The Day My Passion For Ballet Was Born = IGNITED!
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My Passion For Ballet is Born!
With my life currently in flux, with endless stops and go's, I find myself doing something I never believed a wise thing to do: thinking of the "what-ifs" of my life. When my life is unsettling or uncomfortable and the future does not even appear to be a lighted match at the end of a long, pitch-black tunnel, I find myself thinking of one of the many bright and wonderful days of the past.
Recently, I re-read some of the articles I recently wrote and laughed, "Damn, I need to start sprinkling the darkness of the present and future with some of the many bright lights of the past". If my life had such bright and promising "novas" in the past, statistically ( here's the scientist in me), they will have to happen again. I will now recount the day of one of my earliest and brightest novas - the day my fathomless passion for ballet literally exploded into being. If I can express - in words- a very small percentage of the pure joy and energy this day provided then and now, then you, the reader, are in for quite a pleasant jolt.
This is not one of those "in the womb" memories; however, it is not far from the womb as it happened when I was only three years old. I remember that day like it happened yesterday. It was the summer of my third year of life. My younger brother was still five years into the future. My two older brothers were 4 and 10 years older than me. We were not particularly close.. and never would be. We lived on a farm in western Pennsylvania of about 100 acres, with a few sheep, horses, pigs, ducks, geese, dogs, cats and, oh yeah, about 6,000 chickens. I have always loved yard and farm work as far back as I can remember but I also always loved art. Not having many people to play with, I was grateful to have a wonderful imagination and utilized it a great deal. Financial success had not yet happened to my hardworking, European born parents. Even though we were a little on the poor side, my parents realized they had a bright, energetic but shy child. I found out later how my parents sacrificed a great deal to buy me many books, art supplies, and records. My brothers were more typical in their love of guns, trucks and other toys of that genre. I gravitated towards things that allowed my creative side to be utilized. We were all physically active but I was the more cerebral and artistic one. Among many creations, my mother had endless cuckoo clocks I made out of shoe boxes. My parents wonderfully indulged my particular foci and I will be eternally grateful for that. I was not spoiled. My parents believed strongly in enhancing and supporting their children's passions and educational endeavors.
That summer day was very hot as summer days often were and are. I had spent the morning flying my "rocket ship". My rocket ship was this huge old oak tree that had been pulled out of the ground by strong winds. It's intact root system were beautifully arrayed and became my "controls". My little dog, "Blitzy", was my willing passenger, as long as I gave him the occasional hug. He got lots of those. He was sometimes my co-pilot. My relationship with my rocket ship would continue into my adulthood, but I will leave those details into my every growing book, already hundreds of pages long.
After "landing", Blitzy and I went to play with the ducks in the pond. My mother, probably worried I had been outside so long, called for me to come into the house. It was a big old farmhouse, built in the 1800's. It was a house with many nooks and crannies, a perfect place for a child to discover something to play with, to utilize his imagination. Well, my imagination anyway.
My mother was in our big kitchen making lunch and baking things. I remember she was making a salad which I kept grabbing, pretending it to be spinach then going around trying to lift heavy things, pretending to be Popeye. My mother got a little irritated with the disappearing salad and sent me into the living room. As she often did, she was singing some of her favorite German songs and polkas she had learned as a child in Germany.
I would often ask my mother to dance a polka , a fox trot or ballroom dance with me. She could not that day and suggested I play some records if I needed music. I needed it. We had this old, elegant storage cabinet that contained a hodge-podge of items. I could remember seeing records in there. HHHHMMMMM..... I knew where the key was for the front cabinet doors, confidently opened it and began exploring. Eureka! Records! Music!
The Rockefellers we were not, but my modern, liberal mother had to have one of those wonderfully made stereos in a wooden cabinet. They were probably on the wayout by then but it was what she wanted and what she got. Thank God she did. A few months earlier, when she had bought it, she knew I would constantly ask her to play it; so being proactive, she taught me how to safely play records and the radio.
I picked out a record. I could already read fairly well. I picked out the words on the label: Swan and Lake. I took the record to my mother and asked her about a big word, Tchaikovsky. She explained he was the Russian composer who wrote the music. Then she suggested I play it and see if I liked it. I remember her looking at me thoughtfully with her head cocked to the side with a sly smile. I think she already knew whether her son was going to like it. Well, I liked swans and I liked playing in our pond which to me was like a lake so I played it.
