My Failure to Learn Ballet


Demonstrating My Nascent Dance Skills

I was a very shy child, and my mother knew that I struggled to make friends. She wanted to do her part to make sure that I became a Fully Rounded Person. This was a challenge for my mother, as I was usually content to be alone, pursuing my two favorite activities: reading and eating. I was notoriously clumsy—for years, I was routinely picked last or second last for gym class—so my mother enrolled me in ballet classes after school. I didn’t mind these classes at first; we spent a great deal of time on arranging our feet in different positions, which was not taxing and allowed for daydreaming. I liked my black leotard and those little black ballet slippers. I really liked my tutu. I was willing to spend an hour or two moving from First Position to Second Position and even to Third Position.

Sadly, our ballet class included more than ballet.To my considerable dismay, it also involved Tumbling. Near the end of our third class, the teacher suddenly pulled out giant foam mats, threw them on the floor and told each of us run up to a mat and perform dangerous maneuvers: somersaults, which I could do, but also backward somersaults (not in my playbook) and worse, cartwheels and hand stands. I could barely balance on one foot; despite my teacher’s orders, I was wise enough to know that any attempt at a cartwheel was an invitation to serious injury.

After that day, Tumbling consumed the last fifteen minutes of every dance class. Despite this unwelcome intrusion, I found ballet class generally agreeable. Toward the end of the year, our teacher announced the crowning moment of our year’s labor: the Recital. On an evening in the near future, she informed us, we would dress in costumes and execute our Ballet Moves onstage in front of our families. That first year, our class was going to perform a gypsy number, which sounded very exciting to me.

When I told my mother about my upcoming transformation from a stocky Irish 7 year old to an exotic and alluring Gypsy dancer, she nodded distractedly and said something like, “That’s nice.” Then, one day about two weeks before I was to debut as Mysterious Dancing Gypsy, I walked in our back door carrying a bag. My mother asked what I had there, and I told her: I had several yards of yellow chiffon, many sequins, some little fringe balls, a paper pattern, and one glorious golden hoop earring. With a look of mounting concern, my mother asked why I had those things. “Because I am going to be Gypsy! And my teacher said that you would make my costume!” My mother’s look changed to a look bordering on horror. “But I don’t know how to make a Gypsy costume! Why would the teacher think I know how to make a Gypsy costume? For God’s sake!” she said.  I thought to myself that since my mother didn’t know how to sew and  I didn’t know how to dance, we should be just fine together. Rather than say that out loud, I shrugged and looked at her.

My grandmother had been an expert seamstress but never taught either of her daughters to sew, for fear that they would marry husbands who would expect them to make their own clothes. My mother could not even sew a button well, and when we needed something altered or hemmed, we put it in a pile until Mommy Mayme came for a visit, and she would happily do our mending. On this particular occasion, however, Mommy Mayme was not in town, nor was she expected to be before my recital. I started to worry that I would have to miss the recital for lack of costume. Fortuitously, my sister Marbeth had a friend who did know how to sew, and learned of our dilemma. She sewed the gypsy costume for me, and I was ecstatic.

All a stocky Irish 7 year old needs to channel her Inner Gypsy is some sequins and chiffon, right?

On the appointed night, I ran out onstage with my fellow Gypsies, and we danced for about three minutes. It went much too fast for me. My teenaged brothers were in that audience, along with my sister Susan and my parents. (My mother made my brothers go; they protested loudly, but I was thrilled that they were there.) I danced my clumsy little heart out, and was happy to take my bow with a flourish before the next squad of dancers took the stage. My year of  tolerating ballet class and avoiding Tumbling was worth it if it meant standing on stage where my brothers were forced to pay attention to me and everyone clapped.


After my successful debut as a mysterious Irish Gypsy dancer, I was happy to continue ballet the next year. While the class had done nothing to increase my coordination or my social graces (see accompanying pictures),  it was pleasant enough when we weren’t tumbling. Unfortunately, in Year Two, Tumbling took an even more central role in the class, making serious inroads on time spent moving our feet into different positions. I stuck it out, though, because I wanted to perform in another recital. I knew that we wouldn’t be Gypsies again, which was really too bad, because I was pretty sure I had that whole “Gypsy Aura” nailed down. I imagined something even cooler than being a Gypsy, if there even was such a thing.

