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, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Part 3 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2.
By GAVIN LARSEN
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. As these weeks passed, she began to slowly gain, if not real confidence, a familiarity with how things worked. She followed along. She watched, and copied, but just when she started to think she knew everything she and the other students would be told to do during class, the teacher called for a step or movement that was foreign. As before, momentary panic would strike, and that fear of looking stupid. She was afraid no one remembered that she was the girl who was supposed to be given leeway, who was still catching up. She wanted to wear a sign reminding everyone she was new.
Did she think of her new-ness as a defense— a justification for any mistake she might make? Was it becoming part of her psyche, her identity? A shield, so that she could fail without fear of shame? But the curse of being a good faker is that people begin to think you’re for real, and then they expect things.
She was trying, and listening, hard, very hard. Every instruction that was given she multiplied by at least two or three. A straight knee had to be very, very straight. Shoulders down meant really, really down. “Point your toes” meant make your foot as strong as a dagger. “Stomach in” meant belly button touching backbone.
Here’s what she learned:
- First position: heels together, toes pointing left-right.
- Second position: same as first but heels apart.
- Third position doesn’t exist.
- Fourth position: one foot in front of the other, toes pointing left-right.
- Fifth position: same as fourth, but feet smushed together, toes of one touching heel of the other.
- Plié: bend your knees
- Relevé: tiptoe, like when you reach for a glass on a high cabinet shelf.
- Knees over toes at all times.
- Stomach sucked IN at all times. ALL times.
Beyond that, it was still mostly a game of quick-eyed copycat.
But even so, she began to fit in, a little bit. She made friends, as much as one could, with the other girls during the few minutes before class and after, when they were scrambling for socks and jeans to pull on over their tights in the hallway outside. Now those long wooden benches weren’t so cold and unwelcoming; they were a place to stow sweatshirts and sneakers, because nobody went into that dark and murky locker room.
After a while, there was a new teacher. Or an old teacher who was new to the 8-year-old, who was now 9. He was a man, who seemed to be ancient, with a disfigured foot and a severe limp, very thin wisps of silver hair barely covering a balding head, and huge, sparkling blue eyes that betrayed the soft character inside his large, bellowing exterior. He didn’t really know or care what had happened in any class or time before he arrived to teach, only that these girls should, at this point, by his judgment, know certain things and how to do certain steps. He was Greek, as he loved to remind everyone, and had a Greek temper and Greek shouting voice that he often used. Insults, even to young girls, he did not consider to be off-limits. They were the norm.
By now, the 9-year-old, by dint of doing everything with twice as much effort as was expected, by straightening her knees and pointing her feet and pressing her shoulders down impossibly hard and aiming her knees over her left-right facing toes at all times, pulling her stomach in to her backbone, had started to look like she had actually been practicing ballet for a fair amount of time, not just a few months.
One day, the old Greek-man teacher had directed the class through their barre work and arranged them in lines in the center of the studio (this was the part of class when the 9-year-old had to be especially quick with her imitation skills). After he had them do a tendu exercise (she knew how to do tendus, now, but still hadn’t figured out all the difficult words that went with the dozens of directions and angles in which to do them), he said to do a pirouette. And he pointed at the 9-year-old.
She had not only never been taught a pirouette— let along done one — she only had a vague idea of what it was. The image in her head of a pirouette came from photos or drawings in her collection of ballet books at home, or maybe from having see Baryshnikov spin endlessly — amazingly— in a PBS broadcast of Dance in America. So she knew it was a turn of some sort, and that the dancers in the pictures had their legs in passé (and luckily she did know that position by now). Thinking of the ballerina on top of a music box someone’d given her for a gift, she desperately guessed at where to position her arms.
The old terror and fear surged again — why she couldn’t or didn’t just say that she didn’t know how to do a pirouette is unknown, but it was certain that scorn would fly, no matter what. So, reflexively and without hesitating (and thankfully able to move after an initial full-body freeze of panic), she did some sort of spin with her arms over her head, and the Greek wrath thundered.
What on earth is that?!?! Someone else— YOU! And he gestured angrily at another girl in the group.
The other student tried, maybe somewhat successfully, maybe not, but the class moved on. And the old man Greek teacher never did come back to the 9-year-old and teach her how to do the pirouette.
TOMORROW: The Power of Music. “The next year, the girl, now 10, was moved up into the next level of ballet classes. She’d faked it well enough, copied well enough, worked harder than regular 8- or 9-year olds would, and, unsurprisingly, come to seriously love going to class.”
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.