As an academic who tends to the introverted pole of the MBTI, I find my social circle to be rather finite and reasons to venture beyond the metaphorical university gates somewhat infrequent (cue the world’s smallest violin). So when a friend from a nearby university invited me to check out a ballet class with her the upcoming weekend, my first thought was, “Spending time with friends is good and yes.”
These affirmative sentiments, which exhibited an instantaneous direct line to my mouth, were followed only after a regrettable delay by the eminently more reasonable, “But you have not practiced ballet since preschool.” And said course had itself not exactly constituted Joffrey-level training; my most vivid memory thereof was making airplane sounds while I ran around a gymnasium, arms outstretched. My adult brain carries the sneaking suspicion that our teachers had not asked us to do this.
Not a problem; hakuna matata. Involvement in years of various and sundry martial arts since high school, in addition to many an evening in the recent past spent duck-walking and squat-jacking while my good frenemy Jillian Michaels body-shamed me from my living-room speakers, had undoubtedly prepared me for anything that a wimpy ballet class in Manhattan could deliver. I had studied Chinese kung fu for a whole week at The Shaolin Temple. We woke up at 4 A.M. to take cold showers and run around farm fields and climb mountains until one of my classmates got heatstroke and had to be carted to the hospital near The Shaolin Temple. I had been illustriously certified for an overpriced tourist course in martial arts by The Shaolin Temple. Did I mention cold showers? In other words, I was basically Jet Li, and the probability that I would actually fall on my ass in front of this friend I was trying to impress and also many other strangers who were richer, skinnier, and more beautiful than me was zero. Maybe asymptotically.
The school was downtown, nestled beside two brand-name sportswear emporia overlooking Broadway. The shops’ warm lighting bathed pristine wood floors of hundred-dollar clearance performance thermals that beckoned toward disinterested passers-by clad in Canada Goose parkas more expensive than my laptop. The day was cold, and a flat, slate-colored sky drizzled lightly on my very pillowy, very humid non-Canadian down jacket.
I quickly ducked into the entrance, removing my knit cap and using ungainly gloved fingers to shake the moisture from a mop of growing hair turned unruly with sweat and rain before I entered the elevator to the building’s higher classes. A six-foot Alpine giantess with a body fat index guaranteed below 15% followed me in and pressed “3” with a practiced hand. I huddled in the corner of the elevator, striving desperately to avoid her gaze and stared instead at the bedraggled Michelin Man in the mirror before me. We crept up at New York elevator speed. Puffy sleeves protruded from my down-swaddled body at odd angles. “I can’t put my arms down,” whined my inner Randy Parker.
The door finally opened into a corridor clad darkly in stained hardwood. Women—mostly in their twenties and thirties, with a fair number over sixty—were everywhere: On the floor, straddled atop chairs or benches, against the barres fastened to both walls, walking to and from the locker rooms. Many were engaged in some form of stretch, reaching lithe arms toward long legs tipped with ballet slippers or, less often, pointe shoes. I peeled off my winter marshmallow and strolled up to the registration desk to claim the student card I had ordered by online registration the day before.
“Basic barre class; studio three,” the man at the registration desk directed. Clutching an imaginary pumpkin spice latte, I entered the room with my friend, who had just arrived.
The studio was large, with ample space to bolt a barre installation parallel to each of three mirrored walls and three more perpendicular to the fourth. More barres, these ones portable, lay stacked neatly in the corners. The other students, all women save four, numbered at least three dozen. I looked around at everyone’s tan and black leotards, leggings, and slippers and then down at my own kung fu shoes, bright pink Ultimate frisbee jersey with “서울 폼리그“ and two stylized Korean Talchum masks emblazoned across the front, and neon green-accented Adidas cycling pants, suddenly very aware of the fact that I had permanently borrowed them from my ex-boyfriend, and, as such, they came complete with a bulging crotch.
My friend and I sat down to stretch. Quads, hip flexors, calves, sacrum, pelvis. More women poured into the room around us, and we decided to pull one more stackable barre out into the center to use away from everyone else. As we were awkwardly negotiating its orientation to the other portable barre next to it, a robust-looking man who appeared to be in his fifties, with long black hair pulled back into a neat ponytail and a big smile, sauntered into the room and clapped his hands together loudly. “All right, let’s get started. Gosh, traffic was just terrible today, wasn’t it? I blame the holidays. They used to be confined to downtown. But now the holidays are all the way up to 103rd Street.” The rest of the class tittered politely. We all took our hands off the barre.
The instructor stood facing us, hands on hips. “First position,” he instructed, putting his feet close together, toes facing outward. Easy enough. He guided us through a short sequence of taps forward, out, and back. I could do this, while making airplane noises even. The pianist in the corner began to play something upbeat but agreeable. Probably Debussy. We swung and tapped in time to the music.
Our next sequence was a bit more challenging, involving not just first but also second, which appeared to be similar except that our feet were almost shoulder-width apart. And out and in and back and in and second and forward and out and third—or was it first? The woman in front of me appeared to know what she was doing. I dropped my eyes to her feet and felt my legs drift smoothly into autopilot. I realized that while my left arm stiffly clutched the barre, I was holding my right arm above my head like I was at an amusement park. Not right. I lifted my eyes to the shoulders of my neighbor the prima ballerina and relaxed my arms while my legs began to fall off track. This would not do either. I had just decided that my neighbor’s butt was a good compromise target for my eyes when we were instructed to turn the other way and repeat the same sequence on the other side.
Who was I going to watch now? Fortunately my friend also seemed to know what she was doing. I could not, however, drill my gaze into the ass of a platonic work buddy. I picked a spot on her back instead.