To my considerable disappointment, our ballet teacher came into the gym one day and announced that this year, we would all be “Scottish Highlanders.” What? I didn’t understand. What was a Scottish Highlander? Our teacher handed each of us another bag filled with fabric, and showed us a picture of the completed costume. As far as I could tell, a Scottish Highlander was a person who had way too much affection for plaid and ridiculous hats. The bag I brought home to my mother this time had no chiffon, no sequins. Just a lot of red plaid cotton and a weird wire hat skeleton.

By the time this second recital rolled around, my sister Marbeth had decamped to marriage and motherhood in North Carolina, and her sewing friend had gone on a vacation to New York, never to return. This time, my mother had to bring the Bag Containing Future Scottish Highlander to a professional tailor and pay to have my costume created. The tailor did a wonderful job–all I needed were some bagpipes to complete the look–but as it turned out, I never got to wear it. My chance to be a Scottish Highlander was thwarted by the country of Japan.

Every year without fail, my parents attended my father’s “Bail-Out Party.” My father was a Navigator during World War II, and on one fateful day, the entire crew had to bail out of their B-29, landing in the Sea of Japan. On the Saturday night closest to the anniversary of that jump, the crew reunited to reminisce a little and drink a great deal. The location changed from year to year but was always in the city most equally distant from all who were attending. The party took place in West Virginia one year, and another year in Michigan, but most of the time, it was somewhere in Ohio. My parents couldn’t leave my sister Susan and I home alone for an entire weekend, and they didn’t trust my brothers to keep a close enough eye on us, so we always rode along. Susan and I loved the Bail-Out Party, because for us it meant sleeping in a Holiday Inn and using the pool as much as we wanted, having access to unlimited ice, watching television and eating all by ourselves in the hotel dining room. That year, the date of the Bail-Out Party conflicted with my recital, and so I was at the Holiday Inn in Toledo, Ohio when my fellow Highlanders took the stage.

I was kind of looking forward to my third year of ballet, and hoped that my third recital would feature more chiffon and less plaid. One day just before the end of the year, however, a forbidding structure showed up in the gym. Our teacher cheerily informed us that we would start using it that very day,  in preparation for the following year, when it would become a regular part of our class. This ominous contraption resembled some sort of medieval torture device, but our teacher announced it as “Parallel Bars!” Apparently, we were expected to grab hold of these bars and do physically terrifying things on them involving swinging our bodies around like sacks of potatoes, doing ‘the splits’ which to me was even worse in reality than it sounded, and even—yes—doing handstands on this four-inches-across bar that was five feet off the ground. I was still trying to cajole myself into an “It’s not so bad” frame of mind about the parallel bars when I came into the gym the very next week to find yet another addition to class—this one was called “the Horse,” no doubt because it did resemble a horse if horses were headless, made of foam rubber and leather and had two handles on their torsos. Our teacher blithely told us that we would be jumping over this hulking thing with handles, and perhaps at some point even jumping onto it HANDS FIRST and then leaping off.


It was pretty clear that dance was not going to be my metier.

My dance career was over. Most of the time, I more or less did what I was told and went along with whatever current Enriching Activity my mother had launched me on, but there was no way I was jumping on and off bars and faux mammals. Even my mother must have seen the folly of continuing in the direction of ballet, because she did not insist that I enroll for the following year. She had a better idea. I was a shy child, and she worried about my lack of both friends and social graces. I was an excellent reader, and my mother had noticed my enthusiasm for performance.  I froze like a terrorized bunny in one-on-one social situations, but I was happy on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Thus it was that the following year, my mother enrolled me in drama class. (For that story, click here.)

In fact, for all of the stories of my various failures to become the Fully Rounded Person my mother dreamed of, click here and here and here and here and here).



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