I grew up dancing ballet, beginning when I was six-years old and ending when I graduated from high school. I took it quite seriously. There is a photograph of me at my very first recital wearing a bright yellow tutu, my hair is braided and tied with a cute bow at the top of my head. My bangs are falling over my forehead. My eyes are looking straight ahead and my mouth was very serious as if what I was doing in that moment was the most important thing that had happened to me in my six years of life. I took this dancing thing seriously and I wanted to succeed at it.
My dance studio was in a tiny house, that looked more like a shack, in my small town. My ballet teacher was all of five feet tall with a smoker’s hack and disheveled hair. Her face wore the tired lines and divots of years of substance abuse. She would stomp up the stairs, always late, from the home she resided in below the studio. Whiskey, disguised as iced tea, sloshed around and the ice would clink against the sides of the glass as she made her way across the dance floor.
She took her place in front of the old record player and put in a new Tchaikovsky or Bach. The needle would screech and moan over the old vinyl. With her head bowed and eyes closed, she would listen to the music with intention while she choreographed our dance routines in her head.
I had heard other studios in bigger towns had real live pianos with piano teachers that serenaded the dancers while they floated across the wood floors, but my studio wasn’t that kind of studio. My studio was the whiskey on the rocks fly-by-the-seat of your pants kind of studio.
My teacher would yell at us if we weren’t paying attention or could not memorize our routines, but she did it in the most loving ways. Sometimes she wacked our feet with a stick, but we knew that if we were being singled out by her, she cared about us and thought we were worthy.
While I paint my ballet teacher out to be wretched, she did have love in her heart. She was a woman who lived a hard life as one of many ballerinas who had not made it to dance stardom, but had the deformed feet to prove she had given it her all. She married a man, also a professional dancer at one time, who turned out to be homosexual. He died of AIDS in the 80s.
Growing up dancing on Tuesdays and Thursdays in this small town studio, I became a good dancer. I knew my routines quickly and danced gracefully. When I was eleven I was named the lead roll in the annual recital, which had me convinced I was headed for greatness.
A few years later when I was thirteen, my parents signed me up for a ballet camp hosted by a ballet school in Sacramento. I would stay with a host family and four other girls and I would dance all day and have the time of my life. That was the plan. I remember being so excited about this camp that I would say to no one in particular, if I must die, please let me die after ballet camp.
The first thing we did at camp was try-out for groups. Group A was the group for the best dancers at the camp. There was group B and C for the middle of the road dancers. Lastly was group D, for those dancers who obviously completely sucked at dancing and had no real point of being at dance camp.
I was sure, based on my excellent success at my small studio in my small town with my whiskey-drinking teacher, that I would be placed in group A or B. No doubt about it. I was confident and I had the passion. Plus, I was an excellent dancer; at least I was in my mind.
The second day of camp, all of the groups were announced. My fellow housemates were all placed in group B. I was put into group D. My heart sank right down to my brand new ballet shoes after hearing this news. It felt like an out of body experience –I was looking down at myself wishing I were somewhere else instead of feeling the present humiliation. I was only thirteen, and things like this really matter when you are thirteen.
I called my mom on the phone sobbing. How could they have put me in group D? Didn’t they see what a great ballet dancer I was? I played the lead in my recital. I was one of the best dancers in my dance school!
My mom asked me if I wanted to come home. She would get in the car right then and drive 45 minutes to pick me up. That seemed even more humiliating than my current humiliation, and there was just no more room left for humiliation in my small body. I decided I would stick ballet camp out with my head held high. I would make the most of the camp even if my self-esteem was shattered. I ate healthy food, I had fun with my housemates and I danced my heart out.
I think often about how I loved something so much and was passionate about it, but I wasn’t as good at it as I thought I was. Learning that other people out in the world thought I was not very good at something that I took pride in being good at was a difficult experience. I know I wasn’t a terrible dancer. I know I wasn’t a great dancer. I danced because it made me feel good and I loved to do it. In the end, that is all that mattered.
This week I am at a writer’s camp with Cheryl Strayed who wrote the now famous book Wild, as well as four other amazing writers. I am staying in a yurt by myself overlooking the ocean. It is actually named Ocean Yurt. During the day I will learn tools to be a better writer. I will have my writing critiqued. I will compare myself to other writer’s because that is just human nature.
Leading up to this writer’s retreat I have thought a lot about the time I went to dance camp and learned that I really wasn’t as good of a dancer as I thought I was. Some of that little girl and those feelings of confusion made an unwelcomed guest appearance in me this week at Writer’s Camp. Maybe I am not a good writer compared to others. Maybe I am not worthy of Cheryl Strayed and her successful tribe of writers. Maybe they will read my work and put me in group D.
As a writer, I am putting myself out into the world in a major way. I am sharing my life experiences, beliefs, and a bit of my soul for others to interpret and judge. I am sure I wouldn’t be willing to put myself out there to be judged and risk rejection had I not learned early on that it’s possible to feel rejected and still survive. It’s possible to be classified among the worst in the class and continue dancing. I don’t have to be the best, I just have to do what makes me happy and never give up.
Until next time, the mothership is signing off.