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Keep on Dancing

Essay by Hadley Davis Reirson

On a Friday morning in late January, I wound one of my 7-year-old daughter’s blond hairnets around my stub of a ponytail and anchored the small bun with several hairpins (also on loan). A leotard was more of an issue. Nostalgia was responsible for my saving a collection of Dance France styles for two decades. But my black spaghetti-strap former favorite had a prominent moth hole mid-torso, and its pink twin was dotted with the kind of mysterious stains that emerge after years of storage. Yoga pants and a tank would have to suffice for the 10 a.m. adult ballet class with Alaine Haubert, principal of the American Ballet Theatre’s William J. Gillespie School, which opened in the fall at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

As you’ve gleaned, I used to dance. The fact that I didn’t become a professional ballerina was due in part to the role my parents played from the wings. Dancers, my mother told me, were mostly under-educated single women who couldn’t find husbands because they only knew gay men. She said they made five figures and got arthritis by 30.

Five figures sounded like a lot – after all, my allowance was still in the one figure. Age 30, meanwhile, was some 17 years away. According to my father, I would go to college, maybe an Ivy League. That way, I could afford very good seats when, say, the Kirov ballet came to town. According to my mother, I still might get arthritis since I had begun dancing in toe shoes – en pointe – and no doubt would one day blame her – either in therapy or in person – for letting me do so.  

But my anti-stage parents’ lackluster support is only part of the story. The other reason I didn’t become a professional ballerina is that dancers are not just born; they are made. I grew up in the Massachusetts suburbs. This meant, like most American dancers, I received a patchwork of inconsistent training: classes with a teacher in my town and later at Boston Ballet and assorted summer programs. I have, however, always wondered about the dancer I might have been had I attended one of the great ballet schools like the School of American Ballet or American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City or its new West Coast version. I have long wondered if things would have turned out differently had I been under the tutelage of someone like Haubert.

A former ballet mistress of that original ABT school and a member of the committee that devised its deliberate curriculum (technique cherry-picked from 400 years of European tradition), Haubert does not simply tell students to point their toes. She teaches the anatomy of the tendu, how the foot must stretch – ball to metatarsal to ankle. The point at the Gillespie School isn’t to learn the steps; it is to learn them correctly.  This instruction for children ages 3-14 naturally comes with a price: Tuition for the 36-week program ranges from $1,150 for preschool-age children to $5,250 for advanced students training five days a week.

However, for a mere $18 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, adults can drop into one of the Gillespie School’s pristine, airy studios. The floors are sprung, the music is live (a pianist accompanies all classes) and Haubert is teaching.

These classes are for “recent graduates of college dance departments, dance instructors, professional and pre-professional dancers or retired dancers.” I am none of the above. Yet, there I was on that January Friday in my yoga pants, left hand on the regulation barre (yes, even the ballet barres,  composed of an ultra light-weight aluminum, are manufactured according to ABT specifications).  

Haubert entered. She still has her shapely dancer’s legs although she is old enough that her mentors, partners and choreographers included George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes De Mille, Jacques D’Amboise – legends whose names send goose bumps down my ballet-o-phile spine.  I had met Haubert the afternoon before, when I had observed her level 1B, 9- to 10-year-old class, and now felt a flash of heat rise from my old slippers to my face as she introduced me, telling the others I was “a writer from Los Angeles who used to dance at Boston Ballet.”

“A million years ago,” I interjected.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. The gal in front of me, barely out of her teens, pulled her leg to her head, then, since that was apparently not enough of a stretch, proceeded to tip her torso like a lever.

“I might just stay for barre,” I announced to no one in particular. After all, I did need to get back in time to pick the kids up at school and drop my daughter at a sleepover on the way to my son’s orthodontist appointment.

Class commenced as ballet classes religiously do – with pliés (knee bends) and port de bras (stretches led by an arm passing through various positions). I managed a demi and grand without pulling a muscle. A small miracle. But when I bent forward, I couldn’t “fold like a folding chair” as our esteemed teacher suggested. Flat-backed, the gal in front of me hugged her chest to her knees while I hung down just far enough for gravity to send my 44-year-old cheeks toward my eyes. I closed them. What was I thinking? Didn’t I already have the answer to the question still nagging me in midlife? I mean, the tween girls I’d watched yesterday were taught the exact bone on which to touch their big toe in retiré (leg held to the side with knee bent). My dance education had been minor-league by comparison.
Dizzy, I lifted my head back up and kept going through the motions. Fourth position. Fifth position.  Holding my arm à la seconde (out to the side) I remember what Haubert had told those girls: The elbow should be slightly below shoulder, the wrist slightly below the elbow and the fingertips slightly below the wrist so that “a raindrop could slide down.” My bicep ached.

We moved on to footwork. Tendus (pointing the foot on the floor) then dégagés (pointing the foot off the floor). The combination – dégagé close front, inside leg to the back, change and change, relevé (rise to the balls of the feet) and hold – took on a patter as familiar as a nursery rhyme in my head. Muscle memory ignited. By grand battements (high kicks), the movement, the order of the movement, the counts of eight within the movement, consumed me. Finishing my barre work as instructed, “arms like oval picture frame, make room for your costume,” I just might have hallucinated a tutu over my yoga pants for a second or two.

Haubert smiled my way. “I guess you’re staying for the whole class.” It wasn’t a question but rather a statement. She added, “I knew you would.”

I thought I had come to Costa Mesa to find what was missing from my ballet training all those years ago, but instead found what I had been missing in the here and now. It’s far too late to be a dancer but not too late to dance.

• • •

Hadley Davis Rierson’s television and feature film screenwriting credits include “Dawson’s Creek,” “Spin City,” “Scrubs” and Disney’s “Ice Princess.” Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Teen Vogue.

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