What The Body Remembers

The tutu was pink and green, is primarily what I remember about it, which was different from the pink one and also the blue and violet one, and when you’re seven and your parents and your teacher have convinced you you’re a wonderful ballerina, well, you’re not so much nervous about performing in front of your entire family as you are concerned with whether the tutu is different this year.

Ballet class taught me stand up straight. It also taught me that rotund children like myself look very, very silly in tutus, much like toilet paper cozies toddling about on a stage while a woman dressed in black times them with her cane. Ballet class taught me that the greatest threat to therapy-free adulthood is parents with video cameras.

I remember being able to do individual steps but being flummoxed by a sequence of different ones together, even those I’d practiced. I remember never, no matter how much I stretched, being able to do a split the way Jenny who lived up the street could do one.

I remember things like that. My body remembers first position, second, fifth, how to curve my arm above my head without lifting my shoulder, how to soothe a cramp in the arch of my left foot (hint: hopping does nothing). My body remembers, mid-arabesque, that I never could do these, that I’m duck-footed and too heavy for jumps.

Adult ballet is a humbling experience. There are certain things the muscles retain from years past, thus I knew, pli, I knew how to hold my body still while kicking or stretching or moving my legs or arms. What I hadn’t remembered is how pernicious the mirrors are: I’m distracted by the sight of myself trying to look graceful, mimicking the movements of our teacher instead of finding my own gestures and expressions, measuring my distance from the other dancers and from the edge of the floor. I hadn’t remembered the way my calves would ache and my knees would click as I climbed the stairs after a class, or the way I’d only remember to practice a half hour before I had to leave for the studio.

The first class wasn’t difficult, barre work and a few steps on tiptoe. Now we’re into complicated arrangements, Russian music pounding in our ears as we try to keep heads up, toes pointed, arms in constant motion, and I remember why I stopped dancing. I lack whatever it is that codifies a series of motions in the blood rather than the brain, so that I could do turns while making out a grocery list or practice my waltz step on the way to a meeting.

Still, after thirteen years without strapping on toe shoes, after a solid decade when the most strenuous things I did were done at a keyboard in a climate-controlled room, it’s nice to have someone remind me, once again, to stand up straight, keep my balance, don’t look at my feet.