Confessions From a Dance Teacher: Class Is More Than Just a Place to Practice Dance


Since July is pretty much considered summer-intensive season all over the country, it would seem a little odd, maybe even a little disloyal, to write about something other than dance this month.

And not only because I dance. Dance studios provide something everyone wants: confidence. Underneath all the classes, costumes, and rehearsals, that's what a studio is, basically. A place to practice confidence.

Though for some of us, it's less of a place and more of a temple.

And I thought I knew what I wanted to say about dance before I sat down, it was only once I began that I could see who, and not what, lies at the heart of my story: Lisa.

Lisa always did know how to get me talking.

I remember the day Lisa found her way to my beginning adult class. After it was over, she looked at me and said, "You don't recognize me do you?"

I looked at her more closely, studied her eyes, and there she was: the Lisa I knew in college! I knew no one at our private girls' college in Boston then and Lisa felt like a safety net, a way to identify with the school and the city and with myself within both. But time passed and we lost track of each other. Neither of us bailed, nothing like that. But we, being young, accepted the truth of friendship for what it was, impermanent. We never told each other we were sorry, we just moved on. Some of us to Facebook comings and goings. Some of us privately. All of us eager to get to our futures pounding at the door.

"I figure I can talk about losing weight all I want, but maybe it's time to actually do something about it," Lisa said. "But I was afraid to come to your class. Because, well, look at me."

"You just need to get back in shape, it won't take long," I said.

"I don't know," she rolled her eyes. "You have the quintessential dancer body and poise. I hate you."

That's when I knew we'd be friends again.

My next thought was how no one had ever called me a quintessential anything before. And that I must be doing a pretty good job at hiding all of my quintessential imperfections and insecurities.

I did sneak a sidelong glance of her body, and something I hadn't seen in class came into focus, a dancer's body, rusty, yes, but visible beneath the Lycra. I imagined her concentration narrowing before executing, absolutely killing, a pirouette. I wanted to say as much. But I decided to wait a few classes, see if she stuck it out.

Wait! My insides protested. Why hold back? My mother was skimpy with compliments. If someone gave me one she'd say something like, "that's going to swell her head to the size of a watermelon."

But I know how one sincere compliment can do wonders for a student's self-confidence.

Lisa looked down at her legs and frowned. "I don't think wearing black hides the pounds as much as people think."

"Do you mind if I ask you something? Did you keep dancing after college?"

"How can you tell? I mean, by the looks of me now."

"I can see it, it's there."

She scooted in a little closer, "I took ballet for nine years before I became a veterinarian."

I pictured her in her a white scrubs top and matching pants, hair pulled back in a ponytail, stethoscope around her neck, a few pounds plumper than she liked in her thirties and then, over time, the pounds adding up because, after a ten hour work day, there is no time left to take class. I instantly feel sympathetic. I know that struggle. I remember those months, then years, of writing under media deadlines, as one of those stages of my life when I was trying to accomplish so much. I'd arrive at the studio dog-tired after nearly talking myself out of class. And I remembered how I had once fallen asleep in the dressing room.

The other students had gathered near me to watch. "Is she asleep?" said the one closest beside me. And I realized, yes, yes I am asleep! And it wasn't long after that that I quit writing journalism. I thought there must be something wrong with me if I wanted out of my mental space so badly I had to fall asleep to find peace, like a soldier in the trenches of war, and how my poet friend said, "well, of course, you want out of that world, you're an artist." And how, after that, I began to know and trust myself in a way I hadn't before. I learned about the need to take good care of my inner life. But I can honestly say now that it could have gone the other way. The exhausted side might have won out if my mantra hadn't been "energy begets energy." The first time I heard the saying was from my old friend Marcelle. She was talking herself into going for a bike ride after a long day of single-parenting and working as a masseuse. After that, I added on to the saying: "Energy begets energy, Mary Lou, it's all up to you."

"I knew it!" I said.

"But I've gained, like, a hundred pounds since then. It's going to be an upward battle," said Lisa.

"It's a battle you can win."

She stood up, stretched her arms over her head, and I noticed that she'd appeared taller to me than she really was. Maybe because she is one of those people who always make you feel like only your best, most sincere, self will do.

I thought how her work had become helping animals and mine helping people to dance, and how we both must have learned at a young age how much easier getting through life would be if we tried to make things better for others along the way.

She didn't say anything for a moment. I didn't either.

But we were both clearly, forwardly, openly there.

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