“Is your daughter in ballet?” a well-meaning parent always seems to ask.
I get it: dance is for girls, right? Pretty pink tutus and satin bows are what come to mind when someone mentions ballet.
“Actually, I’m the dancer,” is my readied reply.
For years now, I’ve been taking ballet at Duck River Dance with a bunch of dancers a lot better than me. The women in my class are graceful and hardworking. They, for the most part, have all been promoted to the much coveted designation en pointe. And to person, all seem to be veterans of the theater stage.
Me, not so much.
Next weekend’s production of DRD’s “Nutcracker Ballet” will be my third.
My first “Nutcracker” in 2016 was my initiation to dancing for an audience. I performed the Russian Dance in the Land of Sweets with fellow latecomer Bart Stewart. We leaped on the stage like it was icy water, wanting to make it through 20-something leaps, two pirouettes and a couple of toe touch-leaps before the butterflies could catch up. I don’t think I ever once looked at the audience.
My second “Nutcracker” in 2017 was the most challenging I’ve dance to date and the most special. As the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier, I danced the grand pas de deux with a wonderful dancer, Carrie Barton. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in all ballet.
To fail would be almost as bad as dropping a partner. No pressure.
I started tech week (the rehearsal nights leading to opening) with a horrible cold.
In hindsight, the dance was amazing. At the time though, I was so nervous, I botched all the dress rehearsals. Finally, on opening night, we pulled it together, and it was great, maybe not perfect, but great.
There is this moment in the wings when your music is about to start. You’re waiting, ready and scared to death. That whole thing about forgetting the dance, it’s true.
Your heart is pounding in your ears. What-ifs poisoning your confidence, you force your feet to move into the glare of the lights as the music starts.
And then you’re on the stage. It’d be cool to say that then everything clicks and you just dance.
The secret is to make the stage your circle of interaction. The audience is outside that circle. And never, ever imagine them watching you. Sometimes it works. And sometimes you get inside your head and turn left when everybody else is moving right.
But other times, you get it right. It’s not always about form or getting perfect the choreography. It’s when you’ve shared in the dance a glimpse of that part of yourself that keeps you going when you’re tired and sore and the teacher says one more time, six more times.
Beginning dance later in life like many in my class comes with a lot of positives —we have dedication and purpose, but there’re a lot of creaky joints that go along with it.
I was the kid in gym class who could never quite reach his toes. Flexibility is always a challenge, as is moving in proper form. I watch the girls in class who look like they were born to dance and try not to get discouraged.
I think back to an interview I did years ago with Nashville Ballet principal dancer Mollie Sansone, who confided to me her struggles with lack of turnout (if only I had half her turnout). She said that she focuses instead her strengths.
So while my heels may never touch their opposing toes in fifth position, I have powerful leaps, and a pretty decent arabesque lift, even if I can’t do a decedent pas de bourrée.
We all have a bad side or can’t turn this way as well as the other.
Dance, Sansone said, is about connecting with your audience. And that’s an advantage we have as grownups. Adult dancers have larger range of emotional experiences to draw from. Perhaps that’s where studios that only serve little dancers suffer.
“The Nutcracker Ballet” will run five shows Dec. 5-8 at the Manchester Arts Center. Purchase tickets at Duck River Dance or reserve them at www.duckriverdance.com.
And yes, there will be pink tutus and satin bows.