December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Joy on pointe

By |2018-10-15T03:30:36+02:00October 12th, 2018|"Scarlet Says", Memory Lane|
Detail from Degas' 1885 "The Dance Class."

hen I was a child, I loved dancing, especially ballet. I started lessons at age four. My mother put me in a ballet class to correct my predilection towards standing pigeon-toed. In the process, I discovered the art of dancing.

I loved the names of the poses, which were exotically all in French. I put my hair up in a ballerina bun and wore colorful leotards and ballet slippers. When I was at ballet class, I danced to the most beautiful music I’d ever heard, and when I came home I could still hear it playing in my head.

My family never went to see actual ballets performed live. But as I continued dancing, I began to realize that ballet, set to music, told a story. Sometimes on our local PBS station, I watched these stories, including “The Nutcracker Suite,” which we learned in class, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Musicals were another type of ballet. My favorite musicals were “Annie” and “The Sound of Music.” To this day, I can sing or hum all of their melodies.

When I was at ballet class, I danced to the most beautiful music I’d ever heard, and when I came home I could still hear it playing inside my head.

My goal was to get permission to go on point. This would mean wearing toe shoes, the silky pink ballet shoes that allow a dancer to stand on the tips of her toes. It would also mean learning how to dance in a new way: using lamb’s wool to protect my toes, and resin to keep from sliding down the floor. How I longed to get toe shoes! Year after year, I watched the older girls put them on as they got ready for their evening classes. Finally, one day it was my turn. My teacher said I was ready to move to the next level. I cared for my toe shoes like they were fragile creatures. In them, I danced with trepidation at first, then gradually adjusted to the feeling. Being able to go on point, more than anything else, made me feel like a real ballerina.

About a year later, I realized that most of my friends had quit ballet. I was in seventh grade, and it was time to move on. I was also preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah. At 13 in my community (12 in others) a girl became Bat Mitzvah by leading part of the Shabbat (Sabbath) services for the first time. A Bat Mitzvah (or Bar Mitzvah for boys) marks the child’s passage into Jewish adulthood. After services, I would have a small party, hosting friends and family who attended the service. We decorated the room with a ballet theme. Each table had pink aluminum ballet slippers, a fuchsia heart with the name of a ballet (or musical), and a flower arrangement.

Ballet meant a lot to me, but on that day, leading services also brought me joy. I loved singing with the congregation, reciting prayers in Hebrew, and discussing the stories and deep meanings behind the Torah portion of the week.

Fast-forward a decade and a half. As a young adult, I began practicing yoga, which reminded me of dance, because both involve discipline. Yoga also helped me feel more centered — after so many life changes, including college and graduate school, my parents’ divorce and my mother’s long illness and death. Not to mention navigating relationships and jobs.

Yoga has a quietly joyful side. Practicing it, I became aware of my breath, my life force. It helped me return to my roots, and rediscover what brings me joy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to have found myself returning to Judaism. Around the time that I started regularly practicing yoga, I also began participating more actively in the Jewish community. I began by going to a Shabbat service once in a while. Then to a Rabbi’s class here and there. I tried out different synagogues, different communities and customs. Eventually, I spent a few weeks in Israel, where I later returned for a year. While there, I embraced traditional observance of Shabbat, the holidays, and other rituals, all of which I continued back in the States, even while working full-time in the secular world. I got a part-time job teaching Judaic studies to kids, and then another part-time job teaching kids Hebrew.

And now, though I certainly did not see it coming, I am a rabbinical student. I am learning more every day, finding so much to be grateful for as I connect to an ancient tradition that I love. The texts, music, and rituals of Judaism are how I dance through daily life.

About the Author:

Scarlet Michaelson wrote the "Scarlet Says" column between 2017 and 2020,