I am lying on my back. Sweat is trickling from my temples through the curls of hair above my ears, around to the back of my neck and then dripping onto the vinyl mat. My left leg is bent at the knee; my right leg is wrenched across my left leg to form the number 4. My left hand is stretching through the hole of the 4 and pulling my right leg forward, grasping in vain for my right hand behind my right thigh.
Literally, I am tying myself in a knot.
It’s not what I had in mind when I signed up for The Ballet Workout. The idea originated last September with Sal, the player-manager of my softball team, towards the end of another injury-riddled season. I pulled my hamstring for the ninth time in six years, then pulled a groin muscle compensating for the hamstring, then pulled a muscle below my ribcage sneezing. Maybe, Sal said, I ought to work on flexibility. He suggested yoga. But I’ve always held a dim view of yoga, of the in-your-face serenity of its practitioners — as though the ability to bend your leg behind your head translated into spiritual enlightenment.
The Ballet Workout seemed more likely. For one thing, it wasn’t an actual ballet class, so I wouldn’t have to wear tights or dance slippers. For another, I’d once briefly dated a woman who taught me the five basic foot-positions, so I figured I already had a leg up. Besides, I’d been told several times that I looked relatively graceful playing centerfield … so I thought maybe I’d turn out to be a natural at ballet, that I’d end up doing Nureyevs from one end of the studio to the other.
THAT IMAGE LASTED FIVE MINUTES into the first class. It lasted five minutes only because Anna, the instructor, was four minutes late. As the class — nine women and me — waited for her to arrive, I watched myself in the mirror. I looked like a dancer. I was wearing a sleeveless gray T-shirt and black bicycle shorts and a light blue bandanna tied across my forehead. As I rolled my head from side to side, loosening up, the stark overhead light was shadowing my high Bolshoi cheekbones.
Finally, Anna entered the room. She was a petite woman with dark brown hair, very pretty, in her late twenties. She walked up to me at once and glanced down at my feet.
“You might want to loose those.”
She meant my Converse Chuck Taylor hightops.
As I unlaced the sneakers, Anna stepped to the front of the class and called out: “Warm-ups.”
The rest of the class collected vinyl mats from the corner and then slid down onto them, and I followed their lead — thankful that neither of my socks had a hole in the toe. As we shifted from one side to another, rotating our legs at odd angles to loosen our hip joints, I still felt vaguely adequate. The first real trouble came when we rolled onto our stomachs. Anna told us to extend our right leg and left arm; this I managed by pressing my forehead into the mat for a kind of tripod balance. A moment later, I heard Anna’s voice above me. “Head back! Head back! That’s right. Now chin up!”
The instant I pulled my chin up, I keeled to the left — banging my high left Bolshoi cheekbone onto the edge of the mat and wood floor. I glanced up at Anna, forcing a smile, a signal that only my dignity was hurt. Then we reversed arms and legs, then back again, back and forth. The rest of the class was flexing and arching, a flock of swans; I was a buckshot goose stiffening with rigor mortis.
Next, we rolled onto our backs. “Hands beneath your rear-ends,” Anna shouted, assuming the position herself, “small of your back pressed into the mat, legs straight up in the air, feet turned out … now your legs come apart.”
All right, I had my hands beneath my rear-end.
“Legs up in the air,” she called to me. “Up in the air. Way up. Straight knees! Straight knees! That’s right. Now your legs come apart. Just let them fall apart.”
Reluctantly, my legs drifted apart: Got it, I thought.
Then I peered at Anna in front of the room. Her legs were extended to 3:45. I glanced up at mine: ten minutes to two.
“Now legs together!”
I brought mine together.
“Now back apart . . . see if you can go further.”
I was still at ten to two: Anna was now at 4:40.
As we continued our floor work, straightening and rounding, coiling and relaxing, I came to realize that she was boneless, a cross between a woodland sprite and a gumby. She was doing things with her body that I couldn’t have done if I’d been able to step out of my skeleton and twist from the outside. Still, Anna managed an occasional smile in my direction. I was pleased, too, that none of the other students seemed to notice how awkward I felt. They were too focused on keeping up with Anna’s instructions.
AFTER SEVERAL MORE MINUTES on the mats, Anna told us to stand up and catch our breaths. When I glimpsed myself in the mirror, what a change I saw! I had sweated through the back and sides of my T-shirt, and my hair was soaked into ringlets that lined the rim of the bandanna.
The woman next to me whispered, “Good workout.”
“Is it over?”
She laughed softly.
“Feet in first position!” Anna called.
That, I knew I how to do: knees straight, heels together, toes turned out to 180 degrees. Anna nodded in approval as I teetered for an instant, then steadied myself.
“Now, demi-plié …”
As the words left her mouth, Anna sank in a perfect line towards the floor, her feet still opposed, her heels still together, her thighs and calves diamonding out, her arms billowing at her sides; a second later, she rose again to her full height, her knees straightening, her arms rolling upwards at the same pace as her torso. The movement was breathtaking in its simplicity and grace. I watched her do another, then, on her third call, attempted my first demi-plié.
“Good!’ she said.
I nodded to her: No problem.
“Now, with me, on the beat … plié . . . plié . . . plié . . .”
The word itself became the count, the forceful plee the dip, the breathless yeh the rise. For a half dozen pliés, I was keeping up, adapting to the cadences of her voice. The two of us were partners, bodies in motion together. But then, accidentally, I glimpsed myself in the mirror. The truth hit hard. I was not Anna’s partner. I was a dancing bear. No, I was one of those Ray Harryhausen clay dinosaurs that lurch between frames of film. The hunch in my shoulders as I curled my arms was australopithecine.
“Right leg brushes forward and back! Foot pointed! Now … brush … brush … brush …”
As I watched my right foot swinging forward and back, I was determined not to look in the mirror again. My balance was shaky. I wobbled on my left leg twice, but I continued to brush. For the remainder of the class, I sank back into myself, focused on Anna’s directions, mimicked her movements half-heartedly. What I wanted, throughout, was to be back in centerfield, circling underneath a fly ball, doing something I was good at — and I wanted Anna sitting in the bleachers. Watching me. Nodding her head.
WHEN THE CLASS ENDED, I HURRIED out. Never again, I thought. That resolution intensified the following morning: I ached in places I’d never ached before, felt spasms where I didn’t know I had muscles. Still, as the week wore on, I began to waver. The aches faded, the spasms petered out. I was left with the recognition that ballet was the first physical activity I’d ever been bad at. Sure, I’d been mediocre at lots of things, but never bad. I began to feel for those kids in the playground — you know, the last picks of the pick-up games, the Philips and Marvins and Iras, who seemed predestined to watch grounders dribble through their legs or pop ups ricochet off their chests. They always came back. Week after week, praying perhaps that their bodies would start to follow their wills, that their mental images would suddenly match reality, that the recipe for athletic coordination would finally dawn on them.
Of course, it never did.
Nevertheless, that is my hope now as I return week after week to The Ballet Workout: that someday, suddenly, I will glance past Anna and into the mirror and see something that resembles a dancer.