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I was the last person in the world who would ever so much as think of taking ballet classes.
When I first heard the word "ballet" as a child and asked what it was, my mother said it was a performance in which they told a story by dancing it. To me this sounded like the silliest thing imaginable. Any story requires words; words are the best and most expressive vehicle for telling a story. The art of narrative is cultivated in every society on earth; why, I wondered, would anyone throw away this superb tool and try to do the job by dancing?
And when I finally saw ballet, as a teenager, it was no better than I had expected. (I no longer remember what the ballets were, but one of them must have been Swan Lake, or at least a part of it, because I still remember the quartet of swans with their arms interlaced doing pas de chat. I don't think anybody forgets that.) I was too inhibited in those days, and homophobic to boot, and ballet, or theatrical dance of any kind, seemed just too sissified for me. Even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made me squirm. I found the whole performance not only foolish, with its mimed action and all that nonsense--about swans, for Pete's sake!--but acutely embarrassing. It was bad enough when the boys lifted the girls and turned them slowly around so everybody in the audience could see right up their skirts (what there was of them); worse still was the sight of the boys themselves, wearing nothing below the waist except their tights, which seemed designed to leave as little as possible to the imagination. (It's appalling, and humiliating, to think back and realize how prudish I was as a teenager.) I left the theatre that evening feeling that if I never saw another ballet, that would be all right with me.
So I went through my teens and most of my twenties with zero interest in ballet. But when I was 27 or 28 I took a girl out to dinner, and with my usual lack of organization I had nothing lined up to do after dinner. But she pointed out that Balanchine was having a season at the City Center, and she asked why we didn't just go over there and see whether we could get a pair of tickets at the last minute. Oh, boy. I had heard of Balanchine, and I knew what that portended. I could see I was in for it. I had by then outgrown my adolescent insecurities, but I still thought of ballet as silly, and I felt absolutely no enthusiasm for her proposal. I was the host, however, and she was my guest, so off we went. I will be forever indebted to Mary for her suggestion.
We were in luck; we got a pair of seats right in the front of the lowest balcony. The City Center is a very shallow auditorium, and we were right on top of the dancers. They were young and arrestingly beautiful. In fact, I was startled to see how young they were; I said to Mary, "Why, they're just kids!" And under the bright lights they shone like jewels.
this wasn't narrative ballet; this was Balanchine, and the ballets we
saw that evening were plotless. So we were spared a lot of tedious mime
and had nothing but dancing to splendid music. There seem to be two kinds
of ballet lover; one prefers narrative ballet and the other abstract or
plotless ballet. As you can see, and as I dimly realized at the time,
I belong to the second group. A dancer to whom I once let this fall was
shocked by my insensitivity and wrongheadedness. Ballet is about human
life, she said. I didn't want to argue with her, but I felt like saying
that it may once have been about human life, yes, and for that matter
it was once about gods and goddesses, too, and about heroes; but for me
it is about people dancing beautifully, and that's what we had that evening.*
For Balanchine the music always came first; he used to say that he wanted you to see the music and hear the dance. One of the ballets that evening was The Four Temperaments, to Hindemith's chamber work by the same name, and I had known and grown fond of that piece when I was still in college. This ballet is now recognized as one of Balanchine's finest achievements, and if it hadn't won me over nothing could have. I suppose that the music always comes first for me, too, and this ballet showed me Hindemith's music in a new light. It seemed to me that the dancing provided a commentary on the music, instead of just following it, except at the very end, in the last four measures, where the figures leading up to the final cadence were matched by great, travelling lifts that made it seem as if the music had been made for the dance instead of the other way around.
I remember, too, noticing how the boys partnered the girls. There were three or four couples in one piece, and when the girls went forth to dance by themselves, one boy, in particular, seemed to release his girl with a little affectionate sendoff, his arm moving out to the side, as if he were saying, "There you go, my dear." It was a pretty, courtly gesture, part of the heritage of ballet from the days when dancers were noblemen, and I found it appealing.
