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Visions of Tutus and Toe Shoes

WANTING to be a ballerina is a fairly common ambition among little girls - even, I would suspect, in these days, when many parents try to avoid imposing stereotyped ideas about gender roles on aspiring young minds. I certainly remember well that my own first ambitions - at the age of three - were to be a nurse and a ballerina. My career plans, I admit, look a bit incongruous with hindsight. (I suppose I could have done my nursing on weekdays and appeared in "Swan Lake" on weekends.) But it's also very e asy to see why I felt drawn to these two very different roles. On the one hand, I wanted to help people; on the other, I wanted to dazzle them. Why exactly did I imagine at the age of three that I could dance my way into people's hearts? How did I even know what a ballerina was? I had never been to the ballet, nor was my mother the kind of stage-door parent who drilled me on the five positions while dashing off winsome costumes on the sewing machine. On the contrary, my mother assured me that I would be very bored even just watching a ballet: lots of music and dancing but no words, as she explained. Perhaps I had seen a ballerina on television, or in a picture book. I may not have known much, but I knew what I wanted to be!

Part of the appeal, of course, was in the costume. All children love to dress up, and there is something about the short, fluffy, gauzy, classical tutu that is irresistible to a child's imagination. It is so wonderfully impractical - the antithesis of rompers and polo shirts and overalls and bibs and sweaters and all the clumsy paraphernalia of everyday child-life. It's a dress straight out of a fairy tale, and as such, it addresses a child's rich capacity for fantasy.

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In my case, however, the costume was secondary. The original source of my infant balletomania, as far as I recall, was simply that I loved to dance. Dance is one of the oldest art forms - that's what dance-class teachers always claim, anyway. I can certainly vouch for the fact that in my case, dance was one of the earliest forms of self-expression I turned to, preceded only by talking, and before that, crying. To express emotion through bodily motions and to feel moved by the rhythms and melodies of mus ic are deep-rooted impulses.

My parents usually kept the radio tuned to a classical music station, and I would dance to whatever was playing: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach; a symphony, a piano sonata, a violin concerto, a fugue - almost anything, except, for some reason, vocal music. I somehow had the idea that when someone was singing, the words - which I could never quite hear clearly - were probably telling a story that had nothing to do with the stories I was making up in my dances.

It's hard to remember now what these stories of mine were about. I remember only that there was a good deal of drama, motion, and emotion as I tiptoed down mysterious forest trails, leapt over canyons, was captured by evil-doers, languished in a dungeon, plotted my escape, or was rescued by a convenient prince on a galloping steed. I made up the stories as I heard the music, acting out whatever it was I felt the music was trying to say. It was tricky work. Sometimes, when I was settling down for a nice little languish, the music would become hectic, so I'd quickly have to improvise more appropriate action: a fight with a monster, perhaps.

Often, I was at a ball, outdancing imaginary rivals. I assumed I was a splendid dancer: I had no way of judging. I liked watching myself in the mirror, especially in the costumes I concocted. When you are three, your mother's scarves can furnish a large portion of your theatrical wardrobe: Two or three tucked into your waistband make a flowing gown. They can also be tied around the neck as a cape or pinned to hair as a veil.

My parents, innocently mistaking my enthusiasm for aptitude, dutifully enrolled me in a ballet class. It was here my fantasies first clashed with hard reality.

And reality was hard in more ways than one. I'll never forget the hard wood floor of the dance studio - an uncomfortable contrast to the soft living-room carpet, scene of my earlier efforts. Or the 20 or 30 other little girls, all of us in black leotards (not a tutu in sight), all strangers, lying on the floor as the teacher instructed us to roll onto our stomachs, arch our backs, hold our ankles in our hands, and rock back and forth on our stomachs.

This, I could tell right away, was not pretty. This had nothing to do with acting out a story to music. This was not dancing, which, in my book, meant twirling around, running, and leaping. This was not even fun. It was hard and it hurt. It was boring. It was not what I meant by ballet.

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I glanced around me on the floor to see how the other kids were doing. Some seemed to rock on their stomachs with the greatest of ease. Many, like me, were grunting and groaning. A few had found an easier way out - rocking from side to side instead of back to front. I started to copy their "technique," but it wasn't much fun either.

I didn't stay long in ballet class. But this was not quite the end of my fascination with the ballet. I continued to dance - privately at home, for the most part, although I was also known to get up and dance on the bandstand at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey just across the river from New York, where we lived. I was still small enough to please an audience simply by being cute. I didn't think of myself as cute: I still believed I had star quality. I was serious about my dancing ... which is pro bably why the grown-ups gathered round the bandstand considered me cute.

Later, when I was about seven or eight, I took some "modern dance" classes. They were far less punishing than ballet classes, and more geared to helping children be "expressive" and "creative," but I must admit I found it a little dull to pretend to be a flower awakening in the spring, when I had already been the fiery heroine of far more exciting dramas of my own devising. Teaching children is a delicate enterprise, and it is hard to find the right balance between scaring them off by setting them tasks beyond their ability (in my case, rocking on my stomach) and failing to challenge them by setting them tasks that are too babyish.

Still, I never lost my special feelings about ballet, even though it became clear to me, as I entered my teens, that I was not cut out for the athletic discipline of the dance. Luckily, I had other plans: I was going to be an actress, a writer, a mother, president of the United States, and a dress designer. (Thus far, I've managed to achieve only one of these.) The event that sent me back to my old fascination with ballet was Rudolf Nureyev's spectacular defection to the West in the 1960s.

Up until then, I had never thought much about male ballet dancers. I had assumed they were put on stage only to serve as background props for the ballerinas. But with the advent of Nureyev, the male dancer became, once more, a figure to be reckoned with. Newspaper stories were full of comparisons to the great Nijinsky, and so I scurried off to the library to find out everything I could read about him too. Vaslav Nijinsky, as the photographs testified, had not been as strikingly handsome as Rudolf Nureye v, but according to those who had seen him dance in the early years of the century, Nijinsky had the uncanny ability to transform himself on stage into the quintessence of whatever role he was dancing, from the sad puppet in "Petroushka" to the dazzling "Spectre de la Rose."

Reading about Nijinsky got me interested in the history of the ballet. So that by the time I saw the announcements of Nureyev and Fonteyn's American tour, I was fully prepared to see my first live ballet - to which I also dragged my first "serious" boyfriend. He was not a balletomane to begin with, but on seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev perform, he was so captivated that he started improvising a series of balletic leaps down the stairway of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center when the show was ove r. He did not become a ballet dancer either. But there is something about the music, and moving to music, and the combination of motion and emotion, spectacle and rhythm, that is irresistible. And when you realize how very difficult it is for dancers to do something that must always look easy, spontaneous, and graceful, ballet, in the eyes of an experienced adult, can seem even more miraculous than it seemed in the eyes of a dazzled child.

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