When We Come to Class
by Carol Gremli
When we were first brought to the studio, we were three, four, or five years old. Some of us were scared. Most of us weren’t. We called our teacher Miss and she made us all wear the same pale pink leotard with matching tights. Our flowery print underwear bunched up around our bottoms or drooped down over the tops of our legs where everyone could see them. (Our mothers didn’t know we weren’t supposed to wear underpants to ballet class.) But the slippers were pretty and the smooth soles were made for slides and skips across the wide-open floor. We were in love with the mirrors, a whole wall to fill with our reflections. Sometimes, we danced. Sometimes, we posed, small statues in a make-believe garden. While waiting to take our turn, we lined the mirror with our noses almost touching the glass. We entertained each other making ugly faces or jiggling loose teeth. Soon, Miss would call us away from our games with the music for our curtsey. We didn’t want to leave.
—Side to Side
By the time we turned ten, we knew a lot. We knew how to dress (black leotard and pink tights, hair in a neat bun) and we knew how to work. We no longer spent our class time playing at fairy and flower games. We did the barre: plié, battement tendu, rond de jambe. We knew the names of most of the steps and some of us had double pirouettes. One of us had more. Dancing from the corner, especially practicing chaîné turns or grande jetés, was still our favorite part of class, though Miss Collette was a lot fussier about our feet. And our arms. Sometimes she made us stand in the center with our arms held in the same position while she talked and talked about “correct port de bras, young ladies.”
We were friends. We did argue and we did race to win the special places in class: the end of the barre, the front line, the first across the floor. Our teacher said we must learn to dance together, as they do in ballet companies. So we played at being part of an ensemble, while still trying to be the best.
That year, we strengthened our ankles, our backs, our centers of balance for one good reason. Next year, when we turned eleven, if we worked hard enough, we’d be allowed to go en pointe. And, of course, that meant we’d be fitted for our first pair of pointe shoes.
By fourteen, some of us were losing interest in ballet. Some of us were very good, some of us weren’t. Most of us were losing patience with the conformity of it all. We stretched the limits of Madame’s patience with tiny hints of who we really were: ponytails instead of buns, cut-off T-shirts, dangling earrings. The ribbons on our pointe shoes were sewn to enhance our own personal preference and not always to Madame’s approval. We would hum along with the music we’d heard it so many times just as Madame seemed to say the same thing the same way in every class. Our friendships still mattered, but we were always being scolded for whispering, or chatting, or just doing what friends do.
Some of us quit. It was pretty obvious now who had developed the “wrong body” and who hadn’t. High school made its own demands on our time, and a commitment to the studio seemed a waste. Besides, we were getting way too old to dream of dancing The Sleeping Beauty or Giselle. Life was dramatic enough down here in the real world.
But some of us stayed. We counted on the barre for balance during slippery moments. We recognized ourselves in the mirrors no matter how many people told us we’d changed. Our music always told us exactly how fast and how far we could go, and when we jumped, the floor never failed to support our landing. The ballet studio was still a safe place to stretch.
After some time away, we came back to class, though as grown women, we were usually running late. Ballet had to be squeezed into a small corner of our lives, an hour’s retreat from adult business and responsibility. Our tote bags and briefcases were left behind in the dressing room. But not our cell phones. Because, at any moment, we may be called away: to answer a question at work, to solve a problem at home, or to pick up a child at school with a case of sudden sniffles.
Showing up was only the first challenge. The next was finding focus. We couldn’t help but bring our mental checklists along with us as we took our places at the barre. But then, as always, there was music, our cue to begin. As we worked through each exercise, through all five positions, we began to shed each obligation like layers of warm-up clothes. In our own tempo, fugue fashion, our faces softened, our shoulders melted, and before long, a light breeze flowed through our arms. Standing in center, we’d take a moment to reacquaint ourselves with our own reflection. “I’d wondered if I’d lost you,” we thought. “But here you are.” Everything else could wait for just a little while. At that moment we were fully present in the studio and eager to dance.
We all agreed. Time in ballet class passed so much more quickly in those days.
—Respect and Gratitude
We are the ones who remain. Be it a matter of perseverance, or habit, or just plain stubbornness, we are still here in the ballet studio pursuing the study of Terpsichore’s art. We laugh, and tell each other we must be the slow learners, but actually, we are the ones with something to teach.
We don’t look the same, of course. Most of us come dressed in layers: big T-shirts, long chiffon skirts, antique leg warmers. And we’re back to soft shoes. The reflection, when we check it, is wrong—bigger, heavier, more suited to trudging on earth than to dancing en l’air. More human than sylph or swan.
Our teacher allows us to modify the exercises for our individual bodies. “Adjust to the problem places,” she says. One of us has creaky knees and so prefers demi-plié to grande. Another strained her neck and so bowed out of pirouettes today. And all of our back bends have seen deeper days. We work more on position and placement than on speed and covering space. Now we study the quiet power of slow and sustained movement. Sometimes, it just plain hurts, but the music sees us through. It is our guide, our support, our source of inspiration and energy, just as it was when we were young. A few bars in and all the best parts return, along with the memory of time spent in perfect grace and in perfect health.
We still end each class with a gesture of révérence. Once again, we curtsey to our teacher (even if she is half our age). She accepts our thanks for herself and for all who danced before. We leave to our own polite applause.
Carol Gremli is a former performer and arts educator, who wrote “When We Come to Class” to express her gratitude for having lived a life steeped in the arts, and, in particular, for all those friends and teachers who taught her how to dance through whatever life tossed her way. She lives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.