Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet (3 page)

The girls were really dancing. They were doing complicated steps that moved them all over the room with turns and leaps. The teacher would stop them to correct all sorts of little things that I couldn’t really see and certainly didn’t understand, and then make them try the step over and over again until she was satisfied. She would sometimes yell, but it didn’t seem mean. It seemed challenging. This class looked nothing like the boring ballet classes I had taken before. It looked thrilling. I wanted to do it.

In December 1983, when I was ten years old, I started taking ballet with this very teacher, Terry Shields. I instantly loved it. Terry taught ballet as if it were very important and precious. She was the first person to instill in me an extremely important virtue for any dancer: discipline, combined with high standards. I learned that the steps needed to be done exactly right, not just “good enough.”

Ballet was difficult, and I did not do everything well right away, even though I was beginning to sense that I was good at it. My body moved in the right ways by both natural instinct and learned new habits. The challenge and the idea of striving for excellence appealed to me; the hard work was attractive because it got results. Furthermore, I was being given the tools to really dance. I had never known there were so many steps or so many different and intricate ways to move. There were jumps and turns and poses that went so far beyond my imaginary homemade choreography. Now when I danced in my room, I wasn’t just flopping on my bed or spinning to the floor. I knew what I was doing. I had a repertory of movements to choose from depending on my mood or the beat of the music, and I could string them together to make something more than just a little-girl dance. I was becoming a dancer, and I was hooked.

Around this time I took another big step toward becoming a new, more complete person, building my spiritual character along with my dancing one. My family was attending a large charismatic church in Charleston. It had wonderful praise music and seemed filled with people really living out the Christian life. It was far away from our home,
however, and I often resisted going. Sometimes I begrudged the fact that church took up much of our Sunday. But I did have an unusual experience there. They often called for people to voluntarily come up to the front to recommit themselves to God, and during one such call, I really felt the desire within me to go. I was around ten or so, and I shocked my family and myself by leaving my seat and going forward when people were asked to come and be baptized in the Holy Spirit. I felt scared to do it, but it also felt right. I didn’t talk much to my family or to anyone about what it was like; it felt too private. But it seemed afterward that I had a much deeper, more sensitive relationship with God. The experience was life changing because I was beginning to take ownership of my faith. It was not just something that my parents were making me do. I could make my own decisions about where I wanted to place my faith and could have my own personal relationship with God. The seeds had been planted, but time would tell whether or not these seeds had fallen on fertile soil.

Both my new relationship with God and my time with Ms. Shields came together to open a whole new phase of my life. I was praying every day, in every situation, and felt comfortable having God a constant part of my day. I was suddenly part of a small ballet school community, which meant my family got to know the other girls and their mothers and fathers very well. Even though I had only recently started formal training, I had moved fairly quickly into the advanced class, which ranged in age from ten to sixteen, and we got to do special performances and lecture/demos at local schools. In Summerville, the performance opportunities were limited, but Ms. Shields took what she could get.

One such performance took place during a hot spring day on the tennis courts in the middle of town. We were part of the entertainment for the annual Flower Festival, dancing ballets choreographed by Ms. Shields. Another time we were the intermission performance for a local beauty pageant, which was a real eye-opener for me. I still remember being backstage and watching the strange things the women would do to their bodies to make themselves look a certain way in their bathing suits.
However odd the setting, though, I loved the performances and the opportunity to dress up and dance without being stopped for corrections.

When I was eleven, Ms. Shields determined that my class was ready to go
en pointe.
We would be wearing real pointe shoes and dancing on our toes! We were beside ourselves with excitement.

When exactly any given student goes
en pointe
is up to the judgment of the teacher, and many factors are considered. Is the dancer strong enough? Can she rise up on to the ball of her foot with her leg in proper alignment? Will her technical ability support this added level of difficulty? Dancing
en pointe
is entirely different from dancing in the soft pink ballet slippers, and many ballet steps have to be relearned. Ms. Shields had been watching all of us carefully, and she felt that it was time for us to start beginner pointe classes.