But in fact, the whole experience presented not only Hindemith but ballet itself in a new light, and I was converted on the spot. I read somewhere that back in 1948 Morton Baum, then a bigwig at the City Center, had dropped in to look at Balanchine's company when they were doing Stravinsky's Orpheus, and came away saying, "I have been in the presence of genius" (which is how Ballet Society came to be the New York City Ballet). I know just how he felt; I became a ballettomane from that moment, and although I was never a subscriber I must have gone to two or three NYCB performances every time they had a season.
I saw a
different company a couple of years later. A neighbor had a friend who
was a dancer, and one evening Bob, Anton, and I went to a performance
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Anton had at one time been a member
of the company that performed that evening, which I think was one of the
last avatars of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. I was entranced, as usual,
and on the way home, I burbled with enthusiasm over what we had seen--how
I had liked the dancing, how much I liked ballet generally, how much I
identified with the dancers, and so on; and finally Anton said, probably
to shut me up, "If you feel that way about it, you should take classes."
That brought me up short. Naturally I said, "Who, me?"
as anyone would; but he wouldn't take No for an answer, and the upshot
of that was that a couple of days later he came over to my place and gave
me a class.*
But it had been quite different from anything I had expected--although what I had expected I have no idea now--and much more enjoyable by far than I would ever have imagined. It had been pleasant moving gracefully, or trying to. I wondered whether, if I took classes regularly, they might always be that good, and so, thinking I might at least give them a try, I asked Anton for a referral. He recommended a teacher named Jean Hamilton, who had a studio in a dingy Manhattan building on Eighth Avenue in the fifties, and this is how I, of all unlikely people, came to take ballet classes. We're talking here about someone too inhibited--and too inept--to learn ordinary ballroom dancing, from that day to this.
(Girls tried to teach me ballroom dancing on at least three occasions. I could never make any sense of it. I learned that there was something you did called "making a square." But it was clear that there was more to it than just making that square, and they were never able to explain to me what the other things were. And when I tried to improvise, my partners unfailingly said, politely, "You don't know what you're doing, do you?" I've read Ray Bolger's account of how he was laughed off the dance floor in high school because he couldn't dance, and although nobody ever laughed me off the dance floor, because I took care never to set foot on it, I know just how it was for him. And once I had discovered ballet, that was all there was for me. In ballet, you move: you cover space, you fly through the air. I think that if I had been exposed to English country dancing, at the right time, it might have appealed to me, but that languid and phlegmatic shuffling those girls tried to teach me would never have been able to compete with ballet.)
I went to see Miss Hamilton before taking a class, mainly to see whether she would have me. Her studio was on the second floor; I walked up the dimly-lit stairway and into a new and utterly different world.
I found myself in a large, bare room. There were big windows along one wall, and plants in the windows, and the whole place was immaculate and the atmosphere light and pleasant. Along the windows ran a handrail, waist high; this, I already knew, was the barre. (We have adopted this word into English, but it retains its French spelling. Although ballet arose in Italy in the fifteenth century, the first formal school was French, and ballet terminology is, with only rare exceptions, French; thus entrechat and pas de chat. You even wish dancers good luck in French: actors say "break a leg" to wish one another good luck before a performance; dancers say "merde.") Dancers use the barre to steady themselves in the first part of class. The barre is attached to the wall by brackets, but most studios have movable barres as well, often made of lengths of steel pipe joined by elbows and tees. These are moved out to the center of the studio to accommodate a crowded class and then taken back to the wall when the work at the barre is over.
The wall opposite the windows was mirrored from one end to the other. The barre and the mirrored wall are the universal mark of ballet studios, everywhere. Ballet lore says that watching themselves in the mirror is a weakness of dancers, a sign of vanity. A dancer who cannot take her eyes off her reflection is scorned as a "mirror dancer." But the mirror is there for a purpose; it shows you your faults, and you are obliged to watch yourself, within reasonable limits. In any case, I was never in any danger of becoming a mirror dancer; I looked so ridiculous as I floundered about that the mirror was always a torment to me and watching myself in it an onerous duty rather than an invitation to self-admiration.
