I didn’t realize how hard I was breathing until I fell back on the floor, my arms and legs twitching in time to the last notes of Tchaikovsky’s battle music from the first act of The Nutcracker. My breath was hot and wet against my own face inside the mesh shelled mouse head. My director was kneeling beside me coaching a group of four year old girls in stage crying. The knot holding my purple cape around my neck started to feel tight.
The first oboe notes of the Act One pas de deux was the cue for the curtains to close, which meant I could stand up. With the mask, I wouldn’t be able to see them close. I sat up and started digging at the knot on the cape. Once the it was off I could remove the mask and breathe freely. From my sitting position I was almost eye level with the pre-ballet students who were staring at my costume, rather than practicing mimed sobbing.
I took one more big breath, then trotted to the side of the studio to put all the pieces of Mouse King costume (this production went with a mouse, king, rather than a rat, as is seen in most other productions) back in their storage box. I carefully balanced the stuffed grey jacket part on top so it could air out, then I ran out to change into pointe shoes and put my hair up for my part as a snow flake. I only had three minutes.
I don’t remember much of that run through of the Snow Waltz, but I very vividly remember as we ran off for the last time thinking to myself, again breathing very hard: This is so.much.FUN.
My name is Sarah and I am an amateur ballet dancer. This production of the ballet world’s perennial Christmas liturgy is being produced by a moderately sized local ballet studio a ten minute drive from my house. I take class here between two and six times a week depending on schedules. I actually taught there for a while, and my first attempts at accompanying ballet classes on the piano were coached by the same director who was just boohooing dramatically over overheated face.
I started dancing around age 4, like pretty much everyone else who dances, but I was an extremely unfocused child. I was mostly in classes that happened at the same time as my older sister’s (another typical situation for non oldest children who end up in dance). I don’t think I found them uninteresting, I just couldn’t stay interested. We tried clogging, but I couldn’t remember more than four steps in a row. We tried tumbling but an injury from playing outside barefooted left me with enough pain that I stopped trying to do anything that involved landing on one foot.
Just after I turned eight, we tried ballet. I don’t know who long I attended those classes, but I clearly remember one day standing at the barre and thinking, I know what I’m doing. This is fun.
I kept up with dance at this first studio all the way through high school. I wasn’t talented and I was pretty chubby for most of those years, but I was diligent. I always showed up, usually on time, I spent extra hours messing around, I took extra classes, and I tried all the styles offered. I loved ballet best, probably because the director of the school also loved ballet best. But economic reality meant that most of the studio’s income came from more popular dance styles. She gave me a wonderful foundation, but my lack of talent and access to only three classes a week meant that I came out of high school knowing that I most likely wouldn’t be dancing in college.
Instead, I studied music. I tried to quit ballet that first year. I’d told myself that my last summer intensive, eight glorious weeks of ballet for six hours a day, would be the last of my dance studies. That didn’t last long.
One night I was sitting in a New Music concert. My mind was wondering far, far away from some atonal mess and I realized I was still a dancer. I’m not sure why the thought came then, in that place with that music, but it hit me pretty hard.
So I signed up for a ballet class for non dance students and started attending Open Adult classes offered by Salt Lake’s resident company, Ballet West.
Since then, with the exception of my 18 months at an LDS missionary, I have taken class at least three times a week, often five, six, and even up to eight. I eventually found other places to take ballet, modern, African, tap, and theater classes, but ballet has always been my favorite, the most fulfilling for me. I began to look for teachers who would take me back to the basics. I went from struggling in the back of those open classes to happily leading lines out and going in the first group.
Shortly after my marriage I got my weight down to where I felt confident attending auditions. I started doing local community shows, being cast in parts of various prominence. I had some solos, but lots and lots of “run and pose” corps dancing.
My degree in music education (percussion emphasis) led me to being offered a job teaching pre-ballet, since I was qualified to work with kids. After a few years some other connections landed me some teaching jobs for older and more advanced students.
I now frequently find myself teaching, dancing, and in discussion with men and women who went to he same school I did and at the same time, but who were in the dance program. Some times I feel a little fake, because I didn’t get a degree in dance, but I also think that if I tallied class and rehearsal hours, I’d have enough to match someone with a four year degree in ballet.
