I hobbled into beginner ballet at age thirty-six, late for my first class, whirring between meetings, racing up the steps to the dance studio that was located, felicitously, next to a burrito joint that served beer.
I switched into beginner ballet after a disastrous attempt at intro to hip-hop a week earlier. Ballet, I hoped, would offer a gentler path into dance for a body also finding its way into middle age.
So there I was in sweat pants and a grimy t-shirt, leaving three small children in the care of my spouse, to stand at the barre and fumble through tandus and rond de jambes. As arms unfolded like petals around me I tried to call up from memories of toddler dance over three decades ago how to place my feet in second position.
Throughout my life exercise has been a form of punishment. A popular t-shirt around my gym proclaims “sore today, strong tomorrow.” It appeals to the part of me that believes my body is out of sorts, a being I war against through push-ups and sprints.
I didn’t grow up playing sports. I didn’t know soccer as “the beautiful game,” nor did I enjoy the elation of surging past a personal best in competition. Instead, exercise was introduced via Teen Magazine, and middle school gym class was a way to address bodily imperfection.
Somewhere along the line I was bamboozled into hating the cellulite linked to my genetic code, the stretch marks that came with a teenage growth spurt, and the sprouting hair that was nothing more than a sign of adulthood. Exercise was the answer to my body’s non-conformity, trying to attain that which was, in all likelihood, physically impossible to achieve.
I assumed ballet would be an interesting and different way to exercise, the chance to try a new fitness routine and to escape the general chaos of my life for an hour each week.
But in this dance class, the ballet one does in socks after work, I discovered that dance offers an aesthetic world, a way for me to discover new possibilities for my body. How strange it was to push my energy down a smooth line as my body sunk to the floor, to wonder over the shape of my fingers, to imagine a string lifting me up, off my toes, to float an inch above the gleaming rehearsal studio floor.
Everything in ballet was strength in the service of beauty. Even the language was beautiful—French words that made even my elbows sound magical instead of merely dry and gangly appendages I hauled around. The words themselves—battement jeté, port de bras, chaînés, pas de cheval—in the mouth of our instructor, moved my body through space, with and around and between the air, in opposition to and with the grain of gravity.“Push through the floor,” our instructor Suzanne would declare, elongating the words as she dug her toe into the floor, her foot sweeping upward, strong and graceful.
I was immensely sore after the first class. The parts of my body that maintain cultural expectation of thinness are not those that communicate the grace of moving myself as if I was evening light, a swaying tree, or a swiftly moving storm. The body has a language I was never taught, a language I was learning for the first time.
At the same time, dance was an unlearning. The dance critic Marcia Siegel once wrote that dance “exists as a perpetual vanishing point.” It becomes and then is gone again, an unrepeatable event. Siegel posited that dance offered an embodied response to the industrial revolution, “precisely because it doesn’t lend itself to any reproduction.”
Unlike body-punishing exercise, there to produce a certain form by destroying another, beginner ballet was an art without telos. There were no performances or recitals. There were no weigh-ins and no muscle-mass content to assess. The graduate students, lawyers, restaurant servers, substitute teachers, and grandmothers who spun unsteadily across the studio floor—none of us was going to get much better.
There was no excelling and no awards. There was no audience with applause there to propel our best work. What guided us was curiosity about the body’s potential for grace, an experiment in transience. We were there to notice how limbs and torsos and legs can be lovely, can have a moment, as Suzanne would say, “of lift!”
And ballet offered me an unannounced gift.
It happened one day after working through the awkwardness of a difficult position, having turned out a bit more, this time from the hips, my arms remembering to hold the wideness of an invisible bowl before me, my neck long, chin turned up. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and thought, “You are beautiful.”
Melissa Florer-Bixler is a Mennonite pastor in Raleigh, NC, and the author of the forthcoming book, Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019). Her writing can be found in Geez Magazine, Christian Century, The Mennonite, The Salt Collective, Faith and Leadership, and Anabaptist Witness.