A New Year’s Mash-up: Noticing and The Joy of Dance and Being Among Dancers

I received a beautiful e-mail from my cousin today inspired by the Jewish New Year. My young cousin is brilliant and wise, and if she lets me, I’ll share the whole thing with you later, but for now I was thinking about one thing she wrote about:

Noticing. Noticing new things in the relationships and experiences we have.

I go to dance class most Sundays. Today I noticed something that has been there all along, something that was ignited in the first ballet class my mother signed me up for at three years old, something that at times was lost amidst the despair of not being good enough, but that pumps through my veins and sings in my soul now that I’m old enough not to care about that.

In dance class today, I noticed the keen and pure satisfaction of being in a room of people who feel joy from moving to music in unity, from hitting the correct lines at the right time. I felt the centered-ness of being in a room with pumping music and a room’s-length mirror and that particular kind of wood floor, from feeling I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt the camaraderie of being with people who get that the world can be held in counts of 8. 

There is an unspoken understanding among people who share the remembered pride of earning pointe shoes, in which blisters, calluses and bloody toes were badges of honor. Who, with the same grit and drive ascribed to Friday Night Lights footballers, were teenage ballet warriors wrapping their toes in white tape, stuffed lambs’ wool or (if you were in the know) torn brown paper bags, who wedged their feet into pink satin wrapped wooden boxes. Who wound the ribbons that we had sewn on ourselves around our ankles, and became ballerinas for the next hour and a half.

Dancers share a language, not only of words but of physicality. Of “5, 6, 7, 8″ and “from the top.” Of first position through fifth. Of front, side, back, side, first on the right, then on the left. It is order. It is symmetry.

Some of the joy I feel in dance now comes from a beautiful nostalgia, connecting over time with my younger self. My body’s muscle memory connects today with every dance class and rehearsal I’ve ever had, lying on the floor, stretching right leg toward the wall, left leg extended above me trying to reach my nose. There are things that my body will not forget, even as my mind increasingly vexes me by failing to remember to pick up the laundry, or make a dentist appointment, or ask someone about their ailing mother.

There is joy and comfort in striking the same position as when I was 14, striving for the same goal: a better stretch than last time. I feel the same piercing good hurt at the back of my thigh. I feel the same sweat on my arms, pulling that leg closer to my face, closer, closer, never close enough.

Ballet was my love, but it was obvious I was not destined to be a ballerina. I switched to Jazz because the girls and teachers were nicer. There was less looking at how high the other girls’ legs could lift, how many more turns they could do, how extreme their turnout, how gorgeously defined their arched pointed foot.

When I let go the idea of ever being the best, dance became mine, simply for joy.

In a dance class of adults we are all their for joy: music blasting, a teacher inspiring and teasing; and fellow students who are still striving and stretching; still arching and flattening our backs, still lowering our shoulders and elongating our necks, rolling our hips, spotting and turning, and counting and messing up and practicing and living and trying it again, trying to get it just a little better the next time, and – maybe —  nailing it before times up.

Before we leave, “Genuflect,” our teacher says. “Thank your neighbor for a good class.” We all curtsy, like the prima ballerinas we once dreamed we would be, and for that moment we are. We were not perfect today, not close. We made our mistakes and we kept dancing. We laughed them off and helped each other when we forgot the steps. We pushed ourselves harder than we would have if we were dancing alone. We carried each other.

Wishing you these things this year: being with people who understand and appreciate you without explanation or pretense; joy and health and striving; doing a little of what you love.

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