It only got worse from there. The instructor introduced us briefly to the fifth position, which resembled Jack Nicholson’s ankles after Cathy Bates took a sledgehammer to his feet. Between these static hip dislocations, we kept our legs stiff and swinging.
The instructor walked by me. I held my breath, clenched my buttcheeks together and prayed desperately to maintain sphincter control as my unhinged leg flailed madly in the air around him. He said nothing and continued on, and I began to breathe again. Too soon. A few moments later, he came back around the other side of the barre. “I’ve got my eyes on you,” he smiled. My lips peeled back. “I appreciate it,” said my mouth as my mind melted together into a long, slow scream. He knew. Out of the forty-odd people in the room, he knew that I was the one who used to make airplane sounds in her preschool ballet class.
We moved on to something that involved some sideways stepping and turning. First and out and side and two and turn and what-what-what-and tombée and plié and end in fifth? I pattered and leapt back and forth like Michael Flatley on a bed of live coals. That couldn’t be right. Around the second series of patters, I flung my leg into the side of the professional on my right. “Sorry; sorry,” I mumbled, turning quickly to patter and leap, nearly into my friend on the other side. My hands clutched the barre as though gripping a live wire, and I felt myself tipping backward. The barre followed, sliding at least six inches in my direction. “Sorry. Oh, excuse me. I’m so sorry.”
At this point I might say that my barre partners looked at me like one might look at half a cockroach glued by its own bodily seepages to the dirty sole of an old shoe, but I will not say this because in fact they did not deign to look at me at all.
Face burning, I quietly pushed the barre back into place and proceeded with one final spray of patters before the instructor clapped his hands and hit us with another crescendo of unfamiliar movements on the opposite side.
Nothing about this is basic, I grumbled to myself as I whirled heavy limbs St. Vitus-style about the groaning barre. The only reason I was certain in that moment that I had not been born without a cerebellum is that I had once seen it on an MRI console. In some small corner of my non-cerebellar brain, I began to wish that I was instead at home crying in chair pose with thirty pounds of weights over my shoulders while Jillian Michaels screamed at me to show up to my own life.
Whilst I stayed busy swinging my useless calves wildly about and wondering whether I had a prayer building a ballet thighs when I obviously possessed no innervation to my legs, a trim young man with a lightly bearded chin appeared by the door of the classroom.
“Excuse me, everyone. We have a problem in the course register.”
The instructor relaxed his pose and faced the class, his face a mask. The man continued.
“One of you appears not to have been listed properly. I’m going to run through all the names registered for the class; if you do not hear yours, please come with me.”
My panting heart dropped all the way to aching knees as I realized that I, the only basic barre virgin in the room, was almost certainly the offending party. The man began to read the names one by one. My dread grew as each one was not mine.
He reached the end of the list. My name had not been called. I looked at my friend and shrugged as I waited for the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
This did not happen, but something even better did: Another woman sheepishly fell from the ranks and followed the man out of the room to the registration desk. I briefly considered not joining her and felt the eyes of my friend and also God burning into my soul. I left the room.
Evidently the employee to whom I had spoken about joining that morning’s class had not relayed the information to the correct contact. I gave my name again to registration and danced back into basic barre. I no longer needed my spirit latte.
The first half of class had ended. We put the barres away and moved onto even more complex sequences of steps, lifts, bends, and kicks on the open floor. Still unable to explicitly perceive the unfamiliar movements as their component parts, I let my brain fall back into autopilot by dumb mimicry. As long as I could watch the people around me and keep myself from thinking too hard, this was going to be all right.
No sooner had this hopeful observation set up shop in my cortex than our teacher suddenly shouted, “No looking,” over a trickle of piano music itself too thin to hide behind. The comfortable veil of artificially lowered expectations lifted to expose an agoraphobic hell of naked public embarrassment. I was like a musical understudy who had not been given any rehearsal time, or a midnight jaywalker caught in the headlights of a surprise right turn. No looking? I pulled my gaze from the synchronized and perfect ballet bodies around me and tried to turn my mind’s eye inward, feeling my legs unravel and my arms unwind into a cacophony of disparate trajectories like the crumbling boxcars of a long freight train crashing into a mountain.
“Now let’s go one by one across the floor—everybody’s favorite.” The instructor grinned knowingly and blazed past us with yet another series of steps, including a few turns, which we had not yet practiced. He could have been a quadropedal centaur with octopus tentacles as arms for all I knew. He smiled kindly. “I realized that this is stressful for some of you. Believe me, I understand.”
Heavens to Murgatroyd, this really couldn’t get any worse. We collected ourselves into a neat pile at one corner and formed an organized stream to the other side. The shining angels around me floated across the floor as though made of gossamer, their slipper-clad feet dextrous patters of gentle rain. By contrast, I envisioned myself rotating into the other students like a wayward dandelion or maple seed pod caught in a deadly windstorm. Before I could even rev my own engine at the start of the runway, the instructor pulled me aside.
“Maybe you shouldn’t do any turns,” he suggested.
I nodded. Maybe I should grow wings and take off instead.
“Just practice the feet.” I nodded again.
No longer shackled by the risk of spinning like a madwoman across the floor straight into the pianist, I unleashed my inner Riverdancer and grapevined with abandon to the other corner of the room like Bambi leaping through a field of watercolor bluebells. My overstretched hips and groaning knees found new life as I channeled Murakami and dance dance danced. I was, in the words of great American classic A Bug’s Life, a beautiful butterfly. My friend fist-bumped me as I re-entered the line, perhaps out of deep pity. I punched her in the knuckles with glee. Stiff epileptic whirling and Adidas crotch pants notwithstanding, I decided that ballet was fun.
After class, we chatted a bit over coffee and cream puffs at a nearby Japanese bakery. “Would you be interested in doing this again?” my friend asked.
I needed to think about it, I replied.