Hallo Gentle Reader! Please enjoy this awesome guest post from fellow adult beginner Seeta, and if you’d like to read moar moar moar, jump on over here and see what else Seeta’s up to.
Dancing in Berlin
Recently, I spent a week in Berlin, where I took four ballet classes. For me, this was an accomplishment because: 1. I do not speak word one of German; and 2. I started ballet in my 30s, and, like all adult beginners, I drag around a lot of insecurity about the lack of muscle memory and specialized physical development that come with starting as a child. I’ve always avoided extreme sports and other high-risk activities, regarding them with terror and timidity, but I realized after my experience in Berlin that there had been enormous risk involved. I could have collided with another dancer. I could have been humiliated. But none of this happened, and taking the risk really paid off. What I’m about to say about dancing in Berlin holds a fairly obvious lesson on the surface about dance as a universal language. But I want to move beyond that to think about something else I learned, which is that removing language from dance foregrounds its ability to create intimacy – a deep sense of knowing and being known – with astonishing speed. This immediate intimacy was both an unexpected gift in itself and something that made other gifts available to me as well.
I started with Matthew Thomas’s adult beginner class at Pro-Stage Berlin. Because Matthew is British, this seemed like a safe way to go: even though he conducted the class in German, I figured it would be possible for us to communicate in a ballet emergency. Matthew is a wonderful, funny teacher, lovely to watch, and his German instruction was peppered with English phrases like “Cheese and biscuits!” when the class had trouble with a combination, and “Hold your bloody turnout!” During that first class, I could see immediately that knowing the French terms would be enough: I listened carefully to the sequence of terms making up the combination, and I was fine, even though I missed the corrections. In this first class I also started to see something important about ballet without communication: even though I couldn’t speak to the other students, I could feel them developing a highly accurate assessment of me within the first fifteen minutes of class. When people can see what your body can and can’t do, how hard it is working, how you respond to music, they have an efficient means of understanding some things about you that really matter to you. This was especially comforting because when you are in a place where you don’t speak the language, this sense of recognition and understanding is exactly what you find yourself lacking. In your daily peregrinations, you can’t proffer or respond to casual speech in order to give people some account of you. But ballet class solved this problem; the studio became the one public space where I did not feel like a cipher.
A Russian teacher named Sveto Cenisev led my second class, and when the strongest dancer in this class saw that I was there to get something out of it, she started translating Sveto’s corrections into English for me. As it turned out, Sveto is a genius. He had fantastic metaphors for explaining balance, turning, focusing, and spotting – I learned so much. He is also a very anatomical teacher and talked about focus points in the bone under the skin to help us imagine lining up all the layers of the body toward the spot. Sveto would indicate that I should look straight ahead even though I thought I was, which made me realize that in fact I wasn’t, not truly. Here again, I could feel how both the teacher and the other students so quickly recognized important things about me, whether in the kindness of the student acknowledging my dedication by translating, or in the perspicacity of the teacher discerning such a subtle difference between my appearing to focus and my actually focusing. I returned to one more class by each teacher, and I loved how when Matthew saw me (at Tanzfabrik, a different studio), he simply nodded and said, “Hello, Seeta.” Despite the fact that I was a transient foreigner, nothing could be less surprising than encountering me: I already belonged. Sveto, meanwhile, generously lingered for ten minutes after one class to work on my pirouettes. On a couple of occasions after class, students invited me to other classes that they enjoyed and thought I would like.
In one sense, such supportive, encouraging recognition and interpersonal warmth are easy to explain as hallmarks of adult ballet in contrast to child, pre-pro, and professional ballet. To be sure, Black Swan, First Position, The Secret Lives of Dancers, and Breaking Pointe all manipulate their subject matter to fulfill some superficial audience expectations of what ballet is like: catty, competitive, crazy. But beyond this, such narratives can reveal certain legitimate insights into how tough that world is for those who start young and try to get onto a professional track. A Breaking Pointe cast member ruefully commented on the difficulty of maintaining friendships in a ballet company because the intensity of the rivalry. After watching First Position with me, an adult dancer friend of mine declared that she was glad that she hadn’t been put into the ballet world as a child, implying that the satisfying relationship she has to it now would have been impossible had she been made to enter it in that competitive way. Of course, even as adults we feel envy toward each other sometimes. But when there’s less at stake, it’s much easier for us to dilute our jealousy with genuine excitement and happiness when we see a friend break through a barrier that we know felt impenetrable to her.
While this dynamic is obvious to most of us who study ballet as adults, my point here is that I previously understood it only within the context of relationships developed over many years with dance friends. The supportive intimacy of my adult ballet community at home always seemed dependent upon the factor of long duration: watching each other grow as dancers over many seasons. I learned in Berlin that when one has to be a truly nonverbal agent in dance (we all know that ballet seems nonverbal but actually involves a great deal of explanatory and figurative language), that process of fostering intimacy is dramatically compressed in time, with such valuable results for both one’s dancing and one’s humanity. It made me wonder if choreographers and artistic directors ever experiment with restricting verbal communication in compositional or rehearsal process. For my part, I know that from now on, whenever I visit a country where I don’t speak the language, the first thing I will do is find a ballet studio.