She took us to the nearest ballet shop and fitted each one of us individually for pointe shoes. I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful. Ms. Shields sent us home with a stern warning not to wear our shoes in the house; we needed to be trained properly in how to go
en pointe
, otherwise we could twist an ankle. We were instructed to wait to put on our shoes until the next week, when we had our first pointe class.

I compromised. I did not actually walk in the pointe shoes or go up
en pointe
in them, but I put them on my feet, lay back on my bed, and kicked them in the air, marveling at how wonderful these mysterious shoes were. I couldn’t wait until our first class!

My first experience
en pointe
was not exactly what I imagined. It felt weird, as if my toes were inside bricks, and standing on my toes, though thrilling at first, was decidedly uncomfortable by the end of class. Ms. Shields had taught us how to put lamb’s wool around our toes to cushion them, but during the class the lamb’s wool had shifted around and holes had formed that left my tender skin unprotected. I got blisters.

Later, I learned that dancers actually taped their toes with masking tape to prevent blisters. But for now, I was a ballerina with blisters on her feet! From her pointe shoes! How wonderfully thrilling.

A number of us were ahead of the other students, and when Ms. Shields decided we had progressed far enough, she started an actual little performance company that she called the South Carolina Children’s Ballet Theatre. This was exciting for all of us, because it meant we were going to put on real productions in a real theater. Ms. Shields rented a small auditorium, and rehearsals began for our first show; we would be dancing a mixed bill of choreography Ms. Shields made for us. As exciting as it was, however, suddenly there was a new element of pressure and competition in the ballet studio. It became apparent that now all the girls would not be treated equally on the stage. In class, we all danced together, but for the performances, some girls were being given special featured parts, and some were not. The stakes were being raised for everyone: Ms. Shields was very demanding. She had high expectations for the performance, and would sometimes become short-tempered. Since she was choreographing, producing, and designing the entire production by herself, she was under a lot of stress as well.

I knew that I was one of the better girls in the class, and I desperately wanted a special part, so I was anxious about the rehearsals. Ms. Shields became even more demanding in classes and occasionally lost her patience with me.

“What are you doing over there, Jenny?” she would ask me, her eyes on fire. “You are too lazy. You think ballet is always going to come easily to you. It’s not! It takes constant hard work. You can’t let up for a minute!”

After lectures like that, given before the entire class, I would cry all the way home. But it never stopped me from coming, and besides, she was right: I was certainly lazy at times. I liked to daydream, and not just in right field—I’d find myself drifting away during the less interesting parts of ballet class, like the barre work. I was used to not having to try very hard for things, and while I was learning discipline, I also relied to a large degree on my natural abilities. There was a complacent part of me that thought ballet would just be something else I was good at and that I wouldn’t really have to try that hard. But her words sank in, and the fact that it took an extra level of work and determination challenged
me and ultimately paid off enormously—having to apply myself over and over actually inspired me to stick with ballet. The fact that Ms. Shields did not just automatically give me all the best parts was good for me; I would have assumed that my mild and minimal efforts were enough and ended up just a passable dancer. Instead, starting at ten or eleven, I was driven to prove myself, to gain Ms. Shields’s approval and admiration. My competitive side came out, and I wanted to be the best in the class and get the best parts in our productions. I worked harder.

I did end up getting featured parts in Ms. Shields’s performances, but she was a generous director and tried hard to give each of us something special to do, thus spreading out the spotlight. And I never took my place for granted. I remember one bad day when I had to miss a weekend rehearsal so that my family could go to my sister’s piano competition, which was out of town. Ms. Shields at first penalized me for that, saying nothing but going forward and starting the new choreography without me, and I thought I was not going to be in her new ballet at all. Great tears were shed. But then she added me to the ballet, creating a late entrance for me, and I was saved.

