In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I cried during my first ballet class, and I didn’t know why.
But then, I didn’t know why I was there either — not really. I knew it was a good idea to get some exercise. At sixty-two, and heavier than I had ever been in a lifetime of trying to cajole or bully my body into a more pleasing shape, I felt guilty about not taking better care of myself. At the same time, I felt guilty for caring how I looked. I had told myself it wouldn’t hurt to try ballet, that it would be stupid not to try it when a brand-new studio had opened on my corner (what were the odds?) in the city I’d lived in so reluctantly for the past three decades.
I continued to live in Columbus, Ohio — one of the least interesting places in the world, I insisted — because that was where my job was. And I loved being a college professor — or I had loved it. I had just returned from a sabbatical that had jolted me awake to the many ways the job had ceased to be a source of fulfillment. I still enjoyed being in the classroom with my students and mentoring them, but this had become a smaller and smaller part of what I was paid to do. And it was clear that things were only going to get worse. I was dreading going back to work, which was only weeks away. But if not for my job, what would keep me tethered?
The dance studio had opened in the former site of a health-food co-op, a beloved neighborhood institution that had been there since my daughter’s childhood. Even I had liked it, though I’d thought the general mourning when it closed was a bit much. Having lived here since 1989, I’d been around long enough to remember all the other tenants of that space: an Asian grocery store, a Christian Science reading room, a camera shop. What I mean to say is: it didn’t seem like a tragedy to me that the co-op had been replaced by the Flux + Flow Dance and Movement Center.
I was just glad it wasn’t a coffee shop. Coffee shops — and microbreweries — had been springing up everywhere. Soon, I thought, every last resident of this dull city would have their own special place to have a beer or a latte. Once inhabited by the blue-collar middle class, my neighborhood had recently become charming and desirable to everyone. I suppose this might have made me happy once, but nothing was making me happy just then.
I wasn’t happy when I walked the 245 steps from my door to the new dance studio — the same 245 steps that my daughter, Grace, had walked many times as a small girl. For years the corner co-op was the only place she was allowed to go all by herself, so she would beg me to send her to pick up a quart of milk or a loaf of bread. Now I was unhappy because I missed my daughter. I’d spent the final month of my sabbatical in New York City, where I’m from and where she had moved two years earlier, after graduating from college. I was glad, naturally, that she was launched, living her own life surrounded by friends in the city she’d been aimed at like a missile practically since birth. She was newly in love, too, and the theater company she’d founded had just made a beautiful, weird, exciting show, which I had gone to see four times. But I couldn’t get used to not being a daily sort of mother. Now that she was out of school, I didn’t even have the illusion that she considered our house in Columbus home anymore. “She has a new permanent address,” I would tell friends, laughing as if it were a joke, as if I didn’t find it unbearably sad.
The family dog had been my bulwark during those Grace-has-left-home years. Though I had adopted Molly as a puppy for Grace, she was my dog, really. Almost exactly a year before I took that first ballet class, Molly had died, at fourteen, after a brutal four months in which I’d done everything I could to keep her comfortable and safe and feeling loved. I’d cooked scrambled eggs with cream, or ground beef and white rice — the only things she would eat — and fed her by hand. When Molly, who had slept with my husband, Glen, and me all her life, couldn’t make it up the stairs anymore, I moved downstairs to the living room. “I don’t want her to be alone,” I told him. I took the twin-size futon I kept rolled up in my study and unrolled it on the floor next to the couch, where Molly liked to sleep now. Every night I helped her onto it and then lay down beside her on the futon. I watched her carefully, sure I’d know exactly when it was time to let her go. And I did.
I remember the kind young veterinarian who sat with Molly and me on the floor at the university vet hospital. It was five in the morning; everything was quiet. And the vet asked me to tell her about the day we’d brought Molly the puppy home.
When I entered the dance studio for the first time, I was still very sad about Molly.
I was lonely. I was grieving.
