30×30: Lesson 1: Learning to fall
Find an introduction on this series here.
I took ballet lessons from the age of 7 to the age 18 — my first exposure to sports, grace, and imagination beyond books. I adored the tulle, the leaps, the roles, but I was haunted by my inability to execute steps without hesitating. I wondered before beginning a pirouette if I’d be able to finish it — feet in fifth position, facing the mirror, looking as graceful as someene who had barely tried (I couldn’t, although what dancer can anyway?). When my arms looked limp and weak, I stiffened them like molded tree branches, controlling every finger muscle, and added a smile to try to indicate that I was just fine. But in reality, each time I attempted ballet’s soft-bladed perfection, the girl in the mirror looked worse: halting, nervous, and wrong.
In 2001, I was cast as Aurora, the title role from Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that involved princesses and solos and had been my dream. I nervously learned the Rose Adagio, partnered with a cute boy, and was fitted into my studio’s most beautiful tutu. But the dance I could not complete was the one in which Aurora was to prick her finger, move into a series of dizzying turns, rise up into an arabesque, and crumple, poisoned, on the floor.
Each rehearsal was the same: I mimed the deadly prick, moved more rapidly with the heightening music, spun with my illness, and stopped at the arabesque. “Here I fall,” I would say to Laural Anspach, my instructor, and she’d nod.
“Okay, let’s run this again.”
The second and third times, I invented questions for Laurel before the arabesque: Was I spotting okay? Did I bourée too far to the left?
Finally, as she began playing the music for the fourth time, I shook my head and lifted my hands. “Laurel,” I said. “How do you fall?”
She looked me in the eyes. “You just fall.”
What I did not realize at this moment as the music lifted was that falling meant losing control. That careful poise that I had been trying so hard to craft, that grace, all that which I thought was beauty — none of that was what made the dancer — or the woman. One cannot control a fall into gravity; you simply have to let go, face the wind, and trust the ground beneath you.
I was terrified. The music heightened, dizzied, and I spun. But this time when I reached the arabesque, I raised up on one toe, held for a brief second, and tumbled into oblivion — for the first time, perhaps, being free.