From the very beginning, I have loved the excitement of performing, and even with our little shows, I was always sad when a weekend of performances was over. Performing was stressful and anxiety provoking, sure, but it brought so many fun and new elements together. Ironically, to me it was the ultimate pretend game, a total break from reality.

I still remember sitting on the floor of the ballet studio with the other girls, staring into the mirror for our first stage-makeup lesson. We learned that to look our best onstage, we had to exaggerate the features of our face to make them seem bigger and more beautiful. The bright stage lights and distance from the audience would cause our features to wash out otherwise. With a white waxy substance we covered up our eyebrows, a difficult feat for me with my thick black brows, and then redrew them perfectly, a little higher than they were naturally. This was the way Ms. Shields had done her makeup in her youth; I was to discover later that dancers no longer whited out their eyebrows for stage
unless it was for a particular character part. After the eyebrows came the base: with thick cake makeup we made our preteen complexions smooth and even. We gave ourselves pink, blooming cheeks and red glossy lips and drew lines around our eyes to make them appear huge and doll-like. Best of all, we got to wear false eyelashes. We were transformed into more glamorous versions of ourselves. And then we put on our costumes and pointe shoes, further changing ourselves into different creatures entirely. We were ballerinas: perfect, exotic, separate.

During the fall of 1985, when I was twelve, my father was transferred to Washington, DC. My mother and sister and I had to stay behind in Summerville while we tried to sell our house, but we knew we would eventually be moving as well. Then my father received an award for some outstanding work he had done on a case with NCIS. The award was to be given in Washington, and my mom and I went to watch the award ceremony while my sister stayed with friends. It was my first time on an airplane, and I was thrilled. My family never flew because it was just too expensive. I loved every minute of it, but my mother discovered she did not like flying.

“Isn’t this wonderful?” I remember exclaiming to my mother when I managed to tear myself away from the airplane window.

“Uh-huh,” she replied with a strange grimace on her face while she gripped the armrests hard enough to break them. We took the train home.

The real reason I went to DC that weekend and my sister didn’t was that I was going to audition for the summer intensive program at the Washington School of Ballet. Mom and I wanted to see if we liked the school, and we needed to find out how I stacked up against the ballet students in a big city. Terry Shields had told my mother that she thought I “had it all” and could be a professional dancer if I wanted to, but we just didn’t know for sure. I was only twelve years old, and I had no particular aspirations to be a professional dancer. I loved to dance, but ballet was just an after-school activity for me; I presumed that, like everyone I knew, I would go on to college after high school and then get a regular
job. Was dancing even a real job, or did dancers have to wait tables to make money? Besides, after reading James Herriot’s
All Creatures Great and Small
, I wanted to be a veterinarian.

Anyway, the audition was set up at the school. My mom had done research and found out that the Washington School of Ballet was the best in the area. She had kept her quest a secret from Ms. Shields, afraid that Terry would give me lesser parts in our upcoming performances if she knew I was leaving. For the audition, I was just to take a regular class with girls my age so the director of the school, Mary Day, could come and watch me. When we arrived at the white-and-gray building that housed the Washington School of Ballet, I was overcome by terror. All my confidence drained away, leaving me feeling like the biggest small-town ballet dancer in the world. What if those big-city teachers were mean and scorned me for even trying to take classes at their school? What if the other girls did bad big-city things to me, and I was humiliated? What if I got lost inside that huge building and never found the studio? I sat in our truck and cried, telling my parents that I had changed my mind and I didn’t want to go there after all.

Somehow my parents convinced me that I needed to try. We had a long prayer in the truck, and I poured out all of my fears to God. I gathered up my courage, and we all went inside together. The predominant color was gray—gray walls, gray floors, gray sky outside the windows. Everyone inside seemed very serious. Mothers sat on benches, whispering to each other and assessing every passerby, no matter what age. Students dressed in the uniform leotard of steel gray scurried about purposefully, knowing where they were going. Directed to the dressing room by a distracted secretary, I somehow made it to the studio for the class. I wore a black leotard and stuck out like a sore thumb.

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