Writer Lauren Kessler quit ballet at age 12 after taking a body image beating. Nearly 40 years later, she ended up dancing with a professional company
My love affair with The Nutcracker began the year my mother took me to see a New York City Ballet performance. I was five. A few months of concerted begging later, I began taking classes.
When I was eleven, I started studying with ballet legend André Eglevsky. One day, when my mother picked me up from class, Eglevsky called her into his office. I was a few feet from the door. Of course I eavesdropped. Her shape is wrong, I heard Eglevsky telling my mother. She will never be a dancer with that shape. She has the wrong body. I heard the words "bottom heavy" and "thighs." And my throat closed. I walked, quickly but with all the grace I could muster, to the bathroom, where I shut myself in a stall and cried.
A few days later, feigning disinterest, I told my mother I wanted to drop ballet altogether. Now that I knew how Eglevsky saw me, I saw myself that way too. And so this moment was not just the end of my lessons, it was the end of my girlish lack of self-consciousness about my body, the end of that carefree period during which I didn't give a thought to my physical self. I went from oblivious to self-conscious—and from self-conscious to self-critical—in a leap so quick I didn't know it happened. There was now this voice inside my head that listed faults. (Read How Fat Shaming Could Be Destroying Your Body.)
My Nutcracker Obsession
My mother took me to see The Nutcracker every season, and when my daughter was five, I started taking her. I had seen twenty-six performances by the time I ventured off around the country on my own Nutcracker Binge tour (I saw six shows in two weeks). When I returned, I could not believe the thought that jumped into my head, the voice that whispered into my ear: Dance The Nutcracker, it said. You—midlife woman, you who have not been in a studio since you were twelve: Shake it up. Attempt the impossible. Take a chance.
This sudden desire to dance The Nutcracker felt scary deep. I would be attempting to silence an old tape as I engaged with a demon that had been haunting me since I was twelve. Given that my loss-of-body-innocence moment was a ballet moment, could going back to ballet reverse the process?
And, who would allow me to dance in The Nutcracker even if I could? I met with Toni Pimble, cofounder of the Eugene Ballet Company with my pitch. "Interesting," she said. Should I say more? What more should I say? I was so busy constructing new arguments in my head that I almost didn't hear her when she said yes. "With conditions," she quickly added. I must be in shape. I must relearn the vocabulary of dance. I must take lessons and classes, and prove myself worthy. (See what it takes to become a Principal In the New York City Ballet.)
Trading My Running Shoes for Ballet Slippers
First things first: getting in shape to relearn ballet. I wasn't starting from zero. I had been working out, concertedly, for more than two decades. But pretty much nothing I did had any relationship to getting in shape to dance. On my new exercise list: active stretching and lots of it, yoga, Pilates, Barre3 (try their Head-to-Toe Sculpting Workout!), water jogging, and this machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics.
Eventually, I braved the daily company class. It was fascinating being so close to the work that goes behind the art. In the audience, you see the satin and tulle, the elegance and glamour. Up close, you see muscles and tendons and sweat and stink.
One day, I arrived at the studio and the cast list for The Nutcracker was on the bulletin board. There it was: Clara's Maiden Aunt Rose...Lauren Kessler. Toni had assigned two of the new friends I'd made in the company to teach me one of the dances Aunt Rose would be performing in the Party Scene. Each time I watched them repeat the dance over and over, my confidence shrank a little more. But by our third session, I finally nailed the Grandfather Dance, going through it three times without making any errors. When our first full rehearsal came, I had practiced my two partnered dances dozens of times.
Stretching Myself—Physically and Emotionally
My debut performance in Florence, Oregon was mostly a blur. I was expecting an epiphany, a wow-here-you-are moment. But my time onstage whisked by. I was all body, no mind. But for ten seconds in the middle of the Grandfather Dance, I messed up. Onstage, my ball gown hid my clumsiness, but it was all over in a flash. And that was it. I'd done it.
After the dozen on-the-road performances I danced in, we had a four-show hometown run in Eugene. For our Saturday evening performance, everybody stepped it up. It was our prime-time performance in our prime venue at the end of a long run. My family was out there in expensive seats and I was glad they would get to see us at our best. That night, I felt tall, regal even, and it wasn't the two-and-half-inch character shoes. The string attached to the top of my head pulling me skyward? It was there. The elongated spine from my Barre3 practice? I felt it. It really was all about patience and hard work.
When the last performance was over, a clichéd bit of advice popped into my head: Play to your strengths. And I thought about how wrong that is. You should, I told myself, intended to remind myself from then on, play to your weaknesses. Because that is what stretches you.
Adapted with permission from Raising The Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker by Lauren Kessler (Da Capo Press, 2015).