But when I walked those 245 steps, I wasn’t thinking about Molly, or about Grace, or about the city of Columbus, or about my job, or about any of the other sad things that had happened over the previous few years, including the death of my father and the heartbreaking end of a long, important friendship. I was just feeling low, at loose ends, at a loss. If you’d asked me what was wrong with me, I’m not sure I could have told you.
I didn’t even know what to wear. I thought I had a pair of ballet shoes — I’d briefly tried a class called “Ballet for Every Body” several years earlier — but I couldn’t find them. And I would have felt foolish wearing them anyway, like an imposter. Leotards were out, too. (Did I even have a leotard? Maybe. I don’t often throw things away.) I settled on the cut-off sweatpants I wore around the house and a sports bra and a T-shirt I’d cut the collar and sleeves off of, Flashdance-style, in the 1980s. And running shoes I had never once run in. They would come off once the class began, wouldn’t they?
I was disoriented when I walked into the dance studio’s anteroom. The building had been so thoroughly renovated, I could barely remember where everything had been during the seventeen years the co-op had occupied it. The co-op had been dark, crowded, and jumbled. The studio was so white, so bright, so spare. I took off my running shoes and added them to a small pile under a shelf. I felt uncustomarily shy as a beautiful young man introduced himself and welcomed me, apologizing that there would be so few students — only three of us! He pointed out that they had just opened and were still “figuring things out.” It did not seem promising.
The other two students were a girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen and a woman perhaps a few years younger than I was — an occupational therapist, she told me. Filippo, the teacher, put on some pop music and said, “Let’s start by facing the barre, feet in parallel position.” And we began our first pliés, Filippo talking all the while about what our bodies were doing, what we might consider thinking about, how we might imagine the wall in front of us as a window we were gazing out of.
He was charming and seemed pleased to be there, in a room with three unpromising beginner students. He was extraordinarily patient, taking us through the positions of the feet and the arms as we made our way through our first barre routine together. I was relieved that neither of the others seemed to know any more than I did, or to be any more adept at the moves Filippo described. He offered each of us gentle, specific instructions.
I’m not sure exactly when I began to cry, but it couldn’t have been much more than a few minutes into the class. Filippo didn’t say anything. (At the time I thought maybe he didn’t notice, but I know better now — I’m certain he did.) It was hard, what I was trying to do, and nothing like what I had expected. What had I expected? Not for it to be this difficult, for sure. But I wasn’t crying because it was difficult. I was crying because it was beautiful. Because I loved it so much. Because I felt, against all expectation, a glimmer of how I’d felt when I’d held Grace for the first time: a sense of Oh, how I’ve missed you! Where on earth have you been? I’ve been waiting for you all my life!
I don’t know why I felt this way about extending my right foot, which I was simultaneously turning out and pointing, while at the same time concentrating on the muscles of my left leg — the “standing leg,” Filippo called it. I thought, It’s nice that I have a leg to stand on, and this made me laugh. For no good reason Filippo laughed, too, as if he’d heard what I was thinking. As I recall, there was a lot of laughter that day in the studio. Or maybe I’m mixing it up with all the other hours I’ve spent in that room since then, all the other laughter.
Before I left the studio that first day, I signed up for an unlimited one-month pass; I picked up a printed copy of the class schedule and discovered that, two days hence, there was an introductory ballet class. I’d stumbled into a beginner’s class, which presumed some knowledge (though given the composition of the class, that presumption had gone quickly out the window). And so, a couple of days later, I was back. This time I felt weirdly confident. Walking into the studio and greeting Filippo was like coming home.
There were twelve of us in class that day, and Filippo treated us as if we were his children — although we were all adults this time, not a teenager in sight. As we stood facing the barre and pliéd, he talked us through the muscles we were engaging, coaxing us through each slow movement. It felt like the most important task I’d ever undertaken: I had never concentrated this hard on doing something with my body before. And when we rose up on our toes, I thought hard about the way my muscles (I had muscles?) were wrapping around my leg bones, about the “attraction” of my heels toward each other and at the same time toward the wall I was facing — which wasn’t a wall, I was reminded, but an imaginary window I was to gaze out of. My eyes filled again. Filippo came by and murmured, “Think of the little light in your chest,” and somehow I understood him. I don’t know how. I let the light shine.
