Strict teacher, demanding summer camp lead dancer to new understanding

IMG_6266It was the Wednesday of my third week, marking the official halfway of my stay at my ballet’s five-week summer intensive. I was losing hope, feeling overlooked and worthless compared to all of the D and E levels of my friends from my studio when I was a mere C2. Almost 16 years old with the classical ballet training of an eight-year old. It’s embarrassing, really. It also doesn’t help being born lacking the perfect ballerina body. The natural hyperextended knees, beautiful, articulate feet and ankles, and the skinniness. Oh, the skinniness. That 100-pound goal I will never be able to, or want to achieve.

Muscles aching and bones popping, I was entering my second class of the day. It was located in a rusty, old studio with cracked mirrors and uneven floors in the basement of Dickinson College’s student union building. We were stretching before class with our legs on the metal barre that your hands slip on because of the sweat. My friend asks me, “Who’s our teacher today?” I reply with a shrug and continue stretching. It had been a rough day; week really. I was surrounded by the surprisingly bright light of the decaying studio that gave me a migraine every day at noon. One of the lights in my peripheral was flashing on and off. I felt as if all motivation had been drained from my body, staring at me from afar like a passing shadow.

The door slams open, shaking the tiny studio. A tall, slender woman struts in. “Hello class,” she says sternly in a slight French accent, which corresponds with the French twist in her hair.

The entire class jumps into a perfectly turned out first position, each student attempting to lay a good impression on this unknown, strict instructor. I feel all of my muscles begin to squeeze at once, the alertness in my body. I try to stop myself from nervously adjusting my hair; a habit I’ve been trying to get rid of for too long. There’s an obnoxious oversized fan thanks to the nonexistent air conditioning in the scorching July weather. But even with the noisy fan, I can sense silence and fear in the studio.

The teacher walks around on the insanely squeaky floors, examining each and every one of us with a disapproving glare. She immediately gives a plié combination which we all complete to the best of our abilities. After we finish, she stops the music and walks to the center of the studio. We’re scattered at different barres all around the room but somehow she’s judging every one of us all at once. Then she opens her mouth to speak which feels like I’m being slapped in the face.

IMG_7486“Now listen to me, class. That plié combination you just did? Yes, that one. You were probably thinking to yourself, ‘This is a piece of cake!’ Well guess what? You did it completely wrong. Now I’m not here to teach a ballet class and I’m not here to be mean. I’m here to tell you the reality of ballet. You want to be a dancer? Okay, well you can’t be fat. You have to have the body for it or you simply will never be a dancer. How old are you all? 16? Sure, that sounds about right. Do you realize you all have only two years to make it into a company? At this level, you won’t bet anywhere in a career of dance. And don’t even think about college. You’d be wasting four of your prime years of being a professional dancer. To be a dancer you must come to class prepared and looking professional. Again, I’m not being mean, it’s the reality of ballet. You! Right there, come up here.”

She points at my friend Emma who walks up slowly, you could feel how frightened she was in each step that she took. A fear in Emma I’ve never seen before. “Now Emma here is showing how to look professional for a ballet class. Her hair is in a nice neat bun, her leotard is simple and black, her tights aren’t ripped and her shoes are clean. Perfect. Thank you Emma, everyone clap for Emma,” The class slowly begins to nervously applaud.

The yelling and criticizing went on for a while. So many questions raced my mind. Where did she come from? Where does she teach? Is this a sign that I’ll never make it as a professional? I’m not good enough, am I? What are my friends thinking of her? My thoughts were interrupted with her voice once again.

“Now I know I’ve been hard on you, but believe it or not I want to help you.” She used me to demonstrate to the class. First she had me do a normal plié combination. I was trying not to express the shaking I was feeling inside of me. I felt the need to prove to her that I was good enough.

IMG_3734After my plié combination she had me do a popliteal stretch on the barre. I bent my knee and grabbed my foot, which sent a surprising pain through my inner thigh and back, but boy did I hold it for the two minutes she told me to. After it she made me do a plié once again, which was so easy after the stretch that I almost fell over. It was amazing how one simple stretch made me so much more flexible.

Even though she was tough, every dancer needs an experience like this in his or her life. The toughness of a teacher pushes us to work harder to get to the goal we need to achieve. A real dancer doesn’t want to dance but physically needs to dance; we just need a little motivation sometimes. This teacher’s toughness was scary at first, but it ended up teaching me a surprising but important lesson: I’m not going to be a professional dancer. And that’s okay. She taught me that even if I’m not going to be a professional, I still want to work hard and that doesn’t alter my love for dance in any way. The strictness of the teacher and ballet in general make up an important part of ballet, and somehow I just love it.

By Genna Contino, contributor