My relationship with ballet is not one of childhood dance recitals clad in pink tutus, or small but significant parts in “The Nutcracker,” or aspirations of en pointe. Very simply, ballet for me is therapy.
Growing up, I wished I had studied ballet. As my elementary school classmates started taking ballet lessons, I tentatively asked my mother one afternoon if I could do that, too. I remember this well: she firmly said, “No. You are doing piano. You will not be a jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.” (Yes, I know all about Tiger mothers.) I knew better than to ever ask again.
Life went on, as it does. I did have some piano accomplishments as a teenager, and then there was college, and then law school, and then I was working 70-hour weeks as a young Paul, Hastings associate. Every now and then I’d wonder aloud to Bing whether I was ever going to have the time, make the time, to do something like take a beginning adult ballet class. With my law firm life, signing up for a ballet class remained one of those perennially unfulfilled goals I wrote down to achieve during January Relief Society lessons on self-improvement.
Then in August 1984, I slipped and fell on a wet escalator one morning on my way into the office. The neurological damage I sustained from the resulting massive subdural hematoma was life-threatening and extensive. While I was in intensive care, I practiced wiggling my toes so the next time my neurosurgeon came to check on me, I could astound him, thereby hoping to get “graduated” out of ICU. Then when I was in my own regular hospital room, I practiced raising and flexing my legs in bed, so that when he had me stand up and try to walk, I could muster some semblance of walking.
My neurosurgeon caught on to my training-in-secret but was amused and encouraged by it, and he correctly figured that I would follow through on any exercises he gave me. His weekly “assignments,” his version of independent physical therapy, were to help me regain muscle control and strength. Among many issues, balance was a real challenge. My recovery was going to be long and painful.
That’s when Bing talked with the wife of one of my Paul, Hastings partners, whom we knew to dance in an adult group at a local ballet studio. Together they talked with the studio owners Phip and Chip, twin brothers who both were outstanding ballet dancers, and Bing came home with a gift certificate for one lesson, ballet slippers, tights, and a leotard. I no longer had any excuse. I had to go at least once, and our friend (another Susan) would be there to support me.
So there I was finally in ballet class, never having done any of it before, and not exactly at my physical best. I could not turn around without losing my balance. But Phip was encouraging, I loved watching the talented young dancers, and enjoyed listening to the piano. I soaked in the gestalt of it all and figured if I had to do physical therapy, this was the way to do it. I went back the next week and signed up for more lessons.
Over time, I got over all the subdural effects that I was able to get over, and going to class no longer was about physical therapy. Ballet training tested my memory, improved my posture, and reshaped my body. Having a comparative art form made me a better pianist. I made nice friends at the studio and Bing got some patients. I always felt so good, physically and mentally, after class. For about ten years Le Studio was a happy place for me to be, and along the way I moved up from being a rank beginner to maybe solid intermediate dancer.
Eventually Akemi’s Colburn schedule and the demands of being a single parent killed any ability to keep up a weekly class. Life went on again for more years (a pattern is emerging). As I looked ahead to Akemi going off to college, resuming ballet was number one on my empty-nester list. Le Studio had closed, so I bought a dance card at Colburn–easy to get to on my way home from work, and my kind of “serious dance for the non-serious dancer” approach. But before I could go to my first class in August 2009, I tripped and fell again, this time seriously injuring my left leg, and setting off the chain of events that lead to the lymphoma diagnosis.
When I finally showed up for my first Colburn class about six months after the fall, I gritted my teeth through the pain in my upper left leg. Forget about regaining any form; I was back to the physical therapy level. I hit the gym as well. I’ve gone from 0 to 50 pounds on the “hip adduction” machines and have significantly improved the feeling in and appearance of my leg.
Last night was my first class after the chemo-induced hiatus. The dance teacher hugged me to see me again. Ballet is yet again helping me recover from assaults on body and soul. My ballet slippers may be new, but the sensations of well-being are familiar. No matter how tired I might be after work, I love how I feel after ballet, as if my entire body has had a massage, and my mind has had a vacation to a beautiful place.
Bing’s one-class gift certificate remains one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received. The benefits changed my life. In “The Chorus Line,” everything is beautiful at the ballet. In Colburn Grand Studio A on Wednesday nights, my life, if not my technique, is beautiful in ballet class.