A great leap forward

The world told her that her body shape wasn't right for ballet, but she found joy and freedom in dance anyway.

I waited in the wings for my cue. My last performance had been more than 12 years ago, and I wondered what had led me here. I clutched the curtain, hoping that the bile in my throat wouldn't rise any higher. Finally, it came – the change in music that was my cue to join the other dancers on stage.

As a teenager, I had dreamed of becoming a dancer. I studied ballet with ferocity and naiveté, convinced that despite my short stature and curves, I would one day perform on the great stages of the world.

The girls in my dance classes were Balanchine goddesses. Long-limbed and lean, they seemed so unlike me. Their hair was always flawless, brushed back into a small bun, no tendril permitted to escape, while mine was always hanging in my face despite the tangle of bobby pins that stuck up like antennae from my head. They wore torn-up dance pants and scuffed toe shoes with a style and nonchalance that I could never manage.

During class, I would gape in wonder at their natural ability when I should have been paying attention to my own footwork. Their movement just seemed so effortless; I had to work for every step.

Toward the end of class when we moved individually across the floor, I could do the steps if I focused – with one major exception, the grand jeté. The other girls in my class had bodies made for such a jump. A few skipping steps across the floor and their long legs would naturally split as they soared across the room. But I could never get it quite right.

I continued with my dance studies through college, but as I advanced, my enjoyment became intrinsically tied to my perception of my abilities. I found that the love I had for movement was being slowly replaced with resentment for what I saw as my less-than-perfect feet, my lack of technique, and my stubbornly round shape.

Eventually, I decided my time would be better spent pursuing other ventures. Instead of continuing my dance education, I made do with season tickets to the ballet and nights out dancing with friends.

It sufficed for more than a decade. Then, a few months ago, my Pilates instructor asked if I might be interested in performing with her dance company. She was choreographing a piece for her next show and needed dancers. I readily accepted. Maybe you can't go back, I thought, but it would be fun just to do dance moves again.

At the first rehearsal, I clumsily mimicked the demonstrated steps. I felt like a complete imposter. It was no consolation that my archnemesis, the dreaded grand jeté, was not called for when every other step was a struggle.

But I kept at it, and by the night of the performance, I knew that even if I wasn't the dancer I hoped to be, I wouldn't be a total embarrassment either.

When my cue came, I stepped into the lights, found my footing, and moved in time to the music. I lost myself in the structure of the dance, looking within me to find the next step rather than at the dancer next to me. I had almost forgotten how perfect it felt to allow myself the freedom to move without worrying how I might look.

To exit, we dancers were to improvise across the stage. In rehearsals, I had always played it safe with a few simple traveling steps, but that night, I felt giddy. When the time came, I pulled back, gathered my momentum, and found the courage to leap. This time, my legs extended farther than I thought possible into a grand jeté. I was suspended for a moment – in time and in flight – and I couldn't help but laugh with joy as I gracefully, perfectly landed. It was effortless.

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