I took a class on Saturday, too, and then again on Sunday, and on Monday. “When it’s hard,” Filippo said, “we tend to push, but we actually need to pull back and let it flow. Keep the quality and the connection instead of using force.” He said, “You are not a statue. Let your arms take a breath.” When he offered a student some advice that sounded impossible, she said, “I just can’t believe that’s true,” and Filippo said, “The moment you believe it is the moment it will happen.”
I took two classes back-to-back the following Wednesday, one with Filippo and one with his husband, Russell, the co-owner of the studio. Russell was more down-to-earth, less airy and prone to metaphor, but also smart, funny, and just as charming, even without an Italian accent. Russell suggested that when we “presented” a foot, it should be held as if a cup of tea had been set on the inner side of it. He demonstrated the fondu: “As if you’re serving a cup of tea to a small boy.” (This is what passes for “down-to-earth” in ballet.)
I took a “ballet fitness” class with Filippo, which mostly meant ballet on the floor. Strangely it was even harder than ballet standing up. I tried Filippo’s contemporary dance class, about which I can remember only that at some point he had all of us pause to hug one another hello, and instead of this feeling idiotic — as I would have sworn it would — it was perfectly lovely. I took Russell’s “dance karaoke” class, for which he choreographed a movement for every word of a pop song, and I thought my brain would explode: So many movements to memorize! How would I ever remember any of it?
But something was beginning to happen. Even when I couldn’t remember a pattern at the barre or the rules for some specific port de bras (carriage of the arms), I was sometimes able to do it anyway. It was as if my body knew before my mind did. And, just for a moment, I felt my body and my mind working as one, communicating and cooperating with each other. This was something I had never experienced before. During the brief periods of my life when I’d taken up swimming or aerobics or yoga, I had always turned off my mind in order to attend to my body. And I’d always wanted the activity to be fun — otherwise how would I get through it? — but usually it wasn’t.
From the beginning it was the work of dance that appealed to me. As a writer and a college professor I was accustomed to mental work. In ballet I found an extraordinary twist: I was living that mental work in my body.
At the end of every ballet class I was exhausted physically from attempting all the balances or swooping forward and around in the still-unfamiliar movement of a rond de jambe. (And what were my arms supposed to be doing while my leg was sweeping through a circle?) But I was also mentally exhausted from thinking, counting, remembering everything I had just done. When I got discouraged (and, oh, I got discouraged; when dancing “from the corner,” I would trip over my own feet and sometimes fall), Filippo called out encouragement to me. “You’re getting better!” he would tell me after class, and when I didn’t believe him, he would go on to tell me one or two specific things I’d executed that day that I hadn’t been able to manage just the day before.
And so I kept going back, even though I was sore all the time. I iced my calves and ankles. I took baths in Epsom salts. The soreness should have dampened my spirits, but instead it made me smile. Being sore meant something. I thought about the pain of labor, all those years ago, and how I’d gotten through it only by reminding myself, in an increasingly hysterical mantra, that this wasn’t “normal” pain; it was pain with a purpose, pain that was getting me something I wanted badly. There was a reward at the end of it, and it would be worth it. And it has been, of course.
I took Russell’s yoga class. I took his contemporary class. And I kept coming back for ballet, day after day.
I wasn’t the only one. The other regulars and I traded good-natured complaints about our aching feet and brains. I’d bought ballet shoes by then, but I didn’t like them. We inspected one another’s shoes and gave advice as if we knew what we were talking about. We promised ourselves that if we did more ballet, our ankles would grow stronger and stop hurting. (We were right about that, too — a lucky guess.)