Miss Hamilton turned out to be a petite lady, probably in her fifties, who had once danced with Pavlova. In her rare moments of relaxation she would sometimes fall into a pose I've seen in pictures of Pavlova: head tilted a bit to one side, a gentle smile playing on her lips. But she had a back like a ramrod and a will to match. I have never known anyone who habitually sat with a back as straight as hers. Anton had told me she was an expert at getting dancers "placed." This is what I would call posture, or alignment: shoulders and hips level, pelvis in, shoulders relaxed, head up, back straight. Her favorite admonition was "Hold your back up!" This was her solution to every technical problem.
At that preliminary interview, she told me I would need ballet shoes, a dance belt, and tights and told me where to get them. Ballet shoes are made either of soft leather or canvas, very light and with a paper-thin sole and no heels. They've been made without heels since the time of Camargo, about 1730. It is said that she had her shoes made without heels so that it would be easier to get her feet past each other when doing entrechat quatre--where you wiggle your legs four times--and so her heels would be right on the floor to provide a stronger impetus for the jump.
I will have occasion later to describe what a pleasure it is to enter a different, alien world. I think it was the shoes that first brought home to me how new and strange this world would be. They were like no shoes I had ever seen in my life. That thin sole didn't go all the way out to the edge of the shoe; it was a sort of milk-bottle-shaped piece of leather, and the top was wrapped around under the foot to secure it to the sole. And where the leather of the top had to curve around the toes, it was gathered into little radiating folds where it attached to the sole. Ballet shoes are the same for both feet, and they acquire left- or right-footedness through wear. They have to fit as snugly as possible, like gloves; ideally you should look and feel almost as if you were dancing barefoot. Ballet shoes are normally either black or white. I ultimately found the white ones better, because they show one's defects--particularly failure to point one's feet--more conspicuously when one sees oneself in the mirror. On the other hand, they require constant cleaning.
A dance belt is an undergarment like an athletic supporter, but made with a wide and powerful elastic, as if it were a sort of man's girdle. The one I got appeared--how can I put this delicately?--to have been made by someone who didn't know the difference between men and women. The pouch for the virilia was so small that it matched the rather skimpy piece of cloth in the back, and if you didn't look at the label, you were in danger of putting it on backward. Most dance belts seem similarly inadequate, until you learn that the belt is supposed to lift everything up and forward. This is to protect you from harm, of course, but, old reprobate that I am, I still suspect that part of the reason is to show off your endowment. Dance belts are usually either black or, if they are to be worn under light-colored tights, flesh colored.
In Miss Hamilton's classes the uniform for men was black tights and a white tee-shirt. (Some teachers insist on white or gray tights because, like white shoes, they make your faults more visible.) Over the years things have become much more casual, in most places, and one now sees every kind of getup in class: everything from warmup pants to bicycle shorts. Ballet studios are rarely air-conditioned, because the muscles are more supple and flexible when warm, and in hot weather bare legs are commonplace, as they never were at Miss Hamilton's. I wondered, the day of my first class, whether I might feel uncomfortable at being dressed so outlandishly; but of course as I left the dressing room I found myself amid other pupils similarly clad, and I felt no discomfort at all. Villella writes that it took him ten years of classes and a year with NYCB before he got used to wearing tights; it took me all of thirty seconds, and of those, twenty were occupied in drawing them on.
Our classes were for adult beginners. They were very small, typically half a dozen people. Among my classmates I remember two girls; one, Alice, was the wife of a lawyer; the other, Betty, was an aspiring comedienne. There was a boy named Carl, too; as I recall he also wanted to become an entertainer. Other students came and went, but these three were the regulars who were there every time.
Alice had one of those natural dancers' bodies that make one despair; she was naturally limber, and I was amazed to see that could raise her leg shoulder-high, or higher, with no apparent effort. (In ballet, this ability is called extension.) One sees this routinely among experienced dancers, especially women, but I had never seen anything like that before--not offstage, at any rate. One of the commonest sights before the beginning of class is of dancers standing with one leg extended straight out, the heel hooked over the barre, and bending back and forth, toward the leg and away from it, stretching the muscles in their legs to improve their extension. You will often see dancers chatting quietly with one another as they stand this way. In many places stretches with your foot on the barre are part of the class; they weren't at Miss Hamilton's.
