I am in awe of ballet dancers. Such beauty! Such grace! And on feet that have been brutalized by years of toughening and training! I consider even a two hour stint wearing stilettos completely agonizing. I seriously cannot imagine strapping on pointe shoes and pirouetting across the stage, even if I could make a million dollars doing so. And I know these dancers are not earning anything close to that.
Yaj (another balletomane) and I were at a performance of Balanchine’s Jewels recently, danced by the New York City Ballet. Over the course of three acts, these supremely talented dancers, clad in costumes of emerald, ruby and diamond colors, brought the music of Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky to vivid life. No one missed a single step; every demanding move was masterfully executed. What’s more, there was a winning smile on every face. How many hundreds of hours of practice were behind these performances? Were they just pretending, or did they really love what they were doing?
I raised two daughters, yet my stints waiting around in dance studios were mercifully brief. While they are both coordinated and graceful young ladies, they did not gravitate to the barre. But I knew dance moms whose offspring lived and breathed pliés and grands jetés. Is this obsession any stranger than my orchestra mom years, ferrying Sheridan from lessons, to rehearsals, to violin gigs? Of course not!
I’ve been on a quest to find out what makes ballet dancers tick, and was enlightened by a production of the musical Billy Elliot that Steve and I saw up in Allentown, PA last fall. For the uninitiated, this is the tale of a boy from a working class English family, who dreams of dancing. In the face of ridicule, a lack of family support, and not enough money to study, Billy perseveres. It was a wonderful experience all around (including the fine work of my young friend Josh DeRuosi, who designed an intricate, clever and very effective set.)
But I was most focused on the kid playing Billy. This was teenager Parker Fullmore’s third production of the show, and his expertise in the role was evident. The show captures the athleticism and the dedication required to shine in the dance world, against all odds. There is a memorable number, “Electricity,” where Billy explains the incredible feeling he gets when he is dancing. It seemed to be a case of art imitating life, because clearly Parker has that feeling too. Joy. Freedom. Worth all the sweat and tears.
When a ballerina takes off her shoes, you can see her ravaged feet. But onstage, she is beautiful, and happy. I will no doubt continue to love going to the ballet, even though I know I could never make the sacrifices required to soar as the dancers do. And as I watch the glorious pas de deux, I will be reminded that pain is a part of life, and that it can, sometimes, be transformed into something transcendent.