I clutched my mother’s hand with full force, my tiny fingernails creating imprints in her palm. I looked down at my toes, admiring the brand new ballet slippers on my feet. When it came time to say goodbye to Mom, I tugged nervously at the elastic waist of my tights and at the legs of my blush-pink leotard before I joined the other girls.
This is the only memory that remains of my first ballet class, almost nineteen years ago, when my mom wanted me to have another social activity aside from preschool. As I was only three at the time, even this memory is likely embellished by stories I’ve heard from my mom and by what I see in my own students as they embark on the very same journey. Hazy memory aside, this day remains one of the most important days of my young life—the day I found dance.
Well, maybe I didn’t find it right away. In fact, my dance story nearly ended shortly after it began. By the end of my first semester, I decided I’d had enough. “Mom, they make me suck in my tummy!”—my mother still jokingly quotes my desperate plea to be freed from the reins of the ballet mistress. Luckily for me (or so I thought back then), my mom is a softy who wasn’t about to pressure me into doing something that made me uncomfortable. So I quit, right before our December performance of “The Nutcracker,” giving up the opportunity to be a Bon Bon and dance under Mother Ginger’s skirt.
Somehow, it appears that my mother’s hands-off approach worked—because, four years later, I decided all on my own to give dance another go. But this time, I wasn’t going to mess around with that silly ballet stuff. Nope, I was going to do hip hop. So my mom signed me up for hip hop and tap lessons at our local dance studio in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and, for the next couple of years, that was my token afterschool activity.
Though the classes were my decision this time around, I often still complained about going to class, preferring to spend my Saturday mornings watching cartoons and eating pancakes. But then came my first recital, when I got to show off my running mans and my shuffle-ball-changes to a live audience with Britney Spears’ “Soda Pop” and The Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat” blaring in the background. The music, the stage makeup, the costumes, the lights, the attention—I loved it all. And I soon realized: I was born to perform.
I had officially caught the dance bug, but it didn’t reach full force right away. Rather, it grew gradually. At 11, I added jazz, musical theatre, and (the dreaded) ballet to my repertoire; at 12, I won the attention of my dance teacher, who chose to move me to the advanced level for my age group. Then, between the ages of 13 and 14, I added pointe, lyrical, modern, and solo work to my increasingly busy schedule.
Before long, dance became my drug, my obsession. I lived for the yearly recitals—a week more exciting than Christmas—when I got to strut my stuff for family, friends, and strangers alike. The summers off became unbearable, so I began signing up for different summer dance workshops, like the Rockette Summer Intensive, to pass the time. (Yes, I was that strange child who could not wait for September to begin.)
And despite our troubled beginning, I began to develop a fondness for ballet above the other styles. I soon adopted the identity of The Ballet Girl at my tap-centric studio. The ballet instructor took note of my commitment and directed me to a ballet conservatory in Pittsburgh where I could take my training to the next level. And from there my dance life picked up speed, as I gained entrance into the conservatory’s college preparatory program and was then selected as one of two high school trainees to dance with the professional company.
The pressure and time commitment were tremendous, but I never regretted it for a second. I began to realize that what I once mistook for an excessively rigid form was actually a masterfully crafted and timeless style. Ballet is not just movement; it’s a language. And once I learned the language, I began to find such freedom in the structure. The classical technique became my support, as I explored new realms of contemporary movement—and now, the potential for discovery seems endless.
I’m currently preparing to embark on my senior year at Princeton University (a school I chose because of its unique commitment to dance as an important part of a liberal arts education). And I continue to dance every day—it keeps me sane amongst all the academic pressures that college life throws at me. As I quickly approach my transition into the “real” world, I find myself reflecting on all that dance has given me.
I can’t imagine these last nineteen years without it. Dance has constantly surrounded me with positive role models—from the older girls at dance to the teachers who instructed me. I wanted to be kind like Miss Kelly, strong like Miss Cindy, insightful like Miss Phoebe, tough like Miss Maria. Throughout my journey, I’ve been influenced by countless artists, young and old, who taught me as much about life as they did about dance. I’ve fostered lasting relationships with many of my instructors and my peers, and I know that I can always call upon them for their advice and support.
Dance also taught me the discipline and responsibility I needed to succeed in school. There was, of course, the obvious lesson in time management necessary for balancing schoolwork and long hours of rehearsal. But the discipline went deeper than that. In dance, your body is your instrument. That’s it. There is nothing and no one else to blame for your shortcomings. Dance taught me to respect my instrument, to celebrate my strengths and to work with my weaknesses. And despite the taboo associated with negative body images and ballet, dance taught me to love my body and to appreciate it for the art it produces.
Every journey has its obstacles, and there were certainly points when I thought I wasn’t good enough or that my feet weren’t meant for ballet, and so on and so forth. But then dance taught me just how stifling those doubts can be and helped me develop the confidence to overcome them—a confidence so many young women and girls lack. It still brings tears to my eyes when I remember my mother’s response to one of my more recent performances. She told me, “Maggie, I always look back at my life wishing I created something beautiful for the world. But when I watch you dance, I realize that I did. I created you.” I am so proud to be my mother’s “art” in this world.
When I graduate from Princeton and hopefully build a life for myself in New York City, I probably won’t have time to dance every day. However, I find comfort in the fact that I’ll be in a city that celebrates my art form, where I’m never too far from a dance class. Each new stage of life can be scary, but no matter where I am, no matter what I do, I always know that when I put my hand on the ballet barre in preparation for pliés—the first exercise in any ballet class—I will find a home away from home.
WHERE TO DANCE THIS FALL
Have Some Fun
74th St. MAGIC, 74MAGIC.com
92nd Street Y, 92y.org
apple seeds, appleseedsnyc.com
Applause NYC (o-5), applauseny.com
Church Street School for Music and Art, churchstreetschool.org
Creative Play For Kids, creativeplayforkids.com
Discovery Programs, discoveryprograms.com
The Early Ear, theearlyear.com
Gymtime Rhythm and Glues, gymtime.net
JCC of Manhattan, jccmanhattan.org
Jodi’s Gym, jodisgym.com
The Sports Club/LA, thesportsclubla.com
Reebok Sports Club/NY, thesportsclubla.com
Albee School of Dance, albeedance.com
American Youth Dance Theater, americanyouthdancetheater.com
Applause NYC (5-teens), applauseny.com
Ballet Academy East, baenyc.com
The Ballet Club, theballetclub.com
Ballet Hispanico, ballethispanico.org
Broadway Dance Center, broadwaydancecenter.com
Brooklyn Arts Exchange, bax.org
Creative Arts Studio, creativeartsstudio.com
Dancing Divas and Dudes, dancingdivasanddudes.com
Downtown Dance Factory, downtowndancefactory.com
Joffrey Ballet School, joffreyballetschool.com
Lower East Side Dance Academy, lesdanceacademy.com
Lucy Moses School, kaufman-center.org
Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, manhattanmovement.com
Manhattan Youth Ballet, manhattanyouthballet.org
Mark Morris Dance Group, markmorrisdancegroup.org
Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, marthagraham.org
Miss Kristin’s Shooting Stars Performing Arts Company, shootingstarsnyc.com
New York Theatre Ballet and Ballet School NY, nytb.org
Peridance Capezio Center, peridance.com
The School at Steps, stepsnyc.com