Nothing good ever results from a charity silent auction at a child’s school.
Earlier this year, when I won a $180 gift card to a hoity toity ballet academy for only $50 I thought, “Aha! I have beaten the racket that is charity auctions. Eat it, moochin’ kids dreaming of desks and chairs and textbooks!”
Before we proceed with the rest of this story, you need to know a few things about me. One, I get horrible leg and foot cramps on a near daily basis. In the grand scheme of things, this is a marshmallow malady so I don’t complain about it. I do however, avoid bending my feet voluntarily whenever possible. And the second thing you need to know about me is that when it comes to demonstrating I am competent at whatever the task at hand is, I am a control freak who does not like being in over my head.
So it was with deliberate precision that I selected “Beginner Ballet” to begin my ballet academy instruction. Here’s how it went.
* Enter ballet academy. Inquire as to location of Beginner Ballet and the nice lady at the desk refers me to Studio B.
* Make the turn to Studio B and see women splayed about on the ground outside of it doing rather advanced looking stretches. “Weird,” I think to myself. “I figured they’d teach us how to do proper stretches as a starting point. It’s like these women already know how to do them. But clearly that is silly and not true because we are all beginners here.” A woman who appears to be in her 70s sprawled on the ground begins windmilling her legs in their hip sockets. “She is quite limber for an older woman,” I think to myself.
* Notice another older woman in pink tights and a black leotard with a little old lady tiny potbelly. She is adorable and her outfit makes me giggle. “Old people are so cute,” I think to myself.
* Door opens and we’re welcomed into Studio B. This room will be the rocks upon which I dash myself. My Waterloo. By Battle of the Little Bighorn. My Godfather III.
* The instructor assures me I’m in the right place because this is “Beginner Ballet.” Oddly enough she does not use finger quotes around the word “Beginner.” Instead, she makes ill-advised use of our brief time together to point me to the bars set up in the center of the room and tells me to find a spot.
* My 20 other compatriots in the class enter the room and appear to be normal, human women who are also new to ballet (for the moment I set aside the voice nagging in my head that they looked awfully impressive stretching in the hall). They range in age from 16 to late 70s. “This is going to be fun learning a new artform and growing in this community of strong, beautiful, empowered women!” I think to myself. “Let’s get it, sisters!”
* The instructor begins going through the coming steps in rapid-fire French — “Kinda quick there and um, a lot of those words are not in English,” I think to myself — and the accompanist begins at the piano and immediately it becomes clear that this community of women has been learning and growing without me. They all know what they’re doing. I tentatively slide my toe out to the first move and it’s instantaneous: FOOT CRAMP
* I go up on my toes as instructed. CALF CRAMP FOOT CRAMP STILL HAPPENING NOW IN BOTH FEET The women are now all pivoting around and I am facing a line of them facing me at the bar. “Crap,” I think to myself, swinging myself around to at least face the same direction as they are, even if none of my limbs are even remotely approximating what theirs are doing. FOOT CRAMPS follow the swinging.
* The old lady in the pink tights and the leotard has suddenly become the Black Swan and could mop the floor with me.
* She and the others are now all gracefully swinging in the other direction. I am clutching the bar and it’s just all CALF CRAMP FOOT CRAMP ALL THE TIME from the hips down. I begin praying to all the saints and the angels and the apostles and Ballet Jesus to please, please make it stop. I think back to one of my favorite books from childhood, the nonfiction A Very Young Dancer, which chronicles a girl navigating the School of American Ballet in New York. Frantically, I try to conjur any helpful tidbits from the book I cherished and read obsessively as a child, but all I can remember is the yogurt she got to snack on between school and ballet and a picture of Suzanne Farrell looking amazing in oversized sunglasses and a silk headscarf watching a rehearsal.
* CALF CRAMP I look at the clock. Twelve minutes have passed. Twelve. The class is 90 minutes long.
* Now the damn corps de ballet is smoothly and efficiently responding to French instructions to demi-plié and tendu and do a move that I swear to God is just the name of a Starbucks beverage and all I can think is, “Center Stage LIED! This isn’t fun at all! Dammit, Jody Sawyer!”
