Muscle memory

Studying the looking glass

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It was 9 a.m. Sunlight streamed into the white ballet studio that had become my second home for 12 years. After a short break from ballet, I was scheduled for an intensive class — three hours of pure, unadulterated technique — and I could not have been more excited. But as I looked around, I realized that I was not surrounded by my usual peers. Instead, the room was filled with children, all barely tall enough to come up to my waist. Outraged, I ran to my teacher, exclaiming, “I’ve been placed in the wrong class!” To my utter disappointment, I learned that in order to catch up for the months of missed practice, I had been assigned a level a few leagues below mine.

I had been practicing ballet ever since I was five, and unsurprisingly, the journey wasn’t a steady upward curve. The art form is high risk, yet high reward. There is nothing more exhilarating than landing your first double pirouette en pointe, or perfecting an impossible series of jumps, but the preceding 10,000 hours are rife with emotional and physical stress. As I grew older and my workload in school increased, it became increasingly tougher to focus on dance. This shift to a lower level could very well have been the last straw.

With great reluctance, I dragged my body to the barre and winced inwardly as the children were taught positions and exercises that I considered basic. Why am I wasting my time here? But as the class progressed, my teacher began to notice fundamental errors in my technique, ones that would never have been caught in an advanced, more choreography-oriented class. By the end of that class I went home with my head swimming with corrections and criticism. “VMO’s relaxed in your arabesque, arms placed far too low in second position, a sickled left foot during pointework!”

Admittedly, my ego was wounded from being corrected in a class filled with students a decade younger than me. But suddenly, I had a point to prove, and for the ensuing months, I made it my mission to not miss a single class and to work relentlessly on my technique. Soon, I started forgetting that I was in the “wrong level,” and the “children” in the class became classmates and companions; they even turned to me for help on technique. In turn, I began to notice their openness and lack of fear: of falling flat on their face, of twisting an ankle, of embarrassing themselves — worries that had previously felt inescapable to me. A few months later, in an exam administered by the American Ballet Theatre, I got the highest mark I’ve ever received in ballet and looked at that certificate with a pride I’ve never felt before. 

However, I look at the quantitative success of this class as secondary to the experience itself. There was something refreshingly therapeutic about shedding my inhibitions and relearning my craft. I realized that what I really learned was that arrogance is so futile in learning, and that learning is a continuum rather than a means to an end. It’s a process that takes place in the most unexpected of ways and in the most unexpected of places. 

I’ve since stopped ballet. It taught me discipline, rigor and humility but it is too complex; and as both a sport and an art, the demanding nature of ballet made it difficult to advance while also balancing college and working. It’s taken me a different kind of maturity to learn when to let go — to understand when my learning curve might have plateaued, to turn my eyes toward different opportunities. 

Although, every once in a while, as a warm up to my workout I’ll try running through the barre, surprised at the muscle memory that kicks in even when my turnout isn’t great and my flexibility has lessened. I’m still in the process of finding ways to stay connected to that phase of my life. Similar to an ex whose memories might be too sensitive to evoke, I sometimes try to erase ballet from my mind, probably because I truly, deeply miss the structure and beauty it brought to my life. But I keep forgetting how our bodies store much of what we try to leave behind. I’m working on accepting change, and acknowledging that the past can remain the past and still be remembered in all its nuance and glory.

Megha Ganapathy writes the Monday A&E column on learning and growing from experiences with art. Contact her at [email protected].