Sunday, March 6, 2011

The dying swan


Even at a very young age I never let anyone else make up my own mind. So with very little encouragement from the outside world, early on, I decided I was pretty darned remarkable at – well, just about everything.

Take ballet.

You might think a skinny six year old with a giant Biafran belly would have qualms about the lines of her arabesque. Think again. I apparently had no body image issues whatsoever, and have the leotard pictures to prove it.




“Hold in your stomach, for Pete’s sake,” my mother would say. And that was the first piece in a long list of motherly advice I chose to ignore.

My future as a dancer faced greater obstacles than an impressive midsection. For openers, there never existed a glass of milk I couldn’t spill or a dish I couldn’t break. In other words, there was the little matter of grace.

But what my ballet lacked in finesse, it made up for in joie de vivre -- enthusiastic grand-plies throughout the house that left a trail of ceramic wreckage in their wake.

Even this challenge seemed surmountable. Didn’t seem like a challenge at all, really. Nothing is a challenge if you don’t know it’s there.




My ballet teacher was 150 years old, with scraped back black hair. Her face was white, her eyes were dark, and her mouth was red. She too had a thing about leotards, though modestly wore a diaphanous skirt over hers. Sometimes she’d strap on her pink satin toe shoes to demonstrate an Attitude en Pointe for a second or two, until gravity called her back to earth.

Her name wasn’t Madame Odlfdkfjski; it was Madame Thompson. Betty Thompson had a ballet studio in the basement of her house, adjacent to the laundry room.

And the reason she figures in this story is that my ballet survived every possible obstacle except her death. One week my mom drove us to Madame Thompson’s house, and no one opened the door. Her VW, though, was parked in front of the house and had a car cover on. We drove to class the following week, and the VW was still parked by the side of the road, but now the cover had a layer of snow and leaves.




Anyway, my guess is that no Natasha in Seattle could match Betty’s prices, so that was the end of my ballet career. Next stop was gymnastics, as someone’s older daughter offered classes in their basement. And this time I was good. Because in gymnastics your hands and legs can’t wave about in space, following their own unforeseen and capricious destiny. Your mind can't stand idly by; everything has to work together or you’re a dead duck.

46 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I don't recall breaking anything but I happily recall my seven or eight year old self filling our living room with far flung grand-plies and pirouettes with hands and arms held aloft with the utmost grace. Most especially, I remember the JOY of dancing!

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  3. Karin,

    The gymnast image fits. I guess there's more 'forceful muscularity' involved in it? In ballet the strength more subordinate to the style and interpretive imagination?

    (What do I know?)

    Hey. Those statuary photos are from local L.A. [ ]?

    Trulyfool

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  4. I find myself imagining the ballet teacher's life, and it makes me sadder than I should be, maybe, about her . . . anonymous? . . . death.

    Glad you found basement gymnastics. And took these photos.

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  5. You sent my memory directly back to the Helene School of Dance, upstairs above some storefront in DeKalb, Illinois. Somewhere I have photos: one of my acrobatics class (I was terrified to do a back bend but I loved the uniforms) and one of me leaping across the living room in a black leotard, convinced I was a gazelle.

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  6. Delightful story (except the demise of poor Madame Thompson). I too was transported back to my dancing days (lasting less than a year as I was tall and awkward). Luckily I found my athletic calling in the pool, although I had to give up the tutu for an ugly nylon Speedo.

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  7. I always wanted to take ballet, but evidently it cost more than a quarter per lesson, so no dice. And by the time I got to college, I was too old and clumsy. I proved that by letting someone step on one of my feet, and snap 2 bones in it. End of dancing.

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  8. Strength gives you the freedom to explore style. I'd forgo the broken bones, though.

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  9. Lyubov! To all the Madame Betty Thompsons and their pointe toe shoes.

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  10. I also took ballet from a Madame. This brings back memories.

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  11. So any ideas how Madame Thompson died? In arabesque?
    My parents opted for polka lessons for me. sigh... I'm jealous!

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  12. Which one of these adorable easter eggs is you?

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  13. Easter eggs? Well, I never. We're butterflies. (I'm in lilac, showing off my wings.)

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  14. Aw, you're an adorable butterfly. I never took dance lessons, unless you count square dancing, which was my high school's version of gym for girls. That an crab soccer!

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  15. Loved the story (and the pics). I was always into "other" sports instead, but I had a girl friend who told me that ballet was much harder to master than any sport I was involved in. After watching her a couple of times at her school, I agreed...

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  16. Yes...sisters in ballet humiliations!!! Aside from my being likened to both the dancing Ostrich's and Hippos in Fantasia...my worst experience in ballet lessons was when Ballet Petite closed for awhile and my mother decided to teach us in our family room...(she had been a dancer as a young woman...even danced in the Hollywood Bowl once!)...I think we had one lesson...none of us wanted to continue!!!

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  17. You brought the sculpture to life with those different perspectives.

    Such lovely lilac wings. You were a cute kid with a lot of character and chutzpah, Hiker. You were funny then too, weren't you?

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  18. Stomach? What stomach? You know what they used to call, Ms. Margaret Pumpelly Finnegan: Margaret Plump Belly. Plump belly! Call me when you can top that.

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  19. What rhymes with Petrea Burchard? Diarrhea Birdturd.

    Expect my call, Ms. Belly.