During one class about five years ago the teacher used a Lisa Harris album. Her recording of “Till There Was You” played as a tango for fondu combinations sounded so simple that I realized, even with my mediocre piano skills, I could probably play it by ear from memory. I went home and did so. I realized, that with only a little practice, thanks to my music degree and my new husband owning a very nice digital piano, I could learn to accompany classes. I took notes in all the classes I took that week on what kind and how much music I would need.
I asked a teacher of a local adult class (not Ballet West) if I could try accompanying a beginning adult ballet class, and we both agreed she should have a CD ready just in case. Knowing how a ballet class worked helped a lot. From her class I went to another ballet studio and got more coaching from a teacher in children’s classes. She was very patient with me, but also demanding and, despite never really learning to please her, I improved a lot very quickly. I also got coaching from a fellow adult ballet class attendee who teaches theater, piano and voice out of his home. He was friends with all the teachers and most of the musicians at Ballet West. My big break came when one of the Ballet West Academy Directors mentioned in class that she didn’t have a pianist for an important class and she was desperate to find some one. My friend spoke up and said i could do it. I felt oddly calm. I knew I could do it, and, though it took more than a year for my heart to stop pounding before every piece I played, I mostly felt very comfortable playing for classes.
I had tons of help from many teachers at Ballet West and other studios. I say I felt comfortable, but I know I wasn’t perfect. It took almost three years before teachers stopped occasionally asking, “Um…could you play something else?” I’ve now put in four Ballet West Summer Intensives. That is six weeks of four to six hours of playing, six days a week.
About two years ago I read a Life Style Design book and decided to start a side hustle selling dancewear. That project is still moving very slowly, but its coming along and I’m ok, for now, at taking my time with it. This blog is part of that project.
You see, I tuned thirty early this year, and I’m excited to try a bunch of new things. I have three YouTube channels. I have three to six W2 forms to fill out every year from all the teaching and accompanying I do. I took on piano students. To combat the fat girl who still lives inside of me I’ve dug deeply in to the alternative health rabbit hole and have tried ketogenic diets, intermittent and extended fasting, HIIT workouts and cold therapy. I listen to people like Tim Ferris and Dave Asprey.
But what I do most of all, what I enjoy above everything else, is ballet. That’s why I happily don a giant mouse head and a puffy grey body suite to chase small children around a stage, and why I still cram my flat archless feet into expensive short lived shoes. I get a great feeling out of it.
I think the only reason I love ballet is that I enjoyed it so early in life, thanks to my wonderful ballet teacher in Vernal Utah, Taunia Wheeler. Despite not really having the body, the brain, or the talent for it, I was encouraged and praised for my efforts. Through a lot of hard work and financial juggling (I still spend about $200 a month on classes, some times more, despite getting free class as a staff member at Ballet West) I have found a place for myself in the ballet community here in Salt Lake, despite my disadvantages and late start.
I’m a pretty good teacher, a passable accompanist, and still, a dedicated if not brilliant ballet student and amateur performer. Ballet is something I haven’t been able to leave alone. And at age thirty, I think I finally learned that I don’t ever have to.
You don’t have to stop. And you don’t have to only watch. The biggest lesson to be learned from dancers of all ages, back ground and abilities is that anyone can start at the beginning. Ballet is an incredibly specific art form with clear rules, but also a lot of room for self expression. If you have even a moderately good teacher a beginning ballet class can be inspiring and liberating. A more advanced class, while potentially being frustrating, can also be exhilarating and informative.
I am extremely grateful to all the teachers who have been willing to work with me for the last ten to twenty years. Taunia, for giving me a chance at solos roles in jr high and high school, and for educating me about the art form created by and for royalty. I am also grateful to all the teachers who have taught the open classes at Ballet West. Especially Peter Christie and Bruce Caldwell. I am grateful to a handful of teachers and fellow students from open ballet classes all over Salt Lake and at the University of Utah, including but not limited to: Misha Tchoupakov, Regina Zahrin, Jeff Rogers, Terry Davis, Justine Sheedy-Kramer, Maureen Laird, Jay and Victoria Kim, Sarah Longoria, Shari Lane, Jan Fugit, Jane Wood, Peter Merz, and many more.
One more time. You don’t have to stop dancing. And if you’ve always wanted to start, you can, and I promise you won’t regret it.