Looking back, the music was excerpts, but WOW, an almost electrical shock or feeling went through me when the music started. I really did not know anything about ballet. On occasion, we would watch a ballet on Pittsburgh's Channel 13, WQED's PBS station AND I did like all the jumping, spinning and lifting of the pretty women. I did not know an Arabesque from a sissone but I knew beauty and loved dancing with my mother. Alone, I began my first ballet solo.
I had this huge teddy bear, dressed in formal attire, I had never really liked or played with. I liked him less as a dance partner. He was too cumbersome and slowed me down. He got tossed. I started spinning and leaping around the coffee table. I pulled the stabling arm of the stereo back which would allow the record to play over and over again. I pulled the coffee table into the center of the living room and began leaping over it, not easy for a typical three year old but then I guess I was not a typical three year old. Through the years, I have been told by a number of teachers and professors that I march to a different drummer- meant as a compliment. Apparently I also dance to a different symphony!
I can still see the tan shorts I was wearing and the red sleeveless top. The shoes came off as they "didn't work" with my new dance style. My confidence and energy naturally got stronger as did my desire to push my limits. We had a set of a light green couch and matching chair, both with wide arms. I started running and leaping up and down the couch to build up momentum, not unlike a plane during take-off, and boy, did I take off. The couch and chair were not a huge distance apart, but to me, a three year old, it was like the width of the Grand Canyon.
I hit the arm of the couch with my right foot, leapt with my arms out-stretched and pointing up and landed on my left foot on the arm of the chair. Wow - wow - wow.. what a great feeling! I jumped off the chair and twirled around and "took-off" several more times. At this point my mother heard my squealing and came in from the kitchen. She looked and sounded horrified and scared and made me stop. She told me to sit down, behave and just listen to the music. I decided to resume my ballet within 30 seconds of her return to the kitchen. This time I would do without my telltale vocal additions. I was young but I could be devious!
Of course, very shortly, she came back and I will always remember her angry face and how it softened into a smile. I had learned the anger of the German and was relieved. I wish I could express in writing my mother's German accented "AAACCCHHH" in a tone indicating she gave up and gave in to my ballet. I had cautiously slowed down but not stopped. I still see her flowered dress, mostly white with these many forget-me-not type flowers. She started clapping. I was hooked. If all I had to do was leap, spin and jump to get someone to clap, then I was really, really, really hooked. I can relive that warmness I felt and would feel again, when you know you have pleased an audience. Especially if that audience is one or both of your parents.
Of course my ballet eventually ended as it was hot and our air conditioning was only open windows. As time went on, my love for ballet never diminished. It only grew stronger. I cannot and do not "blame" my parents for not encouraging ballet as they were the kind of parents that allowed our natural tendencies to bloom and go where they naturally went. To be honest, I did not know or try to find out that one could go to school and then get a "job" as a dancer. It was just something I loved to do and never tired of.
I eventually bought books on ballet and tried to teach myself the basics. As an older child, I would retreat to a room in our house always referred to "The Last Room", upstairs, which was an everything room for us kids. I would also buy and get as gifts records and cassettes of classical music. My parents never discouraged nor encouraged ballet.
By the time I hit grade school, I was already reading at a senior high school level. By the time I hit 6th grade, I was tested and was told- well my parents were- that I had a college reading level. It was always assumed I would go to college and into medicine because of another passion I had... and have... helping people.
When I went to Muskingum College for my first degree and was more independent, my father bought me a nice, fairly new car so I could come home as often as I could. I found a small ballet school I could afford outside of Pittsburgh and drove two hours - one way- 3-4 times a week. Not an easy task, time wise considering my two teacher assistant jobs and school load but when something is important enough, one finds the time and energy. For me, it was that important. As I got older, people started to ask me if I was a dancer and still sometimes ask me. I decided to find out. Again, I had no goal to become a professional dancer but I loved.. and love... to learn and I loved... and love... ballet so taking classes was a no-brainer. My main teacher was a wonderful but strict Russian. She came to like and I think love me... and I her. She was frustrated at first that I had to unlearn my self-taught techniques and constantly lectured me me and questioned me why I waited so long to the ripe old age of 19 to start ballet. Regardless, I had no pie in the sky goal of being anything like my future favorite ballet dancer, Roberto Bolle or a Baryshnikov. I would settle for being the best I could be which was pretty good. I had good upper body muscular development for lifts and very strong legs but high jumps were not as high as I wanted. In the long run, who cared - I was dancing and dancing well... and having fun.