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  20. Ooooh, don't you think for one moment, Birdturd and Plumpbelly, that I don't know what you're doing. You're pointing out who has the worst last name in the world. Telemarketers, it's not Bug, or Buggy, or even Bouzhay. It's Boo-gay. And now I have a headache and need a cold compress.

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  21. Murman...college nicknames...birdman and barfman...
    I preferred my nickname while growing up...Murmaid!!

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  22. My mother never let me take dance. I'm still scarred.
    V

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  23. I could tell that you were butterflies and not Easter eggs, despite my initial wrong call of "pastel progeny of the Andorians from Star Trek" (and I say that fondly, cuz I've always had a soft spot for Andorians).

    Btw, the absolute best rendition of the dying swan I ever saw was by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. So fab, it had me doubled over in tears of laughter. Those are some sassy hombres en tutus.

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  24. I passed on the opportunity to take ballet as a child, but was forced to go to Cotillion while in the 6th grade. Mrs. Gallotz was the primary dance instructor. I hated it and have been scarred for life ever since.

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  25. Paula, I'm sure you're a dancer to this day.

    Trulyfool, I think it's more a matter of space versus time.
    Dancing is space, gymnastics is precise timing. Both take stength.

    Banjo/Bren, I feel the opposite. I think it's rather lovely that Madame Thompson found a place to live out her fantasies.

    Petrea, I've seen you stand in ballet positions. Yes, I have.

    Katie, I don't think I ever actually made it to the tutu level. But did you medal in swimming?

    Marjie, I'll bet your kids, though, have had every opportunity.

    Bandit, yes and yes.

    Patrizzi/Susan, I was just a cute little duck.

    Bayside -- I want photos.

    Jean, take care of the knee.

    Pat, I agree. From the sidelines.

    Chieftess, this post was your fault. But I want to hear more about your mom.

    Virg, you surprise me. I thought all southern belles had dance classes.

    Cammisonia, What can't we find on youtube -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyqQ-VNnEIQ

    DB, which did you hate more -- the waltz or the cha-cha?

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  26. Fun video! I think I saw an all-male Swan Lake at the Dorothy Chandler some years back. Must have been those guys.

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  27. I also took cotillion from Mrs. Gollotz...while the etiquette training was annoying...I loved the dancing...much to DB's chagrin!!!

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  28. Petrea: Must have been Le Ballet Trockadero.

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  29. Apologies for violating my own pet peeve: making a comment without reading all previous comments.

    WV: fentsh. I have a fentsh for ballet slippers.

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  30. add an e

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_X8AaVLoKk

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  31. My mistake. I could have said martian but the rounded bellies and candy colors had me thinking eggs.

    Who was your seamstress? Lots of work putting holes in the headpiece (I think they were put there to pull pig tails through) You rebel you! forgoing the holes.

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  32. btw: we don't have large basements in Los Angeles. We do have storefronts; and Mademoiselle Patsy Metzger. Mary's niece approves.

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  33. my mother tried once, to get me into ballet. once. couldn't find toe shoes in my size, nevermind trying to get me into a tutu.

    but, like db & chieftess, I too was subjected to Mr & Mrs Gollatz and those damn castinettes. this is where I learned to dance...by LEADING backwards, in chunky shoes and frilly dresses. somehow, I think my mother "won" this one..no tutu, but dancing, frills and manners would be learned!

    though, along this time I was also tagged in the Star News as "Truck", which, could be spun into something positive as an all star catcher, made any chance of getting a date almost nil, even at the all-girl Westridge...


    wv: dingal...some of us followed the more dingal method of ballet, bouncing hither and yon, despite the instructor's best effort of teaching basic principles of dance

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  34. OMG!! LOL!!! and whatever other cute blog acronyms there are!!! Trish...you went to cotillion with Mrs. Gollotz too???!!! How funny is that!!! I'd forgotten about the castinets...probably because my mom had castinets and I've blocked them out of my memory banks!!!

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  35. Nice ballerinas ... or gymnasts.

    Cute swim cap too.

    D.

    wv: adoties

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  36. @Chieftess...I still have nightmares about those castinettes....feh!

    @AH--I love the headdresses...uhm, as we say in the software industry...it's a feature not a bug? ;-)

    wv: piled...really?

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  37. Boo-Gay?
    Really?

    That reminds me. Did you hear the one one about Target: Tar-Jay!?

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  38. Hey, I'm going to adopt that, Trish. I'm a feature, not a Bug.

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  39. PA...lol! from the reports, it's tar-jay folks who are boo-gay folks.

    AH...ask any software engineer over 40 about "it's a feature, not a bug". you're not buggy, but boo-gay? didn't think you were so right winged! then again, with that outfit, it isn't your wings I'd be entertained with ;-)

    wv: doweezz...toe-shoes gave me doweezz, especially since they were 2 sizes too small for my gargantuan feet!

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  40. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN1YpMtPIpE

    D.

    wv: thariphe

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  41. My mom thought I would be to klutzy for ballet, so I ended up in jazz dance classes instead. Not sure why she thought I would be better at that style of dancing... but as it turns out I wasn't. The recital outfits were sequined and snazzy though!

    Thanks for taking me back. :)

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  42. My 3 year old is begging for ballet lessons and although I think she'd do better at other things, i bought a pink leotard for her and she begins next Monday.

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  43. You'll have fun watching, Bec, though expect ceramic casualties.

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