When I was a very little girl I was ungraceful enough that my parents took me to our pediatrician. He recommended that I take ballet. At the time I was extremely pigeon-toed and it wreaked havoc with my balance. We lived in Minneapolis at the time. Dorothy Lundstrom was my first dance teacher. I will do a separate post another day about this wonderful, extraordinary woman. She did not charge much for lessons and there were no expensive costumes or recitals involved. She did not believe in doing that. She had benches on the perimeter of the studio. Families were welcome to attend all lessons and see their children dance. I began ballet lessons by the time I was around 3 years old. I absolutely loved ballet. I felt so exquisite during my lessons. I graduated to toe shoes by the time I was 5. That wasn’t because of my extraordinary abilities as a dancer. Rather it was because she had helped me condition my feet, ankles, and legs sufficiently that I would not be injured using toe shoes.
We moved away from Minneapolis to Winona when I was 7. Obviously I had to switch dance teachers. My new teacher was Katie Conrad, who was the wife of renowned pilot Max Conrad. That, of course, meant nothing to me at the time. Katie spoke French throughout each lesson. She taught the French ballet technique. Dorothy taught the Russian ballet technique. Katie emphasized stretching the muscles through floor stretching (Dorothy barre stretching). That may mean nothing to you. For me, it was difficult to switch horses. But it didn’t matter all that much because she didn’t have us in toe shoes. But I was dancing. I longed for my toe shoes, but I knew I had to stay with this dance teacher for the school year. The lack of stretching threw me off a bit for my pirouettes and tour jete’s. It’s hard to explain, but if you imagine your legs like big rubber bands that have to stretch around something to hold it together, and now you tie a knot in that rubber band, it can’t reach as far. I knew I wasn’t reaching that far, so I’d exaggerate my move to compensate.
In the spring we had a recital at the big high school in town. I was short, so I was in the front row of dancers. During our number we had a series of tour jete’s to perform as we moved from stage left to stage right. I loved being able to leap high into the air as I did this. As I began to whip my leg around on the second tour jete’, my timing was off by a fraction of a second. As a result, my “whipping around leg” got hooked on the next dancer. I came crashing to the floor. Boom! A few people in the first few rows burst out laughing and a couple of them were even pointing at me. But the dance number and the dancers continued.
I was not injured at all. I took a deep breath, got back up (trying not to cry), and continued to dance. At the end of the number we all took our bow and went off stage. I burst into tears. I was beyond upset. And who was there as we moved out of the wings further backstage? You guessed it. My dance teacher-Katie. Did she greet some of the star level dancers in my group first? Nope. She hugged me enthusiastically and told me I was tres’ magnifique. Then she said she was so proud of me and what I had done. I said “but I ruined it—I fell and looked stupid. That made us all look bad”. She said, “the magnificent part was that I got back up and continued the dance. I didn’t stay sitting on the floor, I didn’t start sobbing, and I didn’t run off the stage. I got back up and continued”. I said ‘but they laughed at me’. She said “yet you were strong enough to get back up anyway”. I smiled through my tears. “All of that”, she said “was proof that I was magnificent”. “The beauty of a ballerina”, she told me, “comes with that. “If she dances after the fall”. My teacher gave me a gift. She turned what could have been scarring and humiliating into a moment of nobility. Whose nobility? Both of ours.
As usual I can see now how that is a metaphor and analogy for life. Years later when I fell out of my platform shoes in the midst of a VERY important business presentation I already had the coping skills to get back up and have it in its very amusing and non-tragic perspective. I can see that one can learn from every teacher. One just has to be open to the beautiful lesson and gift. God knew that I would have a hard time learning many things I needed to know in life. He has surrounded me with loving relatives, friends and teachers on a continual basis. It has given me the strength to be….a perennial optimist.