Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. The final episode of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Time I Taught Someone Something.
By GAVIN LARSEN
I have just spent an hour and a half leading thirteen women and two men in a classical ballet class, working them through a series of dance exercises that have been practiced all over the world for centuries. As “elitist” as the art of ballet may be considered, this particular class (which I teach bright and early every Monday) is what’s called a “drop-in”, which means that anyone on earth who has the urge to dance and $15 can walk in off the street and take a place at the barre. It’s billed as “Ballet 1,” but all that means is you’re on your own if you don’t know the five basic positions and some other fundamentals, but also that I won’t be asking anyone to do triple fouettes.
Naturally, then, there’s a wide range of ages, abilities, body types, and personal motivations for “dropping in” on a Monday morning. Some of those who come to class have dance experience from childhood and some only started dancing as adults, but for everyone, wading into ballet technique in middle age takes guts, healthy senses of humor and realism, and a willingness to set pride aside. Physical limitations like stiffness and cartilage-thin joints are prevalent, but the natural coordination and instincts of childhood— the compulsion to spin around, jump, and be fearless— have also gone away. Coaxing adult students past inhibitions built up over the years is fun for me because of their attitude: no one comes to these classes unless they want to work, think, be brave and get ready to fly.
Douglas, in his fifties, is tall, lean and proud. He trained in jazz and theater dance as a kid and even had a job dancing in cruise ship shows for a few years. He’s in every class, standing front and center and attacking every exercise with confidence. He prides himself on being a sort of ringleader of the adult dancer community, welcoming all newcomers warmly, generally playing the role of alpha male in the room.
One of my favorites is Josh, a forty-ish, small, wiry and muscle-bound guy with an impish grin. He thinks about ballet just as hard as he works at it (although his body is so tight it’ll never make balletic shapes). He likes to analyze why steps are done a certain way. His questions force me to find ways to verbally explain concepts that I have always understood intuitively. Why do you press down into the floor in order to pull up out of it? If you truly stretch your arm or leg, as I’m always cueing the students to do, how do you keep it from looking stiff? I love teaching him because he’s so chipper—laughing off his own wobbles and tumbles—but he doesn’t trivialize the magnitude of ballet training. He understands it as a high art form to be appreciated and respected, and has a kind of fascinated awe for people who’ve devoted their lives to it. After all, this may be the equivalent of a recreational cooking class for non-chefs, but he and the other students are still working with sharp knives and real ingredients that shouldn’t be wasted.
Today, Genevieve was in class as usual. She’s a lovely woman and, like Josh, tightly muscled. She quivers with effort to mold herself into the positions of ballet, straining and taking short puffs of breath although we’re only five minutes into barre and just doing simple tendus. I always pass by Genevieve and give her arm a gentle shake to help her try to relax her elbows while still holding on tight to her center. She resists me, as if she’s gripping a handrail for dear life. I am on an endless quest to get students to avoid over-tensing their muscles, except for that ever-necessary “tush squeeze”, of course. She understands what I’m asking for, but letting go is scary. I remind her that we’re just doing ballet, not brain surgery, and laughter throughout the studio brings an immediate release.
Most weeks in class, several small goals are achieved only to be washed away moments later like waves lapping up on the beach, receding, and then reaching a few inches further to achieve more with each new surge of water. This process happens quietly inside each individual. Everyone’s pace is different, as is their starting point. It feels like a beautiful miracle to see fifteen people’s faces light up with understanding, and then, best of all, translate that realization to their bodies. Today, as usual, we were doing a pirouette exercise. “Reach your right arm, leading with the pinky finger, resist slightly in your shoulder like you’re pushing through water, and keep your elbows lifted like you can’t touch the tabletop in front of you. Make your arms perfectly round and methodical like a metronome.” The room got hushed—that’s when I know I’ve said something that might be sinking in— “Let’s all try it together.” We practice each element separately: just the arms, then just the feet, then arms and legs without a turn, and then we add it all together. I had been doing the step with the class, standing in front of the group with my back to them, but now I stopped and turned around to watch. I saw a mismatched assortment of people of all shapes and sizes and in outfits of every type, all reaching with their pinky fingers to the right and sailing around with the smoothness of soft butter.
CURTAIN DOWN. THE ENTIRE SERIES, EPISODES 1 THROUGH 12:
Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something.
Born and raised in New York City, Gavin Larsen has been immersed in ballet’s “bizarrely intuitive system” since she was 8 years old and began to study in the same studios where George Balanchine had created some of his finest ballets. She moved on to the School of American Ballet, and a long career performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since retiring from the stage in 2010, she has taught and written extensively for Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Pointe, Oregon ArtsWatch, The Threepenny Review, the literary journal KYSO Flash, and elsewhere.