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. “Everyday Ballerina,” Part 2: The 8-Year-Old.
By GAVIN LARSEN
The noise and rushing current of Broadway are muted instantly as the old wooden door thuds shut, its glass window rattling once. Inside, everything is gray-scale, muted, dusty, and chilly. A wide wooden staircase leads straight up, enormously high and steep. At the top, far above real life and through a door to the right: A hallway, long wooden benches, and, on the bare floor, a big fluffy white dog acting as foot rest and greeter. The air is hazy and musty, carrying a cold, sweaty, stale smell, possibly left over from the generations of dancers before. Every room is a cavern. Rows of ancient metal lockers fill a dressing room that is unlit, unkempt, uncleaned–and unused? Studios with ceilings two stories high are so big their corners disappear into shadows, empty and forgotten. Rosin dust covers everything. Young children, talking excitedly, bring life to this museum that is the space itself. Their purple leotards are the only color in this movie.
To an 8-year-old, especially one there for the first time, the New York School of Ballet was confusing. There were certainly a lot of young children crowded into the big lobby hallway who looked like they were there for ballet class, but then there were all these adults around— clearly dancers, real ones— who looked as old as parents (though they were, probably, late teenagers).
The procedures and expectations were confusing, too, especially to a timid, play-by-the-rules little girl, self-conscious, and terrified of doing something wrong. The laid-back attitude of the friendly (and gorgeously tall and glamorous) woman behind the front desk made it all more stressful, not less— was the handwritten ledger book an attendance sheet? If each page was a class, where was the 8-year-old’s name? Why did the glamorous woman say it didn’t matter and to go in anyway?
Go in? Most confusing of all was where to go and what to do. Nobody pointed a new student to the right studio. Wanting to get away from the crowd of loud grown-ups milling about by the entrance, she wandered down a long hall and found an almost-hidden studio that felt the safest— the most private, way down there almost out the back door. She could slip in unnoticed and blend in with the bunch of kids already in there. Just pretend to know where you belong.
Pretending soon became everything. Pretend to know where to stand at the barre— everyone else knew. A woman, the teacher, strolled in with coffee cup in hand, her casualness only adding anxiety. Class started, suddenly, without preface or introduction, or recognition of the terrified dormouse squeezed into line of confident kids. Pretend to know what the words mean, what the steps are; copy the girl on either side, mimic and shadow whatever she does. Play follow-along, but never think of speaking up— don’t ask a question; they’ll know you made a mistake— just stay quiet and hope no one notices. Blend in so you won’t stand out; even though, as usual, trying to blend in makes you noticeable.
No one’s being mean, so why so intimidated? Why so scared? Scared of what? Scared of being wrong, even if only because of others’ harmless shortcomings or benign oversights.
Class is over. How old are you? “Eight,” the dormouse squeaked. Aha—I think you’re in the wrong class— have you ever taken ballet before? No? Oh, no wonder! But you know, it’s fine— you kept up so well, and you’ll catch up to everyone else quickly. Just stay here in this class, and come again next week.
What? I kept up well? How is that possible? How can I catch up to the middle when I don’t even know the beginning?
So it began. A lifetime—a ballet-lifetime— started off without a beginning, but with a mandate to pretend that there was one. Entering the race two laps past the starting line, hoping no one would notice.
Could it be done?
TOMORROW: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2. “Now that she knew which studio to go into, the 8-year-old did return the following week, and the one after, and even more after that.”
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.