Lowering the Barre

Pink Tights and Black Leotards – In Toddler Sizes!

When my four-year-old granddaughter, Avery looked up at me with her big beautiful hazel eyes and said, "Grammy, do you want to see my pirates?” naturally I said yes. I fully expected her to bring me a couple of little action figures with eye patches and peg-legs. After all, her older brother has been into the whole Peter Pan/Captain Hook "Shiver me timbers” stuff for a long time and Avery, being a bit of a tomboy herself, is always a willing cohort for make believe adventures on the high seas.

Imagine my surprise then, when instead of presenting me with an assortment of swashbuckling toys, she went and stood firmly in the middle of the room, raised her arms up over her head, fingers touching, and with little tiny steps slowly turned herself around in two small complete circles. For a moment I wasn't sure what was going on, but then I had one of those proverbial light bulb moments: Avery is taking ballet lessons and she was showing me her pirouettes!

Ah, ballet lessons – the shared experience of the female species, with those pale pink tights and black leotards stretched over little round preschool tummies, and the soft leather slippers with elastic straps that were outgrown practically before the end of the class. In terms of a "sport” you'd be hard pressed to come up with one that is more graceful – and perhaps that's why so many mothers expose their daughters to it, usually before their chubby little arms are even long enough to reach the barre, in hopes that some of that grace will rub off. But the effort isn't always rewarded.

My own ballet encounter as a four-year-old was so remarkable in its failure to "take hold” that it has made its way into family folklore. Like my granddaughter I was a tomboy who much preferred climbing trees to having tea parties. Nevertheless, I was still enrolled in a weekly ballet class, dirty fingernails, scabby knees and all.

I absolutely hated it. Each Wednesday morning was more boring and torturous than the last, and I had no more interest in learning how to do tendus and plies than I had in learning to knit or recite the state capitals alphabetically. Finally one day I put my foot down. Literally. Arriving at the dance studio I placed one hand on each side of the door facing, planted my feet squarely apart and stubbornly announced, "I am NOT going inside!” All efforts to pry me loose from my moorings were met with howls and shrieks of protest, until finally Mom simply gave up and took me home. I never went back – and I have the lack of grace to prove it.

You'd think after such a disastrous personal history with ballet, I wouldn't dream of enrolling my own child in a class. You'd be wrong. (Did I mention it's the most graceful sport on earth, and that every mother hopes some of that grace will rub off on her daughter?) Lauren may not have loved it – I'm not even sure she liked it – but to her credit there were no tears or complaints. At the end of the school year the whole company performed a rendition of "Mary Poppins” for the spring recital, with the littlest students (Lauren's class) playing the roles of teddy bears in the nursery. At one point in the program several lovely, lithe young ladies on toe shoes did a beautiful dance with long flowing ribbons of satin representing the wind that blew away the unwanted nannies – prompting my confused and disgruntled three-year-old son to remark quite audibly from the audience, "Wind doesn't dance!”

He may be right – wind doesn't dance, but ballerinas certainly do, and it is one of the loveliest sights imaginable. To me there is something about the long beautiful extension of the arms, the elegant outstretched finger tips, the perfect posture, the precise position of the toes, the exquisite uplifted chin, and the sleek bun at the nape of the slender neck – that captures the very essence of a powerful yet poised and graceful female body.

I never got around to learning the proper French names for the various dance positions, nor do I really understand all the movements, but it really doesn't matter. As famed American dance critic Edwin Denby once said, "You don't have to know about ballet to enjoy it. All you have to do is look at it.”

In just a couple of months Avery will perform in her big spring recital. She'll no doubt be a butterfly or a snowflake. Or who knows? She may even be the wind! But whatever she is I'm hoping to be in the audience. After all, I wouldn't want to miss her pirates!

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