December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Dancing on my grave

By |2018-03-21T18:48:13+01:00February 28th, 2012|At Large & Sports|
Gelsey Kirkland teaches in New York.

promised myself I’d be better-rounded human being this semester. My first four months of graduate school were one-dimensional, a 3D world flattened between the pages of books. Alarm clock, coffee, class, reading, writing, class, fork, tooth brush, sleep, alarm clock. That was six days. On the seventh God said, “Let there be clean laundry and a podcast or two.”

My dad always told me that whatever my shortcomings I should be proud of my well roundedness. It’s true: I’m hard-pressed to name things I don’t enjoy.

I’m a cook, a reader, a sometimes-fanatic studier, a sometimes-delirious partier, a hiker, an adventurer, a skilled relaxer, a biker, a jokester, an often awkward wall-flower, a humanist, a pragmatist, a silence-seeker, a concert-goer, a sparing spendthrift. I love museums, volunteering, and dinner with friends.

Then there’s ballet.

I danced throughout my childhood and adolescence, and even in college. I danced in Rome, performing my last show in Trastevere in the summer of 2008.

But then life started to seem too full. After Trastevere, I hung up my Pointe shoes and danced a few hours a month on soft ones, no toe-crushing required. After that, I moved back to the United States, then to South America, then back to the U.S., and more recently across states to Boston and Harvard. Over four years I stuck with the plies just enough to still call myself a dancer.

Then, the other day, a fellow graduate student mentioned the Harvard Ballet Company. She was considering trying out but the auditions were two days away. Would she have enough time? Was she good enough? She wasn’t convinced.

Suddenly I saw my chance for better-roundedness. Why not dive in?

Company auditions were nothing new. The often tight-knit and clique-like nature of the ballet world didn’t daunt me. I’d survived my teens in that atmosphere.

But the audition showed me that I’d be facing an entirely new kind of exclusiveness: the supreme exclusivity of youth. The full-bloomed youth that I now seemed to lack was leaping, giggling and twirling all around me.

As I tied on my Pointe shoes for the first time in so long, I heard the hard shanks and boxes of other satin shoes skittering around me. Girls from the company re-auditioned annually and all of them were all bursting with excitement. They were seeing each other again after the month-long holiday. It felt like a slumber party. Girls sat on the judges’ audition table doing silly burlesques; girls held hands and skipped around the room; girls squealed and pranced when a new face joined the ensemble.

I looked down at my four-year-old Pointe shoes and realized that when I finished in Trastevere four years ago some of these girls hadn’t hit puberty.

One can’t be young forever, but one can feel young forever, I thought. That’s why I was there, I reminded myself. I wanted to stay limber, strong, and keep the spirit of dance inside of me. Besides, I thought, I was still in shape, still flexible.

As if to confirm my hope, I stood up and walked to the center of the room to look at myself in the mirror. The studio was far bigger than any studio I’d danced in for years. My East Lansing hometown academy was on the second floor of a converted barn. Fine teaching; tiny space. In Chicago, Rome, and Santiago my ballet studios had been basements. Space is precious in big cities and most studios can’t afford much. All that changes at a big and prestigious private university. This studio had slide away stadium seating and doubled as a theatre.

Doubt crept in.

Looking at myself in the mirror from the center of that room I saw only a blur. Glasses I once used only to drive I now needed in class.

I wasn’t convinced by motionless blur in the mirror, not when surrounded by a corps of mincing sprites. Then I pressed up onto my toes and heard a hollow crack from my ankle.

But dancing is music, and when it begins to stir something changes. Bad eyes and creaking ankle suddenly vanish. So does doubt. Thinking goes away. In its place, suddenly, stood a better-rounded human. Her old habits came rushing back.

By the end of the audition I was officially re-minted as a mincing sprite — the company took me, and the 3D world of ballet was back, suddenly ageless.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.