of our little miniature company rather nicely.

  1. And might, in fact, still get re-re-costumed yet. I am apparently pretty much standard Ballet Company Medium, so the possibilities are more or less endless. 

Everything got changed, including the shoes: ironically, to the only standard men’s ballet ballet shoe color I don’t already have in my stable. Fortunately, the color in question is grey, and almost every ballet company in the world has a herd of grey shoes connected with Nutcracker’s rats. If all else fails, BG’s feet are only a little bigger than mine, and he thinks I should be able to borrow his. 

Evidently, the ensemble works quite well on me, though I didn’t get to see it. We were down in the Mysterious Cavern of the Wardrobe, and there wasn’t a mirror down there. I’m not sure whether I’m happier that I didn’t, because that prevents me feeling insecure about specific things, or if I might have preferred to have a gander at it after all. 

I’m leaning towards being very much okay with not having seen how I look, possibly on the “if you can’t see it, it can’t see you” principle—like, if I haven’t seen any specific things about which which I might feel feel insecure, then I’m effectively hidden from the Insecurity Monster that lives somewhere in the neighborhood of my amygdala.

It’s an interesting thing, anyway, this odd little dose of animism, if you will, that has the lot of us mildly giddy about whose bits of costumery we’re borrowing. 

That said, I’m not going to investigate it too closely just right now. 

Even my wild overconfidence could stand to benefit, after all, from the occasional magical feather—or from KW’s magical tights.

Variations on a Theme 

When I was fourteen, I read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story for the first time. His potent image of all later loves as an elaboration on the theme of the first love; a “crab canon,” stuck with me—not so much because I agreed with it (I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything about it), but because the language was so powerfully evocative. 

Anyway, I still don’t know if I agree with White’s narrator about the nature of first love (honestly, it’s been a while since I last read A Boy’s Own Story; I’m due for a re-read). I can, however, say that it’s a pretty good description of ballet. 

BW and I talked about this last night (while I walked in circles with my hands on my head, attempting to catch my breath, after the second round of the second petit allegro). As dancers, everything we do do is essentially an elaboration on one of a handful of basic themes. 

I look at my ballet notes from a year ago, and sometimes they literally say exactly the same thing I wrote down the day before yesterday. The literal content doesn’t necessarily change much, but the meaning changes immensely.

Something you’ve been working on for a year can feel like a revelation when your brain suddenly fires up a proliferation of shiny, new synapses in just the right pattern. So you write it down—lift and rotate from under the hip—only to realize later that you had already written it down a million classes ago.

But back then, it didn’t bear the same freight. You hadn’t yet learned to feel the individual muscles of your deep rotators. You didn’t yet know how to isolate and activate your adductors to the same extent you can now. Rond de jambe en l’air meant, simultaneously, exactly what it means now and something completely different.

Which is to say that the goal never changes. The goal, always, is the perfect execution of technique; mastery coupled with musicality, with expression.

The image in your head remains the same, but your sense of how to achieve it evolves.

What was conscious a year ago is automatic now, 15o or so classes (and countless repetitions) down the line. What is conscious today, presumably, will be automatic a year (200 classes or more, because you take class more often now) from now.

I find myself returning to the idea that the bodies of dancers are supremely educated bodies: just as years of (good) academic schooling hones our abilities to analyze and reason and helps us learn to activate the fibers of our minds in powerful and subtle ways, years in the studio help us find muscles most people never notice and use them to create beauty.

Dancer’s bodies (and minds) become fluent in movement the way the minds of mathematicians are fluent in math. Just like mathematicians, we achieve our fluency through repetition; through exercises that awaken capacities latent within us until, suddenly, we achieve new understanding.

So we continue: nearly three years (and G-d alone knows how many tendus and pliés and ronds des jambes) into this adventure in rediscovery, I continue to discover anew the things that I thought I already understood. 

This might be the most powerful ballet lesson of all: we never achieve perfection. The goalposts will always recede. 

No matter how much we have learned, there’s still learning to be done. Ballet forces us to be honest and keeps us humble (well, sort of). When I’m 80, and I’ve done more tendus than there are particles of dust in the desert of the Great Basin, I still won’t know everything. I still won’t be perfect.

That’s a powerful thought for someone who is, by nature, a bit of an overconfident know-it-all and a relentless perfectionist.

Lastly: right now, this body of mine is still gaining ground. Ballet tells me that. I am stronger and fitter and faster and more flexible than I was a year ago.

Someday that will change. Ballet forces us to acknowledge that reality, too, and either to evolve with it or run from it. 

I’m a jumper. For me, the ability to simply get off the ground is a G-d-given gift (though also the reason it’s bleeding hard to find trousers that fit). Age can be hard on jumpers: a day will come for every one of us in which we begin to feel our power slipping away.

I hope that day is still far off for me—but also that when it comes I’ll accept the lesson that comes with it: that there are subtler arts that age invites us to master; that the power and brilliance of youth are not the only or even the greatest power and brilliance.

These, too, are variations on a theme: one has little choice in the matter of aging (in short: we can age or we can die), but one can choose how to execute the movement that is age.

I hope that when I’m older, instead of being consumed by mourning for the loss of this power, this particular gift of flight, I’ll be able to be glad that I had it once and content to explore other, subtler gifts.

Either way, my ballet notes will probably still read, “Lift and rotate from under the hip*.” 

*Or, if I’m really honest, “Litt und ritoti frim uder tte hip”

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