Taking the first ballet step in a midlife quest to dance in 'The Nutcracker'

My shoulders are lowered, blades squeezed, back expanded, ribs wrapped, pelvis tucked, glutes engaged, core activated, spine long and neutral. My feet — toes gripping, heels rooted — push back against the floor to lengthen the muscles of my thighs and calves. My neck is long, but not because my chin is lifted or my jaw clenched. It is because I am feeling the upward pull of an imaginary string attached to the top of my head. A rivulet of sweat that made its way down the back of my leg has emerged from the hem of my toeless tights and is drip-drip-dripping into the heel of my otherwise pristine pink leather ballet slipper.

I am not dancing. I am not resting after having danced. I am merely standing at the barre in a chilly dance studio, following the prompts of my teacher, waiting for the music to begin, waiting for the start of my first ballet class in more than 40 years. How can it take so much focus and attention, so much hard and sweaty work, just to stand? How can I already be taxed to the max when I haven't actually moved yet? What in the name of Mikhail Baryshnikov am I doing here?

The simple answer is I have decided to take ballet classes. At midlife. I have decided it is time to see if I can recapture my childhood ballerina dreams. But there's more to it than that.

I have decided that it is time to turn off the autopilot that is running my nice, comfortable life. It is time to experience something I haven't experienced in many years — and I don't mean grand pliés. I mean the intense, thrilling and all-consuming struggle at the beginning of a learning curve, the way a new and challenging passion takes hold and won't let you go. I mean the scary and humbling place inhabited by the clueless novice. I mean risking looking foolish.

"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities," writes a Zen master, "but in the expert's mind there are few." I am itching to feel possibilities again. I fear, in midlife, becoming a stick-in-the-mud, hesitant about — or resistant to — change. Timid and overly cautious, like a little-old-lady driver. I need to cultivate a vibrant, resilient, adventurous state of mind. I need to take a giant leap, a grand jeté, outside my comfort zone. That's why I'm here, in just-purchased tights and leotard learning how to take my first step — literally — down this new road.

OK, confession: This first ballet class is not quite the first step. And by "not quite" I mean it has taken me most of a year to silence (or more accurately, turn down the volume on) the "I can't" tape. It has taken me most of a year to talk myself into a semi-brave place. A "delight in difficulty," "acknowledge the fear and do it anyway" state of mind.

Too much angst and drama about a simple ballet class? Now might be the time to tell you that I am taking this class so that I can work my way up to a more advanced class, so that I can talk my way into taking company classes with a professional ballet troupe, so that I can audition for a part in "The Nutcracker," so that I can, finally, at midlife, dance onstage in this ballet that has entranced me since I was 5 years old.

It has also, and this is a big also, taken me most of a year to whip myself up into some semblance of ballet shape. (Please note "some semblance.") Although I am healthy and physically active, what I used to do for exercise, and had been doing for years, was pretty much the prize-winning recipe for creating the perfect non-ballet body. I ran, which shortened the hamstrings, the opposite of what you want in ballet. I went on long-distance bike rides, an excellent way to create chunky muscular thighs. I weight trained — CrossFit, TRX and general sweaty gym stuff — which squared my shoulders and bulked up my back. What I needed to do before I set my ballet-slippered foot into the studio that first day was develop an entirely new fitness routine that lengthened and strengthened my muscles and make myself more flexible than I had been since I lay on my back and did Happy Baby in my crib, undo the postural effects of a 25-year sitting-in-front-of-the-computer writing career, create strength and articulation in my stiff and inflexible feet, and figure out what to do about my flappy midlife underarms.

And so, I did.

Well, everything but the flappy underarms.

I stopped running and put away the dumbbells. I enrolled in yoga and Pilates. I signed up for Barre3 classes (a subtle but extraordinarily challenging lengthening and strengthening method). I found a Gyrotonics instructor (a weirdly wonderful system invented by an injured dancer). I took boxing lessons (because I read Twyla Tharp did). I sat on the floor of my living room every night with a wide stretchy band around my instep, flexing and pointing, flexing and pointing.

And slowly, oh, so slowly, I became the person who could take the beginning class.

And then the next class. And the next.

Kessler is the author of the new book "Raising the Barre," about her midlife quest to perform in "The Nutcracker" with a professional company, which she did when she appeared as Clara's Aunt Rose with the Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon. Kessler's website is LaurenKessler.com.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 05, 2015, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Step 1 of her `Nutcracker' dance - GETTING OUT" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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