Today I pulled a Billy Elliot and went to ballet class.
I didn’t go alone — it was my friend Amy’s idea. Amy and I have had a subscription to the modern dance season at the Kennedy Center for the past few years (remember Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, and Keigwin + Company?), and we’ve also been watching a lot of dance-related television lately (think Dance Academy, Ballerina, and So You Think You Can Dance). When she discovered that the Joy of Motion Dance Center offered drop-in beginner classes for adults, she proposed an excursion. We checked our schedules and picked today’s beginning ballet class.
We arrived a few minutes early to register, and as we got to the top of the stairs, we found ourselves in a sea of pink-tutued girls all under the age of 8. With some trepidation, Amy turned back and said, “We did sign up for an adult class, right?” Thankfully, yes — our studio was full of grown women (and only women, I may have been the only dude in the building other than the dads who were picking up their daughters).
Now, keep in mind that, before today, I had never danced a day in my life. I felt extremely conspicuous and totally awkward, but I expected that some motherly dance teacher would come in, walk me through the different positions, and then let us run freely around in the middle of the room to let out extra energy — I mean, that’s how it worked when I watched my 3-yr-old neice’s dance class! But no. This instructor (who was nice but not motherly) came in, rattled off an unintelligible string of instructions (lots of numbers and mispronounced French words), and then hit play on the music. !!! I had no clue what I was doing! Apparently most of the other gals did, because they started trucking right along as if nothing was the matter. I just stood there and looked around, wishing I’d gone to the 3-yr-olds’ class instead.
But the longer I watched, the more I realized that I wasn’t the only one without a clue. The girls may have fancied themselves dancers (one went so far as to come in pointe), but by no means was this The Juilliard School. I began to relax. Then I started paying more attention to the instructions. Turns out, once you deciphered the butchered French, they actually made sense. So I started following along: rond de jambe, en l’air, battement, tendu, écarté, plié, chassé, penché — it all made sense!
In fact, that last one provoked my favorite conversation of the class:
Teacher: Promenade, arabesque, penché . . .
Student: What did you say? Plongé?
Teacher: Yes, penché [Note that these women are both making almost the same sound]
Student: Great. What does that mean?
Teacher: Umm, it means you should pencher. Like this. [demonstrates]
Student: Huh. Maybe “dive”? Are we DIVING forward? [She clearly knows what her vocabulary word means; she’s less adept at observing how the teacher is not demonstrating a diving motion]
Teacher: No, it isn’t diving, per se. Not sure how else to say it . . .
Me [muttering in the background, trying not to be the obnoxious new kid who’s fluent in French and clueless about everything else]: Bend. That’s the word you’re looking for. Bend down. “Pencher” means “bend down.” And “plonger” means dive, which clearly is not what we’re doing.
The teacher and student didn’t hear me, but a girl next to me did, and she looked at me with properly admiring eyes: “You speak French!” So that ended well.
And so did the class. The barre stuff was bewildering and hard. The floor-work was better, because we relied more on the teacher’s demonstrations than on a list of commands. I was passable (by the standards of the class) at the arabesques and other balancing combos we did in the middle of class (thank heavens for yoga!). Spins were a disaster (spotting is SO HARD), but I think I managed to redeem myself with the pirouettes and the chassé/sauté combinations. By the end of class I could tell that I’d had a workout — and now that I’m sitting here writing, I can tell that it worked muscles I didn’t know I had (so much leg lifting!).
The teacher was very nice afterwards, pretending to be surprised when we said it was our first time ever (“You have such great body awareness!”). She did, however, suggest taking a six-week “Intro to Ballet” class so that we could learn all the stuff that we should have known for Beginning Ballet. Naturally, Amy and I instantly signed up — give us six weeks, and we’ll be back to fumble through a barre routine with the best of them!