I had to take a break from dancing in mid-August for a trip to see my in-laws in Georgia. I had never been thrilled to make this trip in the past, but this time I looked forward to it. Glen and I bought Grace and her boyfriend, Nathan, a pair of plane tickets so they could meet us there, and Grace showed Nathan the place that had so delighted her in childhood: the house her grandfather had built himself, the pine woods around it.
One day we went fishing. Well, I sat on the grass and read Tessa Hadley’s short stories while the fishing went on. I kept thinking about ballet. I kept thinking about how it felt to lift my arms into second position and rotate them. I put my book on the grass and did it, right there. How satisfying it was, this new feeling in my body. I was surprised by how eager I was to get back home, even though my daughter wouldn’t be there, even though the dog was gone. I couldn’t wait to get back to ballet. I was infatuated, like when I was young and had a crush that seemed to brush everything else out of the way, and I thought about the object of my affection day and night.
Did I think of ballet as a cure for what had been ailing me? I don’t think so. I knew I was ailing, but it didn’t occur to me that dance was helping me deal with that. I’d spent a lot of time that year thinking about failed relationships and disappointments, losses and grief — the reckonings of late-middle and early-old age — but it did not occur to me that I had reached a pivot point. That I was in need of, poised for, a big turn in my life.
Since my father’s death in May 2014 I had been racing back and forth between Columbus and New York to look after my mother. For more than sixty years her full-time job had been taking care of my father, who had needed a lot of attention. I was afraid that being forced into “retirement” would be the death of her. I was worried about whether she would be able to live alone, whether she’d be able to live at all without my father. The two of them had been together since 1947, when she was fourteen and he was seventeen.
There had been so much to do in the last six months of his life, when he was in and out of the hospital, but mostly in. I’d flown back and forth every week: three days in Columbus, so that I could teach classes, and four days in New York. When I was in the city, I was usually in his hospital room. It had been years since my father and I had spent that kind of time together. He couldn’t sleep, so we sat up and talked all night, every night. Sometimes during the day we’d take catnaps between conversations. And when he was home, I would help him with the mountains of paperwork he felt he had to deal with, and I’d cook fattening meals for him, because he was so thin it was painful to look at him. He had struggled to lose weight his entire life. Now all the foods he had deprived himself of were being urged on him, but he had no appetite. As his weight dipped under 130 pounds, I made him junket and tapioca pudding. I baked bread. I even made him the graham-cracker icebox treat he had told me about one night in the hospital — something his mother, who hadn’t been much of a cook (or a mother), had made for him in childhood.
He kept losing weight.
I was alone with him in the ICU when he died, having sent my mother home with my brother. She’d been there for eleven hours by then and needed sleep, though we knew he was near the end. He’d slipped out of consciousness the day before, just as we’d been making plans to bring him to a hospice in the Bronx. Only an hour before he stopped talking for good, he told me the hospice was around the corner from where he’d lived as a child.
At the moment of his death I was holding his hand and talking to him, talking and singing, telling him everything was going to be all right — and it was peaceful, easy. He took a breath, and then he did not take another. He was gone from his body, as if he’d shed it, as if in that instant it had become of no use to him, and so he’d slipped out of it — out of his skin and bones, flesh and blood — and left.
I had thought it would be hard to leave him after he died. I’d thought I would find it terrible to walk away and abandon him there in room 906 at Lenox Hill, where I’d spent so many hours. But it wasn’t hard at all. Even though he looked just as he had a moment before — even though he smelled the same, and his hand in mine was still warm, as was his cheek when I bent to kiss it — I felt no sentimental attachment to the body he had left behind. It was only a body. Now that he wasn’t in it, it had no meaning at all.
A year later I came to New York to check on my mother, as usual, and to celebrate my birthday with her and my daughter. We went out to dinner with my brother and my friend Hula, and there was a plate of cotton candy for dessert. I was feeling reasonably good when my not-quite-twenty-two-year-old daughter began to lecture me about my life. She reminded me that I still hadn’t taken the time to grieve properly. I had instead thrown myself even more ferociously into my job, not only teaching but also doing administrative work, and refusing to delegate. I was acting like my father, she was implying (or maybe I just imagined she was implying it). She begged me to take the year’s sabbatical that I was entitled to — my first in twenty years — to take care of myself.