Alice was sweet on me, and she showed her interest unmistakably, in ways that occasionally drew waspish remarks from Miss Hamilton. (If that had happened two or three years earlier, it might have led to something interesting, although I hate to think what her lawyer husband might have done to me in court if he had caught us in flagrante delicto.) I remember Betty as the laziest dancer I've ever seen. The studio was one flight up, as I said, but Betty wouldn't walk up the stairs; she always took the elevator. Miss Hamilton always rode her about this, and about watching the clock in class, but couldn't budge her.
Miss Hamilton differed from most teachers in that she started every class with exercises on the floor: stretching and limbering up and doing things like touching our feet (or, in my case, trying to). Some teachers now offer special classes called "floor barres"; I took one of these once, and it was a joyride in comparison with Miss Hamilton's exercises. One of her favorites had us balancing on our butts in a sort of V, our legs straight and our hands holding onto our ankles. She was concerned that we should keep our backs straight as we did this; I was more concerned with not falling over, which I did nearly every time, especially when I tried to straighten my back. In another exercise we lay on our backs, slowly lifting our legs from the floor, slowly moving them apart and together again, and then slowly lowering them; that was a killer. Only after we were thoroughly exhausted from those would we get up, go to the barre, and begin a regular class.
A ballet class is a carefully graded sequence of exercises lasting, typically, an hour and a half. The work falls into three parts. The first part consists of stretching and warming-up exercises done with the support of the barre. You may spend anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour at the barre. Then you move to the center of the studio to work without support. The second part of class consists of slow work in which the emphasis is on sustaining positions and on placement and balance. A slow tempo in music is termed adagio, and this part of class is known, in French, of course, as adage. This has always seemed to me an unconsciously ironic term, because the Italian ad agio means "at ease"; but adage is probably the most fatiguing part of class. Carlo Blasis, however, one of the great nineteenth-century masters, regarded adage as the very heart of ballet training. The final part of class--allegro--consists of fast work, mostly combinations (sequences of steps) with the big jumps and turns that make ballet such an impressive and dazzling sight.
As I took my place at the barre with the others, I realized with some discomfort that I knew virtually nothing about what we were to do, beyond the skimpy preparation afforded by Anton's introduction. We started, as ballet classes the world over start, with knee bends, called pliés. They were like the knee bends we did in gym when I was a kid, but there was one crucial difference, which I had already learned from Anton: we had to be turned out.
Many of the steps in ballet are done with the leg extended; the kicks we associate with a chorus line are like this. For various reasons having to do with the structure of the hip joint, a dancer can obtain the greatest extension if the leg is rotated outward, away from its usual position. You also frequently need to change the position of the feet, from right foot in front to left foot in front or vice versa. This is what you do in an entrechat, but one of the most elementary jumps, called a changement de pieds ("change of the feet"; changement for short), consists of nothing else: jump up and land with the other foot in front. These changes must be made very quickly--in midair, in fact--and again they can be done most easily if the feet are pointed in opposite directions.
This position of the legs is known as turnout, and it is probably the most conspicuous aspect of balletic posture. As this description implies, it is mostly a practical measure, although it may be done for appearance as well. In the first ballets, the dancers performed in the middle of the hall, surrounded on all sides by the audience. When ballet moved to the proscenium stage, in the late seventeenth century, they began to dance turned out. This has led historians to suggest that turnout originated because it looked better on stage. I wonder, however, whether it may have been because extension showed to better advantage on the stage and that dancers turned out for the sake of greater extension.
Turnout does not begin from the ankles, however; you do not force your feet into that position and let everything from there on up follow. Turnout begins at the hip, and it is better to be turned out imperfectly from the hip than to strain the joints at the ankles and knees. (The first test comes in pliés: are your knees pointing as far out as your feet?) Indeed, few people can turn out perfectly, with the feet 90 degrees from the mid-sagittal plane, unless they have started as children (and sometimes not even then), and Anton had reassured me that boys are not expected to be as turned out as girls are.
We began with pliés in first position, our heels together, opening our knees outward as we went down slowly. Miss Hamilton explained to me that a plié wasn't a release but a controlled lowering of the body, which you had to keep erect and not sagging. Then we did them with our feet apart, in second position. A plié is either shallow (demi-plié) or deep (grand plié); a grand plié in second seemed easy. Down I went, and Miss Hamilton cried, "Don't sit down in back!" It wasn't easy, because I had to keep my pelvis straight and my body erect; this was a part of being placed. I eventually came to think of my torso as an elevator, going up and down in a purely vertical movement as if it were moving in a shaft, and this mental picture helped me to do them properly.