* When I said that, I was talking out of pain and shame. Center Stage is a really good movie.
* My m.o. in most new activities is to fake it until I make it and that begins with looking the part. This being ballet, the pale pinks and the black and the wispy skirty things were right in my wheelhouse. As I wheeze and spin and move my Frankenstein monster feet to catch up with the rest of the class, it occurs to me that in buying the ballet shoes and gear for this class I’ve already spent more on it than the gift card itself. “Damnable silent auction, you’ve won again!” I think to myself. FOOT CRAMP
* Every time the instructor yells out “sous sous!” I want to respond with “Sussudio” in my best Phil Collins voice and do a little hip shimmy. I get the feeling this would not be appreciated.
* In a brief moment of pause, as the women are readjusting their feet for the next series, I frantically whisper to the young woman next to me to ask whether this is in fact beginner ballet. And she looks at me with stunning big, doe eyes and whispers back apologetically, “Yes, but it doesn’t mean what you thought. I think you want Intro to Ballet which is for people who don’t know what they’re doing.” Had we been in the South this statement would have assuredly been capped with, “Bless your heart.” She does add, “I think it’s on Saturdays.”
* “I am in the wrong class,” I think to myself repeatedly. FOOT CRAMP REPEATEDLY “I am a beginner. These women have for some reason self-identified as beginners. Under no circumstances have they just begun. Does “beginner” have another meaning in French? Why the hell did I waste all that time studying Spanish in school? I’ve never once needed to find a biblioteca in Madrid or let someone know that I consider them mas guapo than Juanita, and I am now in desparate need of French terminology.” CALAMBRE EN EL PIE
* Suddenly everyone stops and all of the women are smoothly and efficiently hustling the bars from the middle of the room over to the side. I take the opportunity to hobble over to the instructor and inquire as to the talent level in the room. She is, for her part, super cool and relaxed about all of this. “Oh yeah, beginner doesn’t really mean beginner in ballet. But you’re doing greaaaaaat. Staaaaay. By the way, you want Intro to Ballet. It’s on Saturdays.” I nod pathetically and promise to stay, before waddling back to the now-cleared floor. FOOT CRAMP CALF CRAMP
* Next up, is the part of the class where we dance without the support of a bar. I’m doubly impressive because I dance this portion of the class without the support of the bar or talent.
* And then we arrive at what I’d dreaded most, other than the FOOT CRAMP CALF CRAMP: division into smaller groups. We will be crossing the floor to perform an inscrutable series of foot maneuvers in groups of four or five. I watch Group 1 arabesqueing their way across the floor. “Aw hell nah,” I think to myself and just keep moving to the back of the line.
* The accompanist begins playing “La Vie en Rose.” I contemplate sitting down next to her on the bench and singing.
* Finally, mercifully, it ends. I am not aware that the end is coming, having given up on both my feet and my calves and the clock and my dreams. But the rest of the dance cabal appears to know that it’s the end because they all, as if on silent cue, smoothly and efficiently move into a graceful stance and go through a series of maneuvers that the instructor didn’t even explain ahead of time. Beginners, my derrière.
* Derrière. That’s a French word I know.
I clap for the accompanist, which is a thing that I quickly intuit how to do when the rest of the not-beginners automatically do it. I crawl for the door. I thank the instructor. I make my way to the front desk and say, “Um, yeah, sooo, I think maybe I was in the wrong class? That was ‘Beginner’?” — and here I most definitely make use of finger quotes — “but it didn’t seem like it was maybe?”
The women at the desk are very kind and apologetic and say ohmygoodnessno you shouldn’t have been in that class if you don’t know anything about ballet. “You want Intro to Ballet!” they announce in near-unison. “It’s on Saturdays!” And then the younger of the two women, who is clearly a dancer, looks at me and says, “Oooh, or you could also do our stretching class at this same time. I think it would be uhmaaayzing for you.”
And with this, I thank her, take the Intro to Stretching brochure she presses into my hand and head out into the rainy, dark night.
Necesito una cerveza.