The Do Over
Ballet traumatized me as a kid – so I’m taking it now

Blurry photos of me in a black tutu, black leotard, navy blue tights and a huge head covering adorned with flowers is the only proof that I took ballet lessons. It still has the power to traumatize.

The little me in the Kodaks has a thin smile on her face. She is in the back row of the recital clearly copying the more competent ballerinas – the girls in red, wearing more subtle flower arrangements in their hair. I couldn’t more obviously have been the black sheep in the beginner ballet class at the old Jewish Community Center. Even though I can look at the picture now and realize I was super cute – and I totally would own that flower-powered head covering if it existed today – it is a reminder of so many things in my childhood that shaped my self-image as a klutz and a flighty kid. For years I felt subconscious dancing and for years avoided dance classes. 

So when I saw a poster about a new adult beginning ballet class at the JCC, my stomach lurched as my brain retrieved the image. While it may have been locked up in a memory vault for decades, it came easily. Ever since the loss of my son Ravi, I’ve been consciously reflecting on past experiences that shaped my life, good and bad. In that instant when my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, I chose “fight.” Before I could change my mind, I signed up, vowing to reclaim my inner ballerina. 

Now flash back again to the 1970s. Ballet was not my idea. Far from it. I wanted to take the boys’ sports class with my older brother Abe (who wanted nothing to do with me). Although my artist mom believed boys and girls deserved equal opportunities, she had no idea what to make of what was then called my Tomboy tendencies, including my insistence on cutting my hair short like my brothers. She had loved ballet when she was young and figured I would learn to appreciate all that classical dance could offer. Sadly, it was a wild miscalculation. 

My memories of the class, admittedly unreliable, are cringeworthy. The itchy tights and a leotard gave me imposter syndrome. I’m in the back row trying to make my tall 5-year-old frame smaller. No one talked about attention deficit issues back then, especially when it came to girls, but I remember not being able to follow the teacher’s directions. Instead I copied the girls in front of me. I have no idea why I was dressed differently than the other ballerinas. I imagine my hair was too short to hold barrettes. But I can also guess that my mom thought the loud flower head covering was fabulous – and it really is – but it only drew attention to me when I wanted to disappear. It was not my time to blossom.

Thankfully iPhones weren’t invented yet or a clip of me always a beat behind the other ballerinas at the recital may have gone viral. I was relieved when my mom didn’t sign me up for the next class and I could retire my tutu. 

In the 4 decades since I quit ballet entirely, I’ve gradually worked through some of that trauma. Discovering yoga in my 20s allowed me to realize I could follow routines, and that led to other fitness classes that require coordination and core balance. And for about 5 years in the 2010s our family practiced Tang Soo Do. The forms we learned, which are increasingly more technical movements, are like dance routines. I can’t say I did them with confidence but I managed to work my way up to a brown belt before we gave it up when, pressed for time and money, our kids chose ice hockey over martial arts.

This return to ballet was for me alone, on my own terms. Holding off on buying special gear, I opted to wear my usual yoga leggings and workout shirts. Although I had built up some anticipatory anxiety before the first class, it eased when I saw Alison, an old friend from childhood, already at the barre. Turns out she too was looking for a do-over. By the time she started ballet in 6th grade, she explained, the other pre-teens were so far advanced that she also felt too self conscious and uncoordinated to continue. The other half dozen participants were women, in their 40s and up, who had enjoyed ballet as kids, but never had the chance to return to it. The exception was one elderly man who said he enrolled because he was too old to play football. 

Amanda, the instructor, is a former professional dancer with a patient demeanor. Each class, she explained, would follow a similar format, building on lessons from the previous week’s class. The journalist in me needed to know if there was a goal to beginner ballet. To my question, Amanda said it was to build strength and reignite passion for dance that we may not even have known we had. Further, she said, practicing ballet was like learning a new language. I liked her answer. 

With that, we got moving. To my relief, Amanda truly started at the beginning, demonstrating the foot positions and then moving on to pliés (bends) and through other basic movements, including tendus, rond de jambe and jetes. Having taken French for years, these were all familiar words. Almost immediately, I felt a connection between them and movement, experiencing a joy that surprised me. Even my failed attempts, put to the tempo of the movement, felt purposeful.

The next part of class is stretching. This is my comfort zone thanks to my many years of yoga and natural flexibility. Next, the move to the center of the room gets to the heart of the class – putting together jumps, pirouettes and other movements actually looked like dance. Without the crutch of the barre, this is the most challenging part for me. While trying hard to follow Amanda, I often lose my confidence, wobble and fall out, or forget what comes next. Unlike in the past, I am mostly able to laugh off my mistakes and keep trying.

The last part of class is Reverence, a curtsy that is supposed to be elegant and respectful. Admittedly, mine looks more like a comical mimic.

The first of the 6 weekly sessions started in January. In my quest to take it seriously, I vowed to practice between classes, and ended up following along with beginner classes on YouTube for 20 minutes or so most weeks just before class. By week 3, I was ready to purchase $30 slippers via Amazon. They really were a game changer. I am now in my second session of beginning ballet. Muscle memory is starting to kick in even as I still mess up a lot every class. Although I honestly don’t know how long I will stick with it, and a recital is never going to happen, for now it gives me joy. Finally, I trust my body knows how to move. 








May 2023
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