How can we know the dancer from the dance?

An open letter to ballet.

Art by Shania O'Brien

I can’t remember which came first, my love for dance or my love for stories. But in a way, I guess that you combined both of these passions.

I can still remember the first time that I saw you. It was Christmas, and I was a toddler wearing a deep red velvet dress. You were a glittering masterpiece, a phantasmagoria of snow and sweets. I sat in awe of your beauty, knowing that your existence makes life remarkable, exquisite, splendid. You are every little girl’s dream, and you were mine.

The image of you is so romantic. The plush tuille of tutus, the pink satin of pointe shoes, the appearance of weightlessness. My image is wrapped in cliché. A child, donning my baby pink leotard and wrap skirt. My leotard metamorphosed from pink to blue to navy to black as I grew – my own transition from fragile duckling to black swan, all under your watchful eye.

Taught in broken French, you are perceived, not read. Bound by rules and form, you are rigorous and free all at once. Telling stories through coordination, muscular impulse, feeling; a complex language becomes digestible under your gaze. A performative pedagogy lingers through you. With every shared joy you teach me to laugh. When I fall or strain you teach me to cry. And then, you teach me to feel in between.

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. But you forced me to find it in company. I warred between a fake enthusiasm and a deep and passionate love for you, surrounded by others that were doing the same. We danced together and alone, with and without you, moving closer and further away with each step. We told stories, and understood some. We gave to you, and you continued to take.

But our relationship was far from perfect. I can still feel the throbbing in my toes from hours spent en pointe. My hip bones still grind against each other when I move. My muscles still echo the astonishing pain that would linger for days after a stretch class. But the truth is, that a sort of masochistic delight is birthed from your grip. I told myself that you are only merciless to those that you love. That every agony is a signal that you are alive, growing, transforming. I think that the phrase ‘you make it look easy’ was invented for you. You hurt, effortlessly.

I wish that you still made me feel like I was floating. I wish that I was thinking through movement. I wish that the rhythm and language were one again – that I wasn’t still trying to force them together onto a page. There is nothing quite like you – physically rewarding and intellectually interesting. My mind, my body, my heart, my being were, and still are, obsessed with you.

In my obsession, I think about our fifteen year love affair, and convince myself that I could return to you. I search the internet for classes and scale YouTube for videos. But all the same, I am scared of killing the memory of you that I hold onto like a precious jewel. I’m scared of losing you, but more than that, I am scared of hating you. You were my vacation from the linguistic, but now the linguistic attempts to fill the hole that you left behind. I have traded my body for a pen, preserving an archive of longing with every stroke. There is no reader, beholder or listener here, but myself.

It’s been almost 4 years since I left you, and still, I’m finding it hard to say goodbye. I don’t know if I will ever get over you – you’ve left an imprint on my body and my selfhood. I stand at traffic lights in first position. I walk like my shoulders are being pulled back by invisible hands. Scattered memories of choreography are preserved on discs for posterity. Remnants of you are stuffed in the bottom of my drawers, lycra pieces that I can’t bring myself to throw away.

Roland Barthes claimed that we each have our own rhythm of suffering, and as I lament that my ankles have grown weak, and my limbs less supple, I assume that my suffering clings to the scores of Tchaikovsky and Delibes. I forget and remember, forget and remember you until my mind won’t let go. I write what I wish to retrieve. My memory is a theatre, and it is there that I’m still with you. That I’m still dancing.

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