These days I see a lot of people sitting down in back when they do pliés in second, and nobody says anything. I don't know whether the rules have changed (which is doubtful; the rules of ballet are like the dogmas of the Church: quod semper, quod ubique) or whether teachers are less vigilant. Perhaps people are more casual about placement than they used to be. I still do my elevator act, and nobody says anything about that, either. Perhaps they are more casual about everything now; if so, I don't salute this change.
I've mentioned first and second positions. There are five positions for the feet in ballet. These positions go back at least as far as 1700; of these the most conspicuous is the fifth, in which the feet are crossed one in front of the other, toe to heel and heel to toe (if you're perfectly turned out). This peculiar stance is largely a matter of expediency: it centers your weight over both feet, so that no matter which foot you move out, you are not slowed down by having to shift your weight from side to side as you do so.
We did everything in both directions: we would do every exercise once with the left hand on the barre, and then we would turn and repeat the exercise with the right hand on the barre. In the center, too, we did everything both to the right and to the left: a dancer must be ambidextrous. At the barre, we sometimes turned as a part of the exercise, in time with the music; we might just take a couple of ordinary steps to go round, but most of the time we would go up on tiptoe, the feet and legs squeezed together in a close fifth position known as sus-sous ("over-under") and turn that way. When I first tried this, the front heel would keep getting in the way, and it was some time before I realized that you had to re-position a foot, inconspicuously, as you went around. Occasionally the turn may take a more elaborate form. I enjoyed these; it made me feel we were already dancing, even in the most elementary exercises at the barre.
After the pliés came battements tendus. Usually, a battement is a beat, a striking of one leg against the other. In that case, battement tendu, or just tendu for short, would be a stretched beat; but all it amounted to was simply moving one foot straight out, as far as it would go without leaving the floor, and back again. This was another exercise that seemed easy but wasn't, because we couldn't lean back to compensate for the movement; we had to keep the rest of the body vertical and our hips even, and we had to remember to keep both legs straight. Ideally, in exercises of this sort, nothing should move but the working leg. And we had to keep turned out, which meant that we led with the heel when moving the leg forward and led with the toes as we returned it to fifth position. We did tendus to the front, to the side, to the back, and to the side again; this was to prove typical of many exercises involving moving one leg; the technical term for this sequence of directions is en croix: in [the form of a] cross.
It was hard for me to see the sense of some of these exercises. It was some time before I learned that pliés stretch the Achilles' tendon and warm up the muscles of the calf and that a plié is the essential conclusion to any jump, since it cushions you upon landing. Doing big jumps without first warming up and stretching with pliés is asking for injuries. Similarly, a vast number of steps start by moving the working leg out, and tendus are a way of getting used to doing this quickly and gracefully, staying placed and keeping your balance, and pointing your foot as you do so. They also start you thinking of your legs as expressive parts of the body, potentially as expressive as the head and arms. (I find that the turned-out position also encourages this feeling.) Balanchine considered tendus the most important exercise in all of ballet. He wanted you to present your foot to the audience, and he compared it to the way a waiter in a fine restaurant will present a dish to the diner instead of just plopping it down on the table. "You know," he once said to Maria Tallchief, "if you just do battement tendu well, you don't have to do anything else."
As the work at the barre progressed, the things we did became more dance-like and less like exercises. We did steps, or elements of steps, and it was clear, even to me, that we were doing things with the support of the barre that we would do later in the center without support. Even at the barre, in fact, you may occasionally step away from it in an arabesque or some similar pose. But the focus was always on placement, turnout, line, and balance.
