Exit Stage Left

September Long

September 10, 2014

The room was dim when I entered and sun was just beginning to stream through the blinds of the large windows at the front of the dance studio that morning. I turned on the music and began to do plies to Chopin nocturne 19, a piece I had danced to many times. All alone in the place I had grown up, I began to reminisce about the past 10 years. I remembered when I was first accepted into the ballet company and began to perform on a regular basis. I remembered all of the beautiful costumes, the long rehearsals, and the company members who I spent more time with than friends at school. The music changed to an adagio piece and I moved to the center to do some pointe work. My ankle cracked as I began to prep for a pirouette and my mind flashed back to all of the pain that ballet had brought into my life. I remembered the time I broke two of my toes from dancing on dead pointe shoes during a rehearsal for The Nutcracker when I was 15, yet refused to tell anyone out of fear of an apprentice taking my role. I remembered when I starved myself for a week before a performance to ensure that a tutu would fit correctly. I remembered all of the rejection, the tears, the anguish, and the justification that it was all for the beauty of the art.

I switched the music to a track from “Don Quixote” and began to choreograph a short allegro dance to end my class. I then remembered all of my memories of performing: Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Ravens. I remembered the absolute awe it left me in. That no matter what the circumstances, the dance, or the size of the theatre, I remembered that performing on stage somehow seemed fresh and new every time. I was always reminded by the gratitude of the audience that everything was worth it. I ended class with a reverence, a final bow and farewell to my dancing days. I untied my pointe shoes and took one last glance at the place that had changed me forever. I then left for my next chapter in life, leaving ballet and all unfulfilled dreams behind at the dance studio.

I started dance at a considerably late age, while most of my peers began ballet as young as three, I waltzed into my first ballet class at the outrageous age of nine. I knew right away that I was behind in technique. I also noticed that I, in no way, had the physique of an average ballet dancer. With short legs, a long torso and little turn out in my hips, I looked out of place next to the long-legged gazelle-like girls who danced next to me. Despite these setbacks, I persevered. I did everything within my power to improve, including taking extra classes and going on strict diets in an attempt to transform myself into the ideal dancer I longed to become. As time went on, I grew stronger and was finally accepted into the performing ensemble, a pre-professional ballet company. It seemed as though I was one step closer to making a professional career a reality.

Despite these aspirations, in the more rational part of my mind lurked a daunting truth: I was not good enough. This thought was not just a pessimistic doubt, but rather a cold hard fact. Even though I had worked hard and made improvements that were unexpected by me and my instructors, I still did not nearly measure up to the harsh standards of the classical ballet world. With this disturbing realization in the back of my mind, my efforts in class declined, I still danced with the company but not with the energy and vision I once had. I went through the motions of performing, but the fact that dancing would soon not be a part of my life caused my mind to retreat to a place of quiet indifference. I lamented the thought that I had sacrificed so much for a dream that would never come true – that I had wasted my time.

When I first started as an apprentice with the company, classes became longer and more strenuous. One evening the company was rehearsing Paquita for our annual spring gala. As one of the corps dancers in the opening act, we were to burst on to stage in our elegant red and black costumes complete with a fresh red carnation in our hair, with the confident attitude that we were the first dancers the audience would be seeing. We were to fill the stage with our presence and set the precedent for the rest of the ballet by pouring energy and seduction into every step and gesture. This being the fifth time we had run the dance, that energy was gone and I danced within a black hole of indifference: lifeless and ignoring the opportunity to interpret the romantic Spanish symphony.

Half way through the opening act, the music suddenly stopped and the dance came to an abrupt halt. Rolling my eyes, I figured Mr. Stigar had some general comment to give out to the corps, something about formation or being off the music, I was surprised to find Mr. Stigar towering over only me, an apprentice who was rarely ever noticed. He leaned into me and spoke to me in a disappointed tone that only a teacher could possess; he told me that I was looking down through the entire dance. He then took a long pause and then looked at all of us and announced, “Look, this (ballet) is notabout money, fame, or recognition. Chances are you will never get any of that. You work so hard and sacrifice so much for maybe a handful of life-altering performances. You have just moments, a few fleeting moments, to perform and you better take advantage of it because before you know it, you will exit stage left and the dance will be over.” He returned to the front of the stage and my music began to play. His words resounded in my mind as I danced the piece again, this time with my head held high.

At that moment, I realized that dancing was something that would soon fade out of my life. I would go on to other things and leave my pointe shoes in the past and all moments of grace, elegance, and romance would be replaced with an empty stage, which I would have to learn to fill with something else. I knew that it would be worth it because, while ballet may no longer be a part of my life, the high ideals of ballet would stay with me forever. My years with ballet had given me a thirst to pursue beautiful things, to reach for perfection, and to never stop searching for things that satisfy the soul.

Sometimes I become discouraged about my present endeavors and would like nothing more than to withdraw from my present life and live in the past with all of the splendor that dancing had to offer. But when I do, when I find my passion diminishing and the feeling of apathy begins to overwhelm my will to chase after what is true, good, and beautiful the words of Mr. Stiger reappear in my mind. I am reminded that the lessons that ballet taught me apply to much moremthan just dance. After all, our time on Earth is short. We all have but a few moments to perform and impact those watching us before we will exit the stage and the curtain will close.

September Long is a junior majoring from Barberton, Ohio majoring in Political Science and History.