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Ballet Lessons: Stay Together

Have you ever seen the entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades (from La Bayadere, one of the “White Ballets” of the classical cannon)? Or the first breathtaking appearance of the swans in a large-scale production of Swan Lake? Or the Snow scene from Nutcracker?

I mean, that’s probably a given. You’re reading this blog, and that means you have internet access and are probably at least a little bit interested in ballet, so that means you can at least watch them on YouTube, probably. (If you came via one of my bike posts, hi! and I’ve got a couple for you, too: a big group ride sweeping around a corner or a tight paceline swapping pulls).

These are some of the best-known scenes in ballet, and with good reason: they display the fundamental truth that there’s immense power in a group of individual people working together.

The entrance of the Shades might be the keenest example.

The dancers enter one by one, in a long line that will eventually double back on itself. They perform the same simple (not easy: simple), repetitive phrase over and over: arabesque (penché, in most versions), temps lié to posé tendu devant, step step, repeat.

They are not massed in a cloud, as the corps so often is. They are not aggregated in attractive little clusters, or in coruscating diagonals, or in opposing echelons. At least, not at first.

Instead, each of the Shades is essentially alone—and yet she’s also part of a whole.

The repeating phrase is nice enough on its own, but nothing you’d necessarily be transfixed by for minutes on end (or, indeed, for one minute on end, unless you’re busily analyzing technique, I guess).

The repeating phrase performed by an ever-lengthening (and eventually redoubling) line of dancers, on the other hand, is mesmerizing. It’s kaleidoscopic.

It evokes an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere even (or perhaps most effectively) when performed against a plain backdrop, with no set except a ramp upon which the advancing shades descend.

This simple phrase, without a single iota of elaboration, becomes a symphony. But it only works if the dancers stay together.

Indeed, it works because the dancers stay together.

At the height of the sequence, the redoubled chain of dancers (still executing the same phrase on the same leg) becomes … Oh, I don’t know: a restless sea; a moonlit, windblown fog racketing between two unseen hills; the very breath of the audience.

Choose whichever metaphor suits you: either way, it becomes one thing; one thing made up of a staggering array of smaller things.

But only if the dancers stay together.

~

This is where I am in my life. I spent so much of my life standing apart that I came to believe, on some level, that it was somehow better.

Participate, I thought, but don’t join.

Or, join, but not because it’s inherently good to be part of something.

Join because it’s how this thing works: but retain a measure of reserve about the very idea of joining. Remain aloof.

If you remain aloof, the unacknowledged subtext would have read, you can’t be caught off guard and hurt when, inevitably, you’re rejected. (Lessons learned in childhood die hard. When enough people have told you, no one really likes you and no one will ever like you, you come to believe it.)

And yet, as the company has transformed into a place where I feel welcome, bit by bit I find that I want to belong.

That the more I begin to feel that I want to be part of this group—that I like the people in it and the group itself and not just the work we’re doing together—the better I actually seem to dance.

When bikes were my life, I loved—loved—the incomparable symbiotic feeling of sweeping around a curve in a flock of bikes traveling at speed.

As a singer, I have always loved choral harmonies more than anything.

Even as a dancer, I love those moments of pure synchrony, especially in grand allegro (here are four separate bodies flinging themselves violently through space, and yet we are one thing because we are all doing this together!) or in partnering (the best moments, for me, are the ones in which each move seems to flow logically, even inevitably, from the last).

Why, then, am I still surprised to want to be part of something—to want, dare we breathe the word, to belong?

Ironically, I know I shouldn’t be surprised (my aloof, proud, defensive side feels downright affronted: “Of course I know that, man, what are you trying to say?!” …. to be surprised is to be less than omniscient; is to be vulnerable). Humans are social animals, and though I’m not always great at being a human, I am one anyway. Neurologically speaking, even I am wired for belonging.

Of course I want to be part of something, even if the something in question is so obscure that a great many people literally don’t understand that it exists.

(Seriously: there are a lot of people, right here in the First World, who have no idea that a professional ballet company is a thing; that we don’t just clean out the barn, rehearse a couple of times after work, and set up ticket sales).

But it surprises me anyway.

Not least, the knock-on effects: when you start cracking open the door to let people in a little—because, here’s the thing, that’s how you do The Belonging—you find that you try new things that the other people in The Thing to which you’re learning to belong like. It’s transitive almost: I like A and A likes Lizzo, therefore maybe I will also like Lizzo.

You discover music you’ve never really given a second glance before (or you discover who makes music that you’ve low-key liked for a long time but haven’t known who to ask about it). You take a risk and wear something ludicrously silly on Pajama Day—like a hoodie with a sparkly pug with antlers on it (I’ll have to get a picture; I can’t even begin to explain this one).

You say hi first once in a while.

You begin to listen without feeling like you might, at any moment, have to defend yourself.

You begin to talk. Just a little: but then one day you realize you’re having, like, a whole conversation. OMGWTFBBQ, IKR?

And you begin to learn that it feels good to be even a little bit on the inside of something.

You begin to realize that it’s okay to want to feel that. That being on the inside isn’t the same as being one of the people who, back in the day when you were a kid, did everything to ensure that people like you stayed out.

You begin to want to stay together because although you by yourself are just fine, the group is another thing, and it’s a really cool thing.

You begin to realize how much it helps to be a unit.

That (apologies to Kipling) the strength of the corps is in the dancer, and the strength of the dancer is in the corps.

I mean, not that it’s all roses and sunshine, etc. But this, for me, is a new feeling. Realizing that part of merging into the group is being willing to merge; is wanting to merge.

Just like the dancers in the Entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades, we do not surrender our individual strength to join the group.

Instead, we continue to dance on our own legs.

But we dance on our own legs together.

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