Miss Hamilton showed me what to do as we went along, but I usually forgot and was reduced to watching the dancer in front of me for cues. I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing a bad habit. There is always a temptation to watch the others and follow them; indeed, at the start this is almost a necessity. In a beginners' class your teacher will also do the exercises, and if she does them where you can see her, she's the one to watch. But watching the others is a bad habit to get into: First, if you wait to see what the dancer in front of you is doing, it's already too late to do it. Besides, the dancer you're watching may be not doing it right, either. Second, you will watch their feet, which means you're looking down at the floor, which you must never do in ballet. Third, you will be lost if ever there's no-one to watch. You must learn to remember, and to concentrate.
I couldn't tell whether Miss Hamilton was getting me placed, but the experience convinced me that I could never have been a dancer even if I had started at the age of nine. It was a trial watching my classmates doing, apparently effortlessly, what I could not do by the utmost exertion of my powers. I was clumsy, wasn't turned out, couldn't balance, and had no extension at all. (As children we would be asked to touch our toes and I was always the one who never could.)
I'm harping on how bad I was, partly because that was how it was for me, but also because these frustrations are normal, in some degree, for all but a gifted few. You decide to take ballet, and you think that in a few months you're going to be flying around the studio like all those people you've seen. Then you discover that you aren't going to, that in fact you're lost a great deal of the time. If you should decide to take classes, and this happens to you, let me assure you that it's par for the course. The first six months of a beginners' class, in particular, are the most trying time of all. There's so much to learn, and everyone else--all those other "beginners"--seem to know it already. Meanwhile you keep forgetting, keep getting mixed up, and in general do everything wrong. (After class one day a young man, also a beginner, told me he was now going off to get some exercise. "Exercise?" I asked. "What do you call what we've just been through?" "Humiliation," he said.)
It's hard to remember that you stay a beginner for at least a couple of years, and usually longer, and those other beginners know so much because they have that much experience behind them. Perhaps if you're talented, you pick up everything quickly, but the rest of us don't. Moreover, some of those other dancers may be advanced students, like Alice, who take a beginners' class just to get an extra workout, and of course they know what they're doing. Years later, when I took classes at the David Howard Dance Center, they offered a special five-week introductory course for people who knew nothing about ballet. By that time I had my year and a half with Miss Hamilton behind me and, more recently, six months with a truly gifted teacher, but I took that course, just the same, and my only regret was that I hadn't taken it sooner. (When you first start taking intermediate-level classes, it's much easier on the nerves. Then when you make a mess of something, you don't feel like a fool; you just figure that's something you aren't ready for yet.)
And all the while you must remain placed and turned out, and in addition whenever a leg leaves its rest position, as in a tendu, you must remember to point your foot. Ballet is a dance form that favors long lines, and pointing the foot lengthens the line of the leg, while a relaxed foot breaks the line. You are even supposed to point your feet when you walk. (Ballet shoes encourage you to do this, because there's nothing to cushion your heel when you walk the usual way. Once back in street shoes, however, you'll walk normally.)
Moreover, you can't look down at your feet; your gaze must be forward, or in some cases up or to one side or the other, but almost never down. (A teacher used to tell us, "Don't look at the floor; there's nothing down there!") When your teacher corrects you, he will frequently grab a foot or a hand or some part of your torso and move it to its proper position. Since you mustn't look down, I found it most helpful to close my eyes at that point and concentrate on how the foot, or whatever, feels when it's in the correct position. Your proprioceptive sense must be your guide. (You're always being corrected, I might add, and this doesn't make you feel any better. It takes time to realize that being corrected is a good sign: teachers tend to correct their most promising dancers the most often.)
There are positions for the arms as well as the legs, and a good teacher will make you move the arms as you move your feet in the various exercises, even at the barre. The movement of the arms, in fact, may well be more important than the movement of the feet. Ballet originated as a pastime of the nobility, and kings and princes were among the first dancers. (Saint-Hubert, writing in the seventeenth century, said that a nobleman must know how to ride, to fence, and to dance.) In the following century, trained professionals took over the field and the nobility were reduced to being spectators and patrons. But ballet retains many signs of its aristocratic origins, and nowhere more than in the use of the head and arms: the gestures are always courtly and elegant and have a certain flourish to them. Lincoln Kirstein, in his history, quotes Castiglione: The dancer "should preserve a certain dignity, albeit tempered with a lithe and airy grace of movement." Learning to move in this fashion was one of the things that made ballet classes so delightful.
