Many of us thought we would be approaching a new era in 2017 with a woman at the helm in the White House. Many of us had prepared a great celebration to welcome this new era on November 9, 2016, but instead were given what felt like a fatal blow. It was as though one had gone to get a routine check-up only to find out you have a terminal disease, and your life will never be the same.
Some of us felt like we had been slapped across the face by our worst bully, and no one would stand up to him. And yes, I mean him, and yes I am talking about women and feminism. I know that there is much more involved in that many people disapproved of Hilary Clinton. Many have voiced objections that have nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman candidate (sort of). Much has been said about how she was more scrutinized than a male candidate, and this is perhaps also debatable, but really it doesn’t matter. What I am saying is that historically, socially, and personally, the woman Hilary Clinton represented something for women’s rights, for women’s place in the world, and many of us felt that although she was not in any way perfect, her presence represented a certain safety for women that had never before been achieved. Perhaps it was too much to ask to win. It was too much to ask to actually completely overcome, and we are normalizing the success to the second place winner, which women traditionally take in the grand scheme of things.
I do not want to discuss how her rise to power and her treatment by media and the public is representative of how women are not treated equally, or that her imperfections are abominable because she is a woman. I do not want to discuss how she is really just a pawn in the political scheme where corporations are seeking to have insatiable power over the poor. I do not want to talk about how women need to act like men to be successful.
I want to talk about ballet.
On the Saturday morning after the election that I taught my mother’s 10.30 intermediate class, the class was full of women my age and older, some younger. I am 45 years old, and I teach a class to an amazing resilient beautiful group of women, who show up every week rain, snow or shine. They stand with dignity and presence at the barre, they are attentive and joyful and serious about the work of ballet. They treat their bodies respectfully, modifying as they need to. On this particular morning, the class was a bit more solemn, a bit quieter, and the air felt heavy to me. It is always a humbling moment for me as I approach the barre to demonstrate the first exercise because I feel the importance of these lives in my hands and I am always honored.
The class was a bit tense as a few little arguments erupted during spacing in the center, some scolding others for talking during the class, and it made me wonder if there was something about the election that had put us all on edge. I cannot verify this through any official data, but to me the connection was clear. I held intention clearly in my voice and in my presentation of exercises that we would remain calm and hopeful, and we waltzed across the floor.
The class ended, and the transition from the intermediate class to the advanced company class was its usual chaos. The young able bodied enter in desperation to push their bodies to an extreme, they don’t seem to notice the older women who need to step aside to let them barge in. Fear in their faces to acknowledge them means that they have to acknowledge that they too will be old one day. I forgive their arrogance because I was there once too. I used to turn my nose up to dancers who couldn’t get their legs up high enough, or turn a lot, or jump high and fast. But I was young then. Now, as an older dancer, I realize the women in this ballet class are holding their own in a world that would just as soon pass them by.
Ballet is a microcosm of what society values as a whole: beauty, strength, control, gender roles, etiquette, progress, hierarchy, achievement. What I love about the women in the Saturday morning class is that they subvert these assumptions by engaging with it despite what society feels about the aging body, especially a woman’s. Women who dance in their later years, can look younger and continue to be more active as they age, this is true, and many scientific studies that encourage exercise will attest to this fact. But younger dancers can’t hold a candle to the inner strength of character and the willful self-love that women who continue to advance their bodies, despite what society may value. One day, they will remember these women that were in this class, as they come to a point in their lives where they are starting to be ignored, less valued than they were as a post-teen lean and buoyant. When an injury has taken their spirit hostage, when they lose a child to miscarriage, when they find themselves at odds with the limits of their once infallible body. They will remember these women, and hopefully they will lift their heads and make a move to continue and not give up. That they will partner with their own body in appreciation and kindness.
And I will hold this space for them. I will continue to show up and teach a class of inclusiveness. What this means is that I am not lowering a standard, nor am I giving accommodations in order to participate. Inclusiveness is acknowledging that everyone has something to offer, and their presence is not only welcome, it is needed. I will not toss a presence aside, nor will I belittle by offering less than what is wanted. I am merely facilitating a conversation that invokes gesture, dignity, diplomacy in a way that honors a flourishing life. Ballet is not for the able, but for the willing.
Our world is upside down right now, which makes it all the more important to be sure-footed. Having an inward map of one’s own body through the real work of ballet gives a sense of ownership in a world where everything seems to be unravelling at a pace that is hard to comprehend. But stand in your own eye of this storm. Dance.
Top photo: Bailey Anderson. Bottom photo: Sue Daniels.