It started, as things often do, in a group chat. We were unpacking our anxieties du jour—dead-end job hunts, relationship strife, the generic existential dread of the year 2018—when our friend Han sent us a link. It was a sign-up for a ballet class. We laughed. We had all danced together in college, and when we managed to get together once in a blue moon, still performed eight-counts of unforgettable choreography.
“Let’s take this class,” said Han. “It’ll be hilarious.” Most folks were too busy, though, tied up with other commitments. But I, a glutton for nostalgia and a recent deserter from the gym, said yes.
We went to the Joffrey Ballet School in Manhattan. Han twisted her hair into a tight bun, I squeezed into a dance belt, and we wore shoes we thought we’d never put on again. Han’s were pink and new; she couldn’t find her old ones. But mine, originally white, were browning and tattered.
Han had suggested we go to ballet for the very reason our friends couldn’t: We’d been so preoccupied with news alerts and right-swipes and job interviews that we stopped setting aside time to take care of ourselves, both mentally and physically.
At the time, my job search was at an impasse, my writing projects were in limbo, and another man had just ghosted me. But I kept at it, all of it, only to have my emails, submissions, and texts go unanswered. I grew frustrated and berated myself, thinking I was doing it all wrong, and getting punished for it.
The antidote, then, might be a ballet class. I needed, as Han put it, “an hour where we’re allowed to fuck up.”
She pushed another bobby pin into her hair and I tied the elastics around my feet, my bad habit. (You’re supposed to sew them onto the slipper, but when a dancer gets lazy, they tend to just wrap the elastics around the arch of the feet.) They were tighter than I remembered them. But then again, existentially, everything felt constricting around me too. So the tightness of my shoes, my bike shorts, my dance belt riding up my ass, they were a familiar, welcome (dis)comfort. After all, this was the hallmark of ballet: It makes you intensely aware of your body, for reasons both joyous and not.
The dance studio was spacious, bigger than both my and Han’s Brooklyn apartments combined. It had mirrored walls and high, arched windows to let in light. We picked spots next to each other at the barre as more twenty-somethings like us trickled in. Some looked like pros (they brought foam rollers!), which made me nervous.
We were to be each other’s private audiences, I thought. I’d admire their pendulum legs, arrowhead feet, and Yumiko leotards. But they might sneer at my low arabesque, my sickled feet, the things the meaner ballerinas teased me about at school. Now, having stopped dancing regularly and thus “out of shape,” I worried I’d be the object of ridicule again.
I whispered all this to Han, who replied, “We’re not kids anymore, Matt, we’re adults.” “Don’t sweat it,” she said.
Once class started, my racing thoughts—worry about what others would think, fretting about what was (or wasn’t) happening in my life—started to fade into the background.
The teacher arrived, dictated our pliés and cambrés. My right hand took the barre and the pianist filled the room with music. It was Fauré’s "Pavane in F-sharp minor," a lullaby but, like, exciting. In tandem, I bent my knees and extended my arms. I bowed to hug my legs and rose to the balls of my feet. That existential tightness about me began to loosen even if the spandex did not. As my body relaxed, so did my anxieties. Will they make fun of me? Shhh… Will he text back? Shhh… Will I get a second interview? Shhh…
There was nothing but the music and myself. Of course, I realized, this was what Han meant. Life, if we are lucky, is so long and so much. This, my body sighed, we know how to manage.
Hobbies that re-center us, whether by letting us tune in or tune out, must be treasured. Taking this class made me remember that ballet does that for me.
I’ve had friends experience a similar shrinking of worlds, via tennis or running, knitting or basketball. In college, ballet was my feel-good habit. I was even busier then, with a double major, the school paper, two dance groups, and at one point, two internships. Dance classes were a reprieve. To assuage the overachiever in me, I took them for school credit. I relished the classes as a formal kind of fitness. In the ballet studio, I’m made to breathe, sweat, focus on the task at hand. At each stage of class—the barre exercises, the serene adagio movements, and allegro jumps from petit to grande—there’s a code, a recipe, literal steps to doing things well. So when ballet teachers correct me, saying, “relax your shoulders,” “stabilize your supporting leg,” or literally, “find your center,” I’m reminded that even when I do something less than elegantly or straight-up wrong, whether in class or in life, I can fix it.
And, if all else fails, I have the piano, my body, and me. As my ballet teacher in college put it, “I can think of no better way to escape the world than through adagio.” I took the idea to heart, and promised myself I’d keep dancing after school. And I did for a bit. But my move into my own studio apartment took a toll on my finances, so I had to pause my class habit.
After Han and I took that class together in June, I knew I needed to go back. So I did, a few weeks later. I realized I’m not the only one turning to plíes to get a better handle on life.
Same teacher, different classmates. Before, there were just seven of us, two with foam rollers. Now, there were over 30 students, at least 12 foam rollers, and a number of hard-won pointe shoes. Also in attendance was this beautiful dude in full ballet boy regalia. He had a billowy Romeo-esque shirt, hunter green tights that accentuated every asset, and an otherworldly beauty exclusive to romantic leads in Victorian period films and maybe the Skarsgård brothers.
He seemed like a legit ballerino and, indeed, danced like one. That’s what perfection looked like in these spaces and, at first, I worried how amateur I’d look dancing next to him. But after the second set of pliés, I was focused only on my body, the one I could control. By the adagio, I was keeping up. And by the allegro, he and I found a solidarity as the only men in class.
Romeo and I got to talking in the locker room. His dance story was inverse to mine. He’d done ballet since a young age, then professionally until college where he stopped to pursue a degree in math. He just started taking class again. He was trying to find his center.
“I’m so out of shape, though,” he said. I told him he looked great in class. “Thanks, man. You too. I couldn’t tell you were a late-start.” I waved off his compliment, but gave my thanks. Isn’t it funny, we agreed, how we’re our own worst critics?
There’s a lovely camaraderie in “adult ballet for beginners.” First, seldom among us is a student who’s a true beginner. Most have had previous encounters with tulle, tights, and Tchaikovsky, all here to relive glory days or live days that could’ve been. And second, we make time after our nine-to-fives on ordinary Thursdays not to be The Best, but to simply do Our Best.
Romeo admired my tattered white shoes, similar to his. They show our character, he said. Then he left, not without a fraternal pat on the back and a “Take it easy!” I told him I’d try.
After that class, everything felt a bit more manageable. Every time I take ballet, the effect is the same.
I’ll tweak a cover letter here, I say, and I’ll send an email to confirm, then a text seeking closure. As I do in class, I can come up with solutions on how to find my center and keep going. True, I’m a type-A ENTJ who needs form and order to feel good, but everyone has their own ballet. You can knit a sock, take a lap around the park, or grab pals for a pick-up game.
I texted Han and asked her to join me next week. When she said she couldn’t, I asked if I could borrow her foam roller. I was starting to work out the kinks in my life; I may as well massage out the ones in my back. Since then, I’ve been to a few more classes. Each time, I go in, turn off my phone, and for one blissful hour, face a world no bigger than what is in front of me.
In ballet, I can only breathe, sweat, and focus on the task at hand. This is a gift. In times when so many things can go wrong, it’s nice to do something you know you can do right.