Back to the Barre, 30 Years Later

Back to the Barre, 30 Years Later

The room feels the same. Wooden floor beneath my feet, the floor to ceiling mirrors. It’s dark, though, the only light coming in through the huge windows facing the main part of the gym. It’s early, not quite seven in the morning, and I’ve come to see what I can reclaim from my youth.

The last pair of pointe shoes I wore. These are 30 years old at least.

The last pair of pointe shoes I wore. These are 30 years old at least. Not so pretty up close, are they?

I’ve already warmed up on the treadmill; the ballet barre is too strenuous for me to do without a warm-up at this stage in my life. I put the mat down and do some stretches, as my back isn’t what it used to be. Sitting wrong for so many years, as my husband will tell you. At any rate, I’m here to reclaim the ease of movement I once had, so. Stretching.

It’s the third day in a row that I’ve rolled out of bed and come straight to the gym, stopping only for a shot of espresso in my kitchen, quickly downed. My stretching today is easier than it had been earlier in the week, and yet I’ve started to sweat. I stand up and put the mat away and my heart pumps in anticipation. There isn’t a barre in the room, that would be too heavenly; instead, I hang onto the red support pole toward the back of the room.

Just standing in first position is a workout, if you do it right. Back straight. Ass tucked in. Stomach tucked in. Chest up, shoulders down and back. Chin up, but not forward. Somehow, when I stand in first position, my body remembers. Flows to the right position.

The view in the mirror is wrong, though. Indistinct, a bit blurry. I’m not wearing pink tights and a black leotard; instead, a grey t-shirt from Aspen, Colorado, cut out at the neck and hem and a pair of black yoga pants, with white socks on my feet.  My hair sticks out any old way, the cap I’d worn to the gym earlier discarded, along with my sweatshirt and tennis shoes.

"Innovations"  ballet, choreographed by Greg Smith. From left to right: Karen Gabay, Patrice Dabrowski, Christine (Me), Anne Dabrowski

“Innovations” ballet, choreographed by Greg Smith for California Ballet Company’s Junior Company. From left to right: Karen Gabay, Patrice Dabrowski, Christine (Me), Anne Dabrowski (1976?) Back when I could dance.

I start with tendus. (Usually plies come first, but my knees can’t handle them yet.) Simple, four to the front, side, back, side, all in first position. Soutenou to the other side and repeat.

I stare at my feet as I work. My feet look the same. High arch. Beautiful feet. I’ve always been proud of them and now, as I move from tendus to degages, I focus on them, gleaming white in the dark of the room.

Next, ronde jambs. Circling outward is fine; circling inward hurts my standing knee, and I resort to a demi plie to pamper the knee a bit. The rhythms are there, the muscle memory is there, and when I close my eyes, I almost feel seventeen again. I change sides and chance a look into the mirror; the body is not the same, and reality breaks me a little.

My feet haven't changed.

My feet haven’t changed.

The feet are the same, the heart inside me is the same; but the body has changed. I miss ballet so much it tears at me sometimes and I wish that I had kept it up, somehow, during my incredibly selfish twenties. Instead I turned to running and weights, and was at times amazing-looking. (When I was 28, I looked better naked than clothed. All finely muscled. Too bad I never had photos taken, lol.) Then came the rest of life, and I’d been without ballet for so long I thought I could never go back.

Exercise takes selfishness. It takes the ability to say, “this is ME time”, and mean it. Hold to it. I’ve just finished three difficult years physically; now, finally, this is my time to seize hold of the inner me that craves exercise. When I did some soul-searching about what makes me happy, I realized that ballet makes me happy. Not running, not weights, not aerobics, but ballet.

I’m nowhere near ready to be a part of a class; I’ve got a long way to go before I can envision myself standing at a barre with a bunch of teenagers, or even other adults. My pride won’t let me and I’m okay with that. Luckily, in the early morning, the exercise room at the gym is empty but for me and others who wander in and out, doing headstands or pushups or practicing rap songs under their breath as they shake their booty (this IS Los Angeles, after all). I’m pretty sure you’ll never see me dancing in Swan Lake again; but if I can regain even a portion of the strength and flexibility I once had, I’ll be good to go.

And if I’m lucky, maybe someday the mirror will edge closer to the memory.