Barefoot Ballerina; my first dance class in Philadelphia
I glance at the clock on my new coffee maker: 6:47. Taking in a deep breath of air, I close the Netflix tab on my computer and put my plate in the sink. It is a Monday night in Philadelphia, the first Monday in September at my new job in my new city. I can already feel the tense muscles in my neck from typing at a computer all day, my eyes numb to print on screens at that delicate distance between my face and my computer. It is time for a ballet class, I decide. Time to get back on the dance train.
The last time I danced was in April, in Berkeley for classes and rehearsals. After the intense Berkeley Dance Project schedule of rehearsals and performances and classes for training, dance time tends to drop off drastically as soon as study week for finals begin. I don’t usually have a problem with that though; ever since coming to college my motivation for throwing myself full force into my movement routine has dwindled as art and inspiration became work and obligation. This is ironic and actually rather unfortunate because I spent my four years as an undergraduate pursuing a degree in Dance and Performance Studies, including all of the leadership and extracurricular opportunities that come along with studying in a high-stakes school like UC Berkeley. I began my time in college ready to thwart the world of professional dance and choreography with my ideas, opinions, and radical thinking. By the time I graduated, I was burnt out on dance and ready for a break.
After spending the whole summer post-graduation recuperating from my draining time at school and preparing for my move to the East Coast, I repressed my fears about my choreographer’s block and started doing some research about the Philadelphia dance scene. This is not the first time I have relocated to a new community, so my expectations are realistic about the kind of opportunities available to me as a recent addition to the lineup. I don’t know who is who or what the impressive companies are called, but I know the area I am living in as well as how to navigate the google maps search bar. That is how I find myself walking around the block at 6:47 on a Monday for a ballet class.
As I arrive at the studio and sign in for my class, I size up the space and appreciate the quality of the floors. Dark wood is always nice to dance on, and it also reminds me of the old floors at my studio at home. The walls are painted bright colors, with patches of cheesy dance regalia and iconic images from Degas and Broadway cutouts to inspire the children who come through these doors. The ballet teacher reminds me of the rough east coast version of the woman I trained with back home, complete with head to toe baby pink dance attire and artificial red hair wrapped up in a tight bun. Her deep voice and thick Philly accent welcomes me into the class as the bars are pulled out into the space. With my cut-off sweat pants and bare feet, I am ready to go.
The student make-up of the class is so stereotypical of an amateur community adult ballet class: all of the girls who were too tall or busty to excel in the ballet world of our awkward teen years, with a few short crooked smiled girls with performance anxiety sprinkled in the mix. And then there is me, a dancer certainly aligned with the assumed past experiences of these other young women, except with a more modern-dance aesthetic informing my movement quirks within the ballet context. Maybe I chose a ballet class to start off my new life as an adult dancer because it is something I was never perfect at to begin with.
For someone as defiant and rule-breaking as I try to be as a dancer, I actually really don’t mind ballet. I respect ballet as a profoundly influential art form and have always appreciate the discipline required of its practitioners. I believe one must learn to play by the rules in order to then break the rules, so my modern dance training has always been informed by an underlying ballet technique upon which to expand. From a physical standpoint, ballet offers a muscular training that is invaluable to all forms of dance and supports forms like modern dance which branch off of its ideologies and practices.
As I assume my position at the bar and glance at myself in the mirror, I start to faintly see the dancer I once was. It has been years since I have trained at full force, and also years since I have wanted to. The lean, fierce, driven dancer who attended class and rehearsal sometimes 30 hours a week on top of full time school and homework loads has long dwindled away under the influence of other interesting hobbies and passions. It has come time that I no longer sacrifice other aspects of my life for my interest in dance- something I have come to accept about myself as a dancer. I am what a lot of people call a “lazy dancer”; a dancer who really doesn’t care what she looks like or how in shape she is. I try to work on myself as a whole, well rounded person which has greatly come at the cost of my drive and sometimes even success as a dancer. I always have and always will dance for myself, for how it feels instead of how it looks. And when it stops feeling good like it did by the end of my time in college, I stop too.
As the music plays and simple barre combinations unfurl from the teacher’s mouth and baby pink self, the language of ballet comes back to me like a language of my distance past that never really left. It reminds me of my knowledge of Spanish; once fluent and full-time studying, I still understand the language fluently and get inspired any time it crosses my path. Out of practice, but the vocabulary is all there. My memory is still sharp, my accent could use a little work though. In the language of ballet, I am proud to sound like a modern-dancing foreigner.
Class continues on and I continue to have visions of myself, past and future, in the smudged mirror across the room. The professional dance Sophie is there, training 30 hours a week with little social life and lots of teenage angst. The academic Sophie is there, wearing sweats to class and toiling over scholars that finally explain everything she has ever thought about dance herself. I don’t know what this Sophie is here and now though, made up of these past versions of myself with a bit fuller body, smoother skin, and more metal accessories added to my face. Office-job Sophie? Transplant to East Coast Sophie? New Girl Sophie? College Graduate Dance Scholar Sophie? Out of Shape Modern Dance in a Ballet Class Sophie? It beautifully dawns on me that with this move to this new city, I can re-define myself entirely- picking and choosing which experiences and insights to take with me from my past into my future. This is perhaps one of the most reassuring and exciting things about this move which has proven to test my emotional limits; among so many transitions in my life, the role of dance in my life and my role within the dance community here is one I entirely control. I don’t have to be a lazy dancer here. I can continue to be a driven choreographer here. I can dance just for fun, just for exercise, to get into a company, to tour, to get paid, to volunteer. Or not. It appears that the city, this world, is my oyster and I am eager to situate myself here in this next phase of my life.
For now though- to honor the years of dedication, resources, time, and money my parents and I have invested in my dance education and career, to honor those past selves with an open heart and fortunate sense of humor about my wacky path to this sometimes unclear place- you can find me on Monday nights around 6:47 walking to that dance studio for ballet class.