I found the use of the arms and head one of the most appealing aspects
of ballet. I mentioned being turned out as we did pliés,
but there was another difference as well: we used our arms throughout.
We would move the free arm a little way out to the side as we did the
small demi-pliés and then up and to the front (in first
position), and before doing a grand plié, we would move
the arm all the way out to the side (second position) and then downward
as we slowly lowered our bodies. At the end, we would often go up on tiptoe
In the center, we practised the basic movements of the arms (port des bras) and balances without the support of the barre. We did développés, drawing the working leg up so that the toe touched the supporting leg at about the knee (in retiré) and then s-l-o-w-l-y stretching it out straight ahead, to the side, or to the back, keeping turned out as we did so. We practised the various positions in which one stood on stage--for example, croisée and effacé at angles of 45 degrees to the audience ( i.e., the mirror) or en face, facing straight ahead--and we did combinations made up of various kinds of stretches, poses, and balances linked by the steps we had practised at the barre. Adage can be fatiguing, but the slow and graceful movements in these combinations make them beautiful to see and ennobling to do.
Some of the combinations in allegro were just faster versions of steps we had done previously; others entailed turns and big leaps. One of these leaps, the grand jeté, must be one of the ballet steps everyone knows. It's a long and shallow jump, and the dancer's body seems to move in slow motion and to float in the air. This was the first point at which I felt the exhilaration I now associate with ballet; the feeling of flying through the air is naturally exciting, and I imagine the first dancers to jump did so out of pure physical delight.
A grand jeté is actually not a difficult step to do, although, as with all ballet steps, it's difficult to do it really well. Miss Hamilton told me to pretend that I was jumping over a wide puddle, and this solved part of the problem for me. To this day I jump over puddles that way. But a really good grand jeté requires extension as well: ideally, you should be doing a split in midair, so that there's a straight line from the toe in front to the toe in back. I couldn't manage that. But my engineer's mentality was pleased to note the dynamics of the step: the motion of the legs, and the raising of the arms in the middle of the jeté, raised our center of gravity so that our trajectory through the air was flattened and we seemed to float in midair as we jumped. There is a good deal of Newtonian mechanics in ballet, although dancers learn it by instinct instead of analysis: the dynamics of flying bodies in jumps, the conservation of angular momentum during turns, and balance at all times.
At Miss Hamilton's I learned what most of the standard steps were: pliés, frappés, ronds de jambe, assemblés, jetés of various sorts, and many others I was later to forget over the ensuing years. She said my assemblés were good; about the rest, the less said the better. Thirty-one is too old to start dancing, and in my case the same clumsiness and lack of coördination that had made me hopeless at athletics as a boy hindered me here, too. (An assemblé is a jump in which you start by brushing the working foot out, then bring the feet together ("assemble" them) in midair and land on both feet--in a plié, of course. I read somewhere that Diaghilev used to say to applicants, "Show me your assemblé." I was glad to think that my assemblés were at least respectable.)
Many of the steps in ballet originated in folk dancing. These have generally been transformed almost beyond recognition. The bourrée was originally a rather coarse peasant dance; a description I read made it sound almost like a German Schuhplattler, the feet flat and stamping on the ground. But a pas de bourrée is an elegant step that takes the dancer sideways in a delicate and graceful fashion; of the various steps in ballet that are used to connect more spectacular movements, it is surely one of the most attractive.
My bête noire was a thing called a "tour jeté." (Balletic terminology is never simple; this step's full technical name is grand jeté dessus en tournant.) This was one of the leaps in the last section of class. It was a step in which you had to jump and, while in midair, turn 180 degrees so you landed facing back in the opposite direction. I was all over the place in this, arms and legs flailing wildly about, and I was never able to do it for her. As I struggled, she would watch me with an air of clinical detachment, her head in its Pavlova tilt, and say, "That's very interesting," as though I represented some sort of pathological case, which I suppose in a sense I did. To this day, when I know I'm faced with a hell of a job, I say that it will be Interesting in the Hamiltonian Sense.
