“Are you a ballerina?”
I turned to see a small blonde girl, around five or six and attired in a rainbow tutu, staring up at me with enormous blue eyes. Presumably she wondered why I stood in such an unnatural, rigid position: feet turned outward in a loose fourth position, shoulders pressed downward, chin tilted skyward. For some reason, the posture is the last thing to go. The flexibility slips away first, then the stamina, followed by the muscle tone, but even the most seasoned veterans retain a certain regal – or arrogant, maybe bourgeois, in some circles elegant – carriage.
To answer her question – was I a ballerina?
It was a June afternoon in the Castro. I stood amidst a farmer’s market in what was usually a busy street but had been cordoned off for the purpose of supporting local agriculture. Clipboard in hand, I represented the San Francisco Democrats, engaged in an effort to increase voter participation and solicit pedestrians to register to vote on the spot. It had been five months since my last academic ballet class at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and at least three weeks since my last open class at Alonzo King Lines in San Francisco. Instead of sweating to perfect my pirouette in a typical summer intensive, I was riding the energy of a post-Prop 8, pre-Pride Castro to fuel what I saw was a flawed campaign (to start, most people registered to vote online).
What should I tell her?
My exit from the world of Russian ballet was, alas, not a graceful one. Pressured by the limitations of mere logistics to make the decision between academics and dance, I saw no other choice than to put down the pointe shoes and face reality: they were two irreconcilable futures. For years I had somehow believed that a career as a human rights lawyer and as a prima ballerina somehow were not mutually exclusive, that I could attend college and law school during my physical peak as a dancer, that as soon as I left the stage I would enter the courtroom: a fallacy, to be sure, and one whose nature became clear to me upon meeting the cloistered, mechanical young ballerinas of Russia. I left the studio without a word after my stay at the Bolshoi.
Not only were the demands of ballet – its call for academic sacrifice, its physical impact and psychological repercussions – in no way conducive to a professional future, they were unsuited to a healthy one. I knew girls driven to anorexia. I knew dancers permanently injured, afflicted with hip dysplasia and chronic tendonitis. Somehow we had all convinced ourselves that it was worth the taxing hours and our parents’ paychecks. To what end? To be the marionette on the end of a dictatorial artistic director’s strings? To find oneself with spinal stress fractures, a half-finished career, and no high school diploma? To perform fairy tales from an ancient, unenlightened age, over and over again? To cling to Sleeping Beauty in a world that had moved on to post-feminism? What had I been telling myself?
Should I tell this young, impressionable girl what it meant to be a ballerina?
For when she saw a ballerina, she saw beauty. She saw the ethereal, floating figure of a faraway land – a sylph, a swan – when for a few seconds, the years of training, the months of rehearsal would come together in what felt like perfection. The lights, the costumes, the stage – I could not pretend I did not miss it. I could not ignore the swelling in my heart at the first few bars of the Waltz of the Flowers. It was the score to my childhood, the language of dance my native tongue. I could not deny this curious girl.
“Will you do a plié for me?”
I did a plié. I was, after all, a ballerina.