Gravity and Other Hazards

Let’s just dance past that milestone, shall we?

I recently celebrated what my friend Brian refers to as a “speed-limit birthday.” It’s the kind of age where things start out with the number three and end with the number ahem.

Around this same time, I felt a distant yearning burble up from my past, like a religious calling—but wearing tights. So I’ve dipped back into ballet, something I haven’t studied seriously since I was 12. It’s different, of course, ballet as an adult. Your turnout is less extreme. You’re not going to pop up onto pointe shoes, the loftiest aspiration of many a 10-year-old girl. You now have boobs, and a mortgage.

The studio I attend has an eclectic adult class. There are whippet-slim teenagers squeezing in a light session between their heavy-duty ballet coursework. There’s a military wife, covered in tattoos, and a gentleman in an immaculate white T-shirt. There are also several women in their 60s, all obviously life-long dancers and all with fantastic scapulas. My favorite among them is a heavily accented French woman, who wears a chic headband and weighs about 82 pounds, all of it tendon.

Dancers often look lithe and lovely—they seem to hover, giving the illusion of flight—then thump! Slippers pound back to a wood-floor reality. I’d forgotten what a loud endeavor ballet is. Leap, thump. Leap, thump. Rustling tulle. Feet swish-swhu-shing though tendu.

But there really is such a thing as muscle memory. This toe remembers that rosin. Left thigh recalls a movement—clockwise, now counterclockwise.

photo: getty images

We gather at the barre and practice our five positions. Stretch. Test our balance in an arabesque. Just as when I was a child, I love the barre part of class. I’m comfortable, confident—I’d happily plié until the tutu-clad cows come home, but it always ends too quickly. The barres are moved aside, and I’m forced to move to the center of the room.

There’s no supportive barre to grip there, nothing to steady yourself. Nothing to hide behind. I’ve never felt so naked as when stumbling through a grand jeté. It’s the same feeling I had turning 30-ahem. Because it dawns on you: You’re out there on that dance floor by yourself. You’re supposed to know the motions by now, and no one is counting the rhythm for you.

Next, we practice our spotting: keeping our eyes on a stationary object as we pirouette, nauseated, wobbly—and on display. And I’m twirling, twirling. I get about halfway across the studio and realize I’ve twirled right out of my skirt, now laying 10 feet behind me in a heap as pink as my blush. (Thankfully, I have on a leotard.) The class erupts with giggles. But the teensy French woman looks at me, winks and says in a purry little growl, “How burlesque!”

So here I am, at the dawn of this thing called middle age. It’s scary—like moving to the center of the floor. It’s exhilarating, like flying through the air. It’s a time when you choose what parts of yourself to reveal. Like burlesque.