We sat in a circle on the first day of ballet class, thirty-or-so adults on the floor. Our teacher was a lovely woman with the sort of soothing presence you’d hope for in an introductory-level dance class meant for grown-ups, and she'd asked each of us to share three things with the group: our name, our level of dance experience, and whether we had any injuries to report. “My name is Shoko,” I said when it was my turn. “I was probably in kindergarten the last time I took a dance class. And my body feels fine.”
Next to me sat a man who must have been in his mid-sixties. He had an angular face, a friendly smile, hair that glinted silver. He introduced himself, telling us he was the proud father of two dancers, now grown.
“Any aches and pains?” the teacher asked.
The man smiled. “I’ve lived a colorful life.”
When I was little, I attended a tiny, progressive elementary school in Los Angeles where grades didn’t exist, teachers were called by their first names, and instead of P.E., students were taught dance.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t any specific sort of dance---it was interpretive. Whatever we wanted it to be. We were told to make shapes with our bodies, to move any way we wished, to feel free.
I knew even then that this was not something that came easily to me.
I remember feeling self-conscious, vulnerable. Like I was sharing something private.
Twenty years down the line, that feeling hasn’t completely faded. Dancing---without having had a drink or two, that is---is an intensely self-conscious experience. “I’m not coordinated,” I tell people when the subject arises. “My body just doesn’t work that way.”
In spite of it all, I signed up for a six-week ballet workshop a few weeks ago with a friend. A difficult year behind me, it seemed like a good decision. It would be a new adventure, a new way of learning to let go.
There’s a poem by Rumi that reads, in part: “Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance in the middle of the fighting. / Dance in your blood. / Dance when you’re perfectly free.”
We ended our first ballet class with a dance across the floor. First, we practiced moving our feet in the right direction, mimicking the motions of our teacher. We slid and scooted across the room in a halting way, colliding from time to time, the room a tangle of limbs.
We did this twice.
“Now add the arms,” said our instructor. “Do whatever movement comes naturally.”
I swung my arms slowly. I felt stiff, a little robotic. But open, too.
When class was over, I was also a bit sore.
A symptom of a colorful life in the making, I can only hope.