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essay: dance class

By Marcie Sillman
Marcie Sillman is a reporter for KUOW. Click here for a tiny version of her impressive bio. Or, meet her in person at KUOW’s Front Row Center program (“like a book club, but for the arts); its next stop is PNB’s “3 by Dove”…and her tix are 20% off.

 The last time I took a dance class was more than half a century ago.  I was five or six, in kindergarten ballet.  My memories are fleeting and few, but none is particularly warm and fuzzy.  I was the chubby girl, with the protruding abdomen, dressed in a black leotard with wide yellow stripes and an insect antennae headdress.  It’s a recital, and I’m one of several bumblebees, singing and twirling.  Badly.  You’ve seen these painful recitals, where one child is out of step?  Well, I am that child.

My second memory is aural, rather than visual.  And unlike the recital, this recollection doesn’t flood me with humiliation.  In that long ago dance class, we sang a song to help us learn the ballet positions.  I wish this was radio, but you’ll have to imagine me singing: “Here’s position number one, arms are out just like the sun.”   The lyrics continue, but my memory doesn’t.  The song, the recital—both of those memories have been buried pretty deep.  They only resurfaced this winter, when I stepped into Velocity’s Studio 3 for Ellie Sandstrom’s beginning ballet class.
Actually, I’m not sure how I came to be standing at a ballet barre trying to figure out what a tendu was.
As an arts reporter, I’ve covered dance for years, and I’ve never felt an overpowering urge to try it myself.  Believe me, that year of kindergarten dance satisfied me for five decades.  But this fall a combination of injuries and a diagnosis of spinal osteoarthritis curtailed my normal activities.  I’d been rowing or swimming six days a week.  I needed a change.  The doctor suggested I try dance.  My friend Margaret told me about her ballet class.  I thought, why not?
Actually, ballet was an obvious choice.  A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to spend several months at Pacific Northwest Ballet watching principal dancer Olivier Wevers create a new piece.  I was allowed into the studio to observe Olivier working with some of PNB’s best dancers.  Their artistry mesmerized me, their athleticism was stunning.  Above all, I was impressed by the discipline it takes to maintain both.  That discipline reminded me of the dedication I’ve seen in the best rowers and swimmers, as well as in the best artists.  I’m a sucker for discipline.  It intrigued me.  And frankly, those chiseled dancer bodies are hot stuff, something for a middle-aged wanna-be to dream about.  Maybe I would never look as amazing as PNB’s Carrie Imler, but a 90-minute class would have some effect on me.  Wouldn’t it?
But the workout rationale was only part of the attraction.  As a journalist, I wanted to experience dance first hand, to know what it feels like to DO it.  I had this crazy notion that trying to dance would help me to write about it. How could I describe, accurately, what I was watching on a stage, unless I knew more about it?  So, on a cold January evening, I found myself in Studio 3.
Let me say from the get-go that if Ellie Sandstrom had insisted I wear a leotard and little pink shoes, I would have been out the door as soon as politely possible.  But hers is not a prissy class, nor a class for the prissy.  And after a couple of months of faithful attendance, I think it’s fair to say that ballet is only for the toughest folks, despite the fact that it looks so light and airy.  (Well, it looks light and airy when great dancers dance it.) 
Back to Studio 3. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible in my lycra shorts and tee-shirt.  The room is hot, and it’s not long before the windows steam up from the collective sweat generated by thirty dance students.  And sweat we do, the combined effect of the room temperature and the energy expended in the effort to point our toes, pull up through our cores, lift legs and arms, spin or execute a grand plié.  Which, just for the record, kills my 56-year-old knees. 
Ellie Sandstrom is strict and silly all in one package as she runs through the barre exercises.  Tendu front, tendu side, coupé front, coupé back.  Shake your butt, stick out your tongue and yell!  “Marcie, why is your arm just hanging there?” she asks me.  Good question.  Am I supposed to be able to think about my noodle-like arm, all the while lifting my leg and arching my foot?  Apparently so. 
Just as I’m starting to get the hang of these barre exercises, Ellie announces it’s time for the adagio, actual dancing.  Holy Moley!  She demonstrates a series of steps, one by one.  And then, we’re supposed to dance.  Dance?   I try to hide behind one of the room’s wide wooden pillars, hoping Sandstrom won’t notice that I’m avoiding the performance of a series of piqué turns.  I have no clue how to execute a piqué turn.  No clue, no aptitude, no nothing.  Sandstrom’s like a heat-seeking missile, though.  Everybody dances.  Or, in my case, everybody moves across the floor in some kind of simulation of what Sandstrom has demonstrated five or ten times already, that I have failed to master.
If I didn’t already have respect for professional dancers’ kinesthetic intelligence, I do now.  How do their bodies remember every movement, every nuance of head and hand and leg, dance after dance?  How can they make a grand jeté look so effortless?  (For the record, I will never execute even a petit jeté.)  And so gravity-defyingly ethereal?  PNB principal Jonathan Porretta once told me he wanted audiences to understand the athleticism involved in his art form.  I think far more than mere athleticism is involved in ballet.  Strength, that goes without saying.  Coordination, a sense of rhythm, check and check.  But ballet is more than a combination of these assets.  Dance involves corporal intelligence, a constant awareness of the body in space, and that body’s relationship to a musical score. A dancer can twirl on one foot, tilting a head to the side, extending a graceful arm into the air.  Then proceed to the next step, sometimes an embodiment of the melody the audience hears.
Ellie Sandstrom tries to coax me from behind that wooden pillar.  She tells me I get one pass, then it’s time to rise to the challenge.  So, I will dance.  Or at least try to dance.  I’ll try to slough off my self consciousness, ignore the internal voice that reduces me to a five-year-old chubby bumblebee.  I have to drown out that voice, to remind myself what brought me to Studio 3 in the first place. Why am I dancing?  I’ll never don a tutu and toe shoes at McCaw Hall.  I doubt I’ll ever do one piqué turn, let alone a chain of four.  But something keeps me coming back.  The discipline of the barre, the tiny sense of accomplishment when I remember to move my arm forward when I extend my leg back, toe pointed.  Someday I may be able to move across the floor, feeling the music.  Until then, Sandstrom reminds us, all those tendus and degagés?  They can do wonders for your butt.