The worst day I had in class was the first time I had to wear tights to class. I had played soccer and swam at Muskingum so I was built nicely but I was shy and lacked self-confidence. Dance belt or no dance belt, it was embarrassing - at first. Self-confidence was probably the best thing I developed as a dancer and it felt great, while I had it. I was always disciplined and that served me well.
By the time I had turned 24, I had gone into pharmacy school at the University of Pittsburgh. I had never felt happier, more content and confident about myself before. Most importantly I liked - if not loved- myself for the first time. That was priceless. I had no real regrets not starting ballet earlier. I did it and had no plans to quit. My teacher was already pushing me to get involved in small companies. "Not yet" I always said. I loved pharmacy school also and that had to take precedence. I just loved feeling good about myself and life in general. I'm not ashamed to say that I learned to like myself. I was coming to terms with being gay (grudgingly), loving to dance, loving school (pharmacy and ballet), loving volunteer work and... well yes, loving myself for the first time. What a difference all that made.
HOWEVER, I was not totally open and loving about everything or I would not have kept my ballet classes on the "down low". At Muskingum, I did it as I knew what endless kidding and ribbing I would have to deal with, especially from my closest friend Len "Knute" Knudsen. Verbally sparing with him kept my wit and tongue sharp. No one at Muskingum ever knew. I had learned to compartmentalize like a pro very early on in life and so it was natural, if at times mentally dangerous, as I was to find out in the near future. Most of my new friends knew but not my family or old friends. By the time I had self-confidence incorporated into my being, I just never cared to tell them and to be honest, it did not matter.
One more happy memory I have is the time I demonstrated to the class that men can do "en pointe" to shut up (sorry for saying this) but a skinny bitch who only whined about how hard female dancers had it and that men dancers had it easy. To make a long story short, I bought pointe shoes and practiced just enough so I could get everyone's attention in class. When Miss Bitch walked into the rehearsal room, I stood en pointe and did some FAST leg work across the room and ended with a pirouette. Damn right it hurt but the look on her face made it well worth it. I would not have been mistaken for having the same en pointe talent as Gelsey Kirkland or Mariana Tcherkavsky but it sufficed and proved a point. The enthusiastic applause I got from my dear ballet mistress and fellow students was well worth any discomfort. I know, it was smug and arrogant but I feel dancers of both sexes have tough routines and things to do and learn. She did become more friendly with everyone thereafter and that was good too.
Of course it was the decision not to listen to that "internal voice" not to take a shortcut through a neighborhood one night in East Liberty I knew might not to be as safe at night as in the day which would result in five men jumping me putting me through a hellish and monstrous attack followed a few months later with the sudden and unexpected death of my beloved father that would sound the death knell to my passion and love for everything, except my mother and brothers. (what a long sentence but I had to get it out!)
I quit ballet, found a "reason" to end a great relationship with my first real love, another gay dancer, and pharmacy school became something I intellectually continued but with no passion or love. My heart shut down but not my brain.
Eventually, love and passion would return along with my sense of humor I have always cherished. These things did not come back quickly or easily. As long as I am able to utilize one of the greatest gifts that God had endowed us with, our memory, I know that no matter how dark and unsettling life may feel at times, I know I can return to memories like this, tap into it, "relive" those wonderful feelings and exhilaration I once had and know that I can and will recapture those feelings again with new memories still to be made. As long as I can experience ballet as a spectator, in the privacy of my home and who knows... adult ballet classes... I know I can and will be a content person once again. Toi! Toi! Toi!
University of Pittsburgh-Salk Hall- School of Pharmacy
Our farm where I grew up in Saxonburg, PA
Muskingum College - The Quad
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