This past semester term of ballet class ended rather unclimatically, as we didn’t have a final dance performance exam. It made me realize that I like having a performance. In fact, you could almost say that I was looking forward to having a performance, and though this was a great ballet semester overall I miss that aspect of the past semesters I’ve taken.
I didn’t always feel that way, of course…
When I signed up to take ballet, almost two years ago, I had no idea what the class would entail. Yeah, I figured we’d be stretching and there’d probably be classical music on, but besides that, nothing. And without further research on the matter I walked into my first class without that characteristic anxiety that appears whenever I’m about to do something horribly unfamiliar. It was just a class at community college, just like the other classes I take and have taken; no big deal.
We were handed the course syllabus. The first thing that jumped out at me was LEOTARD. What was this about a leotard ? Couldn’t we move just as comfortably and ballet just as well in yoga pants and a top, or for those of us who started out uncomfortably self-conscious, sweats and a baggy T-shirt? Surely there could be some leeway…? (Later I would find out the answer is a solid “NO”. Every one of my teachers at community college ballet has expressed the need to have the class be visibly identifiable as a ballet class, so (pink, preferably, or black) tights and a (solid-colored, and in Strict Teacher’s case, black) leotard it is.)
Anyway, the point of that tangent is that the initial shock of the how-do-I-hide-my-body situation overpowered my brain functions so much at that moment that I didn’t catch the other fine print. The part about how the final exam for the class was a live solo performance. In front of the whole class. And it was mandatory (as in, even if you had a perfect grade in the class, if you miss the final it’s an automatic failing grade).
I could have dropped out as soon as I found out (at home later that day while going over the syllabus), but I didn’t want to make a habit of signing up for things and not following through. So I decided to stick with it, found my local dance store, bought the leotard and tights, and decided to not think about the final exam. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there…
And as you know if you’ve read though this blog, or at least my The Learning Curve page, I had a horribly awkward time attempting to ballet that first semester. I sucked, but I stuck with it because I started love it, to be obsessed with it.
Our midterm exam came and went. We did a barre routine in front of First Teacher, about 10 of us at a time. By this point I was about 9 or 10 weeks into the class, so it was ok. Not good, but not exceptionally bad either in a I-just-made-a-complete-fool-of-myself way. We also did center. We had an tendu combination that by now would be a piece of cake (but back then I couldn’t even remember what came next), a combination involving developpe devant (during which I continually tipped over the whole time), and several across the floor combinations that I think I just made up as we went along. Not good.
And then the final exam was mentioned, ending my quiet denial. It now became the thing that loomed in the (increasingly shorter) distance. We were given the criteria: it was to be a piece at least a minute long, choreographed by us; we were to include certain components (adagio, any form of tendus, a traveling step (like waltz, balancé), and either turns or jumps (but I’m sure it didn’t hurt to do both)); other than that it was open.
First Teacher said “Some of you are jazz dancers; others of you are tap dancers or modern. “Best Dancer” is a ballet dancer. So do what ever style of dance you’re most familiar with, I just want to see some of the elements of ballet in there.” Which was great for my classmates with non-ballet dance experience; as for me, since I had no dance experience whatsoever, what was I to do? Well, why not start at what had me in that predicament in the first place – ballet.
I set out to choreograph what was possibly the clumsiest minute and fifteen second attempt at ballet ever publicly performed. Since I would have over a month to perfect it if I started right away, I immediately began thinking of possible combinations. Thinking up combinations was not the hard part; the hard part was thinking up combinations that I could realistically perform in about 5-weeks time without falling on my face, behind, or any other body part.
For my music I picked the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven – beautiful, hauntingly melodic, and most importantly, slow. As I sat back and closed my eyes and listened, dancing images filled my mind and as such my choreography came to exist. Boyfriend recorded one of my “rehearsals” and I watch it from time to time – watched it before writing this, actually – and although I had clearly not grasped the concept of pointed feet and rounded elbows yet, it’s a decent effort. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m proud of myself for pulling it off; never before has I taken something that I saw in my mind and made it real.