It is not that difficult a step, in fact, as I was to realize when, years later, I suddenly discovered that I could do it, and this story of my struggles with it will reveal to any experienced dancer, more than any modest disclaimers on my part could, the depths of my ineptitude. I was bad at turning, too, and always made a mess of pirouettes, but many dancers--perhaps most--have trouble with those, while a tour jeté shouldn't have caused such problems.
But I was happy, in spite of all my difficulties. I loved those classes. I said ballet is seductive; changing into practice clothes always filled me with a happy feeling of anticipation, even though I knew an hour and a half of arduous labor and frustration lay before me. The second evening of the Cuban missile crisis found me at Miss Hamilton's: I decided that if I was going to be blasted into kingdom come, I wanted it to happen in the midst of a ballet class.
In addition, it gave me such pleasure to do something that was so completely unlike me. Dancing wasn't my kind of thing and never had been; my things were engineering and technology and, later on, writing, computer programming, and teaching. Only my lifelong engagement with music came even close to this. It was refreshing to do something utterly different, to step out of character. Related to this was the experience of stepping into an alien culture, something I have always treasured. That must have been the first thing about ballet classes that appealed to me. I have never liked the idea of having to be just one thing all my life. "To be one thing is inexorably not to be all the other things," Borges writes in one of his essays, and that's the problem. It makes me restless, and I like to sample other worlds, other possibilities. It always gave me a lift to go from an engineering office to a ballet class, to put off jacket and tie and put on practice clothes. I relished the contrast. It was being part of a different world, with its own customs, its own goals, and its own standards; it was one small step toward that wholeness of which Jung speaks. That held me and kept me going; that and the sheer joy of the class--the challenge of the steps, the physical joy of movement.
Miss Hamilton's class routinely ended with sixteen changements. This was always a little sad; once we were warmed up, we felt as if we could go on forever. But there was also the exhilaration we felt doing the changements themselves, the amazing exhilaration of being airborne. Airborne!--I would leave class walking on air.
I continued taking classes until I got married; then I let them drop. My stepson was three and couldn't be left alone, and I didn't feel comfortable going to class without Pat, with Alice always managing to be next to me at the barre, making little sotto voce remarks, and contriving ways to get me to touch her. In any case, when you're newly married, you want to get home to your wife at the end of the day and not spend an extra hour and a half in a ballet class somewhere.
The whole experience gradually receded into the past, as such things do, and although I never entirely forgot it, it lost its vividness. Marriage was working out beyond my rosiest expectations, and the seductiveness, even of a ballet class, can hardly compete with that of a happy marriage. I put away my practice clothes and used my ballet shoes as house slippers until they fell apart. (Castoff ballet shoes make very good house slippers, in fact.) And gradually, over the years, other interests, such as harpsichord lessons and graduate study, supervened. We went to NYCB performances occasionally. But going to performances can be such a hassle these days, and the atmosphere at Lincoln Center was never quite what it had been at the City Center: big and commercial, with the inevitable souvenir counters that always make me think of the tables of the money changers and sellers of doves in the Temple. (At the City Center the only such enterprise was an aged ruffian who went about crying, "Getcher bally book! Getcher bally book!")
When we moved to Huntington, 30 miles away from the City, we stopped going, and my balletic interests were reduced to comparing notes with a neighbor who had taken classes herself and whose daughter was taking them somewhere on Long Island--that and saying, occasionally, that some task was going to be Interesting in the Hamiltonian Sense. Ultimately, it was as if the whole episode had never happened, and it was only when I read Villella's memoirs, Prodigal Son, in the Summer of 1992, that all the memories of that era sprang back vividly--what it was like to be turned out, to do barre and adage--and that I realized what an unlikely thing this had been for me, of all people, to do, and how unbelievably lucky I had been to fall into the experience as I did. Thanks to Villella's book, I ultimately found my way back into ballet again. How that happened, and how I fared then, is a story in itself, but it is irrelevant to what I have to say here.
In the early
1950s I worked at a place on 62nd Street, just off Madison Avenue. Years
later, I learned that in those days the School of American Ballet was
located just down the Avenue, at 59th Street. As we went to lunch at the
Automat every day, we passed right by them. It's creepy to think of that
now. But even if I had known they were there, it would never have occurred
to me to walk in and ask whether they had classes for adult beginners.*