Learning to soar, step by step

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Half the fun of taking ballet class is watching Julia (HOO-le-ah), a beautiful dancer from Cuba. The skill levels of the class range from relative beginner to professional. Julia is clearly at the top of the latter level.

Our class is large, so when we split into two groups, I make sure I'm not in Julia's group. Although I would like to watch my other friends so that I can give them a thumbs up of encouragement, it's almost impossible for me to unglue my eyes from the Cubana.

Julia looks more sprite than human. Once in a while, teacher Phil stops us all and says, "Watch Julia. Look how she turns her face with each step, as though she's flirting with the audience." I study her moves. "Now you do it," he says, when she's done and we've stopped applauding. Watching in the studio is better than sitting front row center of a theater - and a fraction of the price.

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I try to emulate what I've gleaned when it is my group's turn to execute the combinations. Sometimes I succeed.

"Good," Phil says without embellishing the compliment.

But even when I fall short, I store the vision of Julia's movements in my memory. Then I retrieve them when I'm lying in bed at night, either dreaming or half-awake.

Suddenly, the vision is no longer a picture I'm watching from the outside, but it is I who am moving, going through each of the steps just as Julia did. It is not her body, but mine.

I feel the air resisting my elbow and arm, and my head snapping around one, two, three times as I spot a perfect pirouette. My leg squeezes like a retracting rubber band as I land from a flying leap softly, securely, with no wobbles.

More sights flash by. In a gymnasium, I'm watching women gymnasts swing through the air on the uneven bars. Their skill and courage appear effortless, the sign of unrelenting hard work, of learning each new move with meticulous care. Some of their movements are vaguely familiar to my muscle memory. Others are utterly foreign and I can only guess at how they must feel.

When I do become the actor in this vision of a gymnast's exercise, I find myself as a seven-year-old, dangling from the first rung of a horizontal jungle gym ladder. I have been hanging there for weeks, it seems, afraid to reach for the second rung. I watch my playmates swing like monkeys past two rungs to catch a third, more than the distance between their outstretched hands. Yet I cannot imagine ever joining their game.

Then something happens.

"Come on, Laura. I'll hold you," a big kid tells me. "Just grab the next bar with one hand."

Trusting him more than myself, I reach. It seems like I'm grasping at the other end of the sky, but my left hand lands and I'm between the two bars. Now, halfway to rung two, I am too far away from the takeoff perch to go back, but I'm still afraid to release my right hand from rung No.1.

Letting go and falling to the distant ground is not an option worth considering. "What do I do now?" I cry out.

The big kid helps me again. And again. Until I'm at the end of the ladder, relieved that I got there, but embarrassed at how.

I can't face any of my agile playmates, and I run home. I decide never to go back lest I risk further embarrassment.

Without knowing it, though, I have caught the sensation. I grasp how it feels to move from one rung to the next, even if it means having both hands on the same bar between each step in a jerky, reach-together-stop rhythm.

I realize that hanging from one hand for a moment wasn't that different from hanging from two when I focused on the ladder instead of the faraway tanbark below. The image of walking with my hands across the sky translates into actually feeling how it could be done.

I go back.

After a couple of run-throughs (or rather reach-together-stop-throughs), I get bored and drop the pauses. The rhythm of swinging from one rung to the next takes over, and before I know it, I'm having fun. Then, skipping bars is soon mastered.

When my best friend gets a backyard trapeze, I figure out simple stunts and decide to head for a circus career. I forget that just months before I was afraid to hang by one hand for a single second.

Now, lying still on my comfortable bed, thoughts swing and dance in my head. The images are just as real as when I performed them on a playground or on a stage long ago. They all had begun the same way: with the idea that I could do them and someone saying, "Now you do it."

More often than not, that thought was accompanied by trepidation. But as the thought imagined the feeling, and the feeling became action, fear was denied and success was born.

To the big kid at the horizontal ladder, to Julia today, and to everyone between, I thank you for images of the possible that you have given me. They are alive and fully engaged - in the studio, and in my head.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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