As the final exam date approached, I practiced my routine obsessively, hoping to have it firmly entrenched in my muscle memory. To put my trust in my conscious memory alone was too risky, the possibility of it blanking out in panic too high. Before the last date to drop I lied to myself that I could still drop the class, knowing deep down that I wouldn’t. After the drop date has passed I could not continue the lie anymore; it was real, it was going to happen.
The day came. I awoke earlier that usual – though nervousness had prevented me from sleeping well anyway – hoping to have time to warm up beforehand. It has slipped my mind that since my last name is towards the latter half of the alphabet my turn would probably not come up until much later, possibly rendering all past warming up useless. Getting into my leotard and tights, I tried to ignore the butterflies in the stomach, the loud pounding of my heart. The drive to school was much too quick. In the parking lot, I forced myself to have breakfast all the while fearing that I would throw up. I attempted to calm myself with deep breaths, and waited until it was time to go in.
The first sight that greeted me as I entered the dance studio was Best Dancer wearing an elaborate – and gorgeous – white pancake tutu and tiara. Holy crap! First Teacher had said that we were welcome to wear a costume but that just took it to another level. A terrifying though crossed my mind ‘I hope I don’t have to go up immediately after her!’. My next though reminded me that her last name was nowhere near mine, and with a sigh of relief I headed towards a far corner and began stretching.
A few minutes later First Teacher appeared. She announced that we had about 10 minutes left to warm up, then we would begin. “What order are we going in?” someone called out. “Any order you like,” she replied.
With every performance the fluttering in my stomach increased. Some students performed modern pieces, going from being down on the floor to up in the air with an ease that amazed me. Others, jazz or hip hop, with some occasional ballet moves thrown in. But what intimidated me the most was the confort with which these students – these dancers – moved their bodies. I did not yet know how to be comfortable in my body, and I still saw myself as an outsider. I was not a dancer, I was an impostor.
Best Dancer performed her piece, a reworked version of a variation from one of the Tchaikovski ballets (I’m not trying to get too specific here…). It was perfectly executed gorgeousness, the kind of dancing that can only come with over a decade and a half of training. Upon finishing, she immediately began to apologize for her (invisible to us) mistakes. First Teacher nodded approvingly, telling us “Dancers that have been training for a long time always apologize for their mistakes.”
More students performed. I took a moment between performances to get some fresh air outside, a few more deep breaths, and decided it was now or never. After the next person finished, I handed my ipod to the girl working the stereo system. My head felt like it was filled with air or cotton or something, my heart pounding loudly in my ears, but at the same time it felt so far away.
I walked out into the center of the studio, as the others had done before me. I introduced myself, introduced my piece. Then the music started, and the movements that I had practiced so many times came back to me, from the first opening port de bras through my shakily balanced developpes, tendus, temps lie, my far-from-perfect chaînes and pas de bourree and so on. It went as well as it could’ve, given my experience at the time. I didn’t fall over, or trip over my feet. I forgot there was an audience and it felt so good! After finishing I fought the urge to immediately run back to my seat and waited.
“Were you nervous?” asked First Teacher.
“Yeah, umm, this is my first time ever taking this class, any dance class, and dancing in front of an audience.”
“You look so somber. Such a somber piece of music. Very good.” That’s me, the somber one.
As I returned to my seat, a couple of girls that had seemed friendly towards me throughout the semester, fellow beginners like me, smiled and said “Good job!”. I smiled, feeling both shy and pleased at the same time.
The pressure of performing off, I was able to sit back and enjoy the remaining performances. I almost wished I had gone sooner so I could have been able to enjoy more of them, rather about worrying about my own upcoming time in the spotlight.
The crazy thing is that as soon as it was over I wished that something like this would come up again. My final exam for my other ballet semesters have been different, from the dance we all did for Strict Teacher’s class, to my nonexistent dance final for my latest semester. I would really love the opportunity to have a self-choreographed final at some point again though…
Oh yeah, and I got an “A”!