Like many people, there are memoirs I want to write. Even if they are only for myself, to explain to myself what I see in my past. I have become very aware that the incidents that truly shape our characters are frequently invisible to those around us. They can be minor incidents in the eyes of the “outsiders,” but they can be tremendous to us.
Once such event happened to me when I was still very young. The following is from a memoir I’m slowly working away on (Making Everything Count), about those things that I believe influenced me to become the writer I am.
I took two years of ballet lessons when I was ages 5 through 6. I loved dancing, and would lark about our living room to whatever classical music was playing on the radio or on my father’s record player. As with the swimming lessons I was given during that period, my parents decided to give the natural inclination some formal training. I was very happy to go along with this idea, since I had a book about ballet, and I loved the pictures of the ballerinas. I wanted to be one.
Unfortunately, the two years of lessons became merely “just for myself” right at the very beginning.
At the end of the first class, when the instructor spoke with my parents about how I had done, he did it in front of me, in my hearing. There I was, the small child standing in the midst of a trio of tall (to me) adults. They were conversing way “up there.” I was way below their line of sight. The instructor commended me to my parents on my abilities, I believe.
But then he spoke the deadly words, telling them I would never be a ballerina, because even then it was obvious that I was going to be too tall.
I don’t know if they were aware that I was listening or that I understood. The little pitcher with big ears was too short to be noticed at that moment. But it stuck with me, to a negative effect, killing that ambition to be a ballerina. There’s a melancholy sorrow to a child receiving lessons in something she loves, all the while knowing her dream will not come true, because “the person who knows” had said it was impossible.
The memory of that moment came back at me many years later when I attended a performance by the American Ballet Theatre of the ballet Raymunda, choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev.
My final height is five feet, eight inches. Most male ballet dancers are under six feet in height. A ballerina of my height, when she is en pointe, will be over six feet tall, towering over her partners. This is why, traditionally, ballerinas are petite. But in the performance I saw of the ABT, the prima ballerina was the dazzling Cynthia Gregory – who just happened to be five feet, eight inches.
Unlike an experience with my second grade teacher and reading (she had not believed my claim that I could read at a third grade level, especially after I botched reading aloud, even though I’d been reading an advanced level silently all summer), whether I might be able to become as a dancer was not something I knew for sure.
He was the expert. And apparently there was a factor that would have nothing to do with my ability: how tall I would be.
So, right from the beginning, I knew that taking the dance classes would be only for my own satisfaction, for I would never be that ballerina I had wanted to be. All because of what the instructor said in my hearing.
I have occasionally wondered what I would have done if I had not heard that. Would I have pushed on, and been like Cynthia Gregory? I don’t know. But it did instill in me an outlook that would become much stronger later: not to quash the desires of others, just because they don’t fit the expected pattern. If someone has the desire to pursue an ambition and is willing to do the work, I will not be the one to turn them away. There is enough of that little wannabe-ballerina in me still, and she remembers how it stung to hear those words.