She was a ballerina. Actually, she was a budding ballerina. That’s what they call the young ones who visualize starring in Giselle or Swan Lake, but whose talent is not yet refined, their technique not yet precise. Still, even at the age of 15, she walked with her feet already severely pointing outward. Her turnout, as it’s called, was well beyond her young life. She dreamed of living in New York City. I dreamed of being her lover.
She attended ballet classes twice a week on Wednesday afternoons after school and again on Saturday mornings. She always arrived early to do extra barre work. Once, I came along and watched. She progressed through a series of beautifully graceful movements: the demi plie, the full plie, the grande battement front. Her body squatting nearly to the floor, her back straight, and the lights in the room casting delicate shadows on her sinewy tendons and muscles. With each move, she sculpted herself into a new work of art.
“Ballet is a dance executed by the human soul,” Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet, was believed to have said. I was a freshman in high school; I didn’t know anything at all about Pushkin. But if I had heard someone quote the poet as I saw her move through the elegant routine, I would have agreed. I witnessed her soul at work that day. Something I believed I had glimpsed in the moments we spent alone. The dance was different, but fueled by the same spirit. Some might say I was too young, too naive to recognize this, but I know what I saw.
The lesson focused primarily on perfection of the brise, a sharp movement that throws the working leg into the air while pushing off from the supporting leg. The dancer lands on crossed feet, knees bent. Standing in 5th position, she briskly jumped, beating one leg against the other in midair. Even in its quickness, the movement remained elegant, like that of a jaguar – powerful and graceful. To reveal her beauty the cat needs to do nothing more than move its body, to allow the working muscles to expose its magnificence. She needed no partner. Like the cat, she was a singular being focused solely on where her body was, would be, and how she would get it there. She was keenly aware of herself, yet moved only by instinct, as if in a dream. Her eyes gave away nothing. No one could breakthrough the intensity, the dancer’s wall. She would not let them.
It was no different with us. I wanted to get closer to her somehow, climb over the wall, but she would only let me scale it enough to see through the tiny cracks. Her parents had insisted she see other people, they told her she was too young to be so serious with one boy. “I’m don’t know what to do,” she said, “I have to listen to my parents, but I can’t imagine what things will be like.”
To dance is to sacrifice. The body is contorted into what the art needs. To be who she became required all of her. It is also true of love. We give up pieces of ourselves, transform to meet the requests of our lovers, shape our souls into what is desired. To be in love, to experience it, requires all we have.
After her lesson, after the barre work and the final brise, I told her I wouldn’t be coming to any more of her ballet lessons. She kissed me. “Promise you’ll get to New York to see me one day,” she said. “Promise me you won’t forget.”