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How to Become a Swan

Hint: It takes more than toe-shoes, feathers, and a tutu...

By Maggie Lewis / August 18, 1992



MY ballet teacher was inspiring because she wasn't beautiful. At least, she didn't look the way I thought a ballerina should look. She reminded me of a carved wooden horse we had on our mantelpiece - short, strong, and determined, with big muscles that had sharp edges.

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She wasn't beautiful, that is, unless she was showing us how to point our toes or hold out our hands properly. Her toes moved like silky cat's paws, and curled so gracefully that when they whirred through little sideways leaps called pas de chat ("step of a cat") she became a gorgeous, pampered pet who probably slept on a velvet pillow next to a throne.

Of course, as I skittered sideways in imitation of her, I was probably not her ideal of the perfect ballet student. I was there because I broke things all the time, especially delicate, rare things at my grandmother's house.

Once, a long weekend was over and I hadn't knocked, dented, or stepped on anything of value. I was so happy about it that I was swinging my suitcase as I walked down the hall on my way to the car. My suitcase hit a spindly little table and a lamp tinkled into a million pieces.

My grandmother didn't cry; she showed her teeth in a fierce grimace as she swept the lamp into the dustpan. Maybe that's what a "stiff upper lip" looks like. Or maybe she was thinking about biting me. I don't blame her. The lamp was glass, shiny with frosted dots, and it probably came from Paris a long time ago.

I began ballet lessons that week.

I eventually did become graceful enough to be invited back. But my teacher taught me so much more than that, I think of her whenever I watch ballet. I especially think of her when I watch the swans in "Swan Lake."

I see them standing patiently in their long toe-shoes, ruffly skirts, and feather-fluff earmuffs, their backs to the audience, one foot poised behind them, waiting for the music to start, and I almost feel sorry for them. Have you ever gone upstairs behind a ballerina in toe-shoes? Clack-thump, clack-thump, clack-thump, and if the stairs are narrow, sometimes they have to put their feet sideways and duck-walk. They are definitely not beautiful.

But then they get up on their toe-points and float across the stage with their arms rippling like wing feathers and their legs gently stirring the dry-ice mist. Then they aren't just beautiful; they are swans.

A ballerina's best disguise is the way she moves, not a feathery hair band or a tutu. My ballet teacher could make us stop and stare just by turning her hand over and holding it out. She looked as if she were catching a rose thrown by a Prince in the balcony after a lot of fouette turns or an incredibly long balance on one toe, even though she was shorter than most of us 13-year-olds and kept a handkerchief stuffed up one sleeve of her black leotard.

In "Swan Lake," there are many disguises. One ballerina plays Odette, who seems to be a swan but is really a girl who has been turned into a swan by an evil magician. Then she has to turn around and be Odile, a sneak who is really the evil magician's daughter, and who fools the prince into thinking she is Odette. It's the way she moves that makes them two different people. She's shivery, shy, and wild in her white "Odette" tutu, and bold, mean, and fast in her black "Odile" outfit.

Margot Fonteyn, a ballerina who always looked beautiful, first danced those two roles when she was 16. She wrote at the end of the book "Swan Lake," her own fairy-tale-style retelling of the ballet, that it was "the greatest challenge in my repertoire, and therefore the one that gave me the greatest satisfaction when it went well."

She loved the idea of a person who was part woman, part swan. In fact, she didn't want the costume to be too complete. "When I was young," she wrote, "there were one or two more human touches in Odette's scenes. She was a woman with a swan's mannerisms. Now, Swan Queens seem sometimes to forget that point as their interpretations become more `swannish.' In consequence, Odette's womanliness is diminished...."

That's too bad, because that's what I like about "Swan Lake," and about ballet in general: that there are real women and men who can turn into swans, beasts, evil magicians, and handsome princes.

And if you sometimes see through the costume to the person in the funny shoes, it is that much more exciting when they suddenly start to fly, accept roses from nobility, or just walk down a hallway without breaking a thing.