“You say you can’t take a sabbatical,” she said, “that there’s no one to cover your classes, no one to run the creative writing program, no one to run all those other programs, no one to advise all those student groups, no one to pick up any of the slack. But haven’t you noticed that literally nobody else worries about this?” I started to say that nobody else does as much as I do, but she barreled ahead. Hadn’t everyone else in my program, she pointed out — hell, in the whole English department — taken their sabbaticals as soon as they were eligible? I told her I didn’t know about the whole department, but, when pressed, I had to admit I did know about my own little corner of it. It was true, I said. Everybody else had taken their sabbaticals.
She made me sign an oath. Seriously, she did.
And so, the following year, for the first time since my daughter was three years old, I took some time off from Ohio State. Glen and I went to London, where we rented a flat belonging to an old friend who, by excellent coincidence, was on sabbatical himself, spending the year in New York. I finished a draft of the novel I’d been working on for nine years. Glen, an artist, filled a stack of sketchbooks. I explored London, did my writing in the British Museum, and met with friends, including one I’d known for decades and hadn’t even realized how much I had missed. In short, I loved it. If Grace hadn’t been in the U.S., giving me the chance to someday be a grandmother, I might have moved to London. (This was pre-Brexit.) Anyway, I returned refreshed to a job that I realized I no longer loved. My once-best friend and I were not even on speaking terms. My father was dead, my daughter was an independent adult, and Molly, my dog, who’d helped me get through both Grace’s leaving home and my father’s death, was gone.
That autumn I focused on my classes and my advising duties, did my best not to freak out about what seemed to me the laissez-faire attitude of the new director of creative writing (appointed as soon as I’d asked for my sabbatical), tried not to give up writing in the face of the many rejections I’d received on the novel I had worked so hard on, considered and dismissed the thought of getting another dog (if my child died, would I just replace her?) — and I danced.
It didn’t always go smoothly. I continued to forget combinations at the barre. I continued to trip over my own feet as I danced (or attempted to dance) from the corner, though somehow I had ceased to dread it. Somehow I had come to look forward to it as a chance to try out what I had been practicing at the barre. Once, I cried not because I was moved but because I was ashamed and frustrated as I stumbled during a pirouette, and Filippo ran up and put his arms around me and told me I was beautiful, and that it would be fine. “It just takes time,” he said.
And one morning in October, just over three months into my new life in dance, he took my hands at the end of a class and said, “Michelle, you’re getting so much better!” And I believed him.
At another class soon after, as I danced from the corner (balancé, balancé, tombé, pas de bourré, piqué, arabesque) along with an accountant and a pianist and a physicist-turned-banker and a musician/farmer who traveled eighty miles each way to dance with us, Filippo called out, “Michelle, other arm!” and I switched my arms: from right out, left up, to right up, left out. And then Filippo called, “Oh, Michelle, other foot!” And I switched my feet, too: left leg in arabesque, not the right one. But instead of crying, I laughed. Because I was so happy. Because I had the rest of my life to get it right.
I am writing to thank Michelle Herman for her essay “Better” [October 2021]. I resonated with the childlike joy and abandon she felt upon beginning her first ballet class and her commitment to it. I had a similar experience with improvisational theater.
I appreciate Herman’s vulnerability and open-heartedness. She has inspired me to take my first ballet class at the age of fifty.
Michelle Herman’s description of taking leave of her father after he died [“Better,” October 2021] replicated my experience after sitting vigil with my mother. I, too, felt that her body was “only a body” after she died. She wasn’t in it; it had “no meaning at all.” I had the same feeling after viewing my dead father, grandmother, and husband. It’s a relief to know at least one other person feels this way.
It’s good to live in our bodies and love them, especially when they give us joy, as Herman surely found in her ballet classes. But when our bodies die, they’re done.
The spirit is another matter.