My mother decided, when I was about eleven, that I might make a good ballerina, as a career option, and one of my sisters might make a good concert pianist and the other sister might make a good artist, specifically, a good painter. So I became an ethnomusicologist, and one of my sisters became a newspaper reporter, and the other taught French. Then we all became, not surprisingly I suppose, writers. Writers are people who are always thinking about what they will someday do.
The point at which we embarked on our first careers (ballerina, pianist, painter) occurred during an era when children did not begin their extracurricular educations at age three. With the exception of the piano lessons, we were maybe nine, eleven, and even thirteen before we did anything more structured after school than play Models. Our playing Models should not be confused with the tedious, product-oriented manipulations with toothpicks and airplane glue and tiny parts that my poor brothers—who didn’t purposefully sniff the red, crackly glue, though they sometimes licked it—pretended to be interested in. Playing Models, for us, involved a dramatic reenactment of Milly the Model from the funny papers, and—was it Ginger? and Stacy?—her co-workers. Or we played Store Clerks. Or Telephone Operators.
I don’t remember ever playing Concert Pianist, Painter, or Ballerina.
Our play material was taken from a pragmatic world of gainful employment, hourly wages and so forth, and, since this was the early ’60s, that, for us, meant assembling outfits and applying makeup, mainly, and making sure we had a nice pair of manageable high heels and a day-to-evening handbag.
In contrast to this world of work, our new (possibly real) careers were drawn from the realm of pure play. This was about self-fulfillment more than coordinated wardrobes and we understood that. There were practical concerns, of course; this kind of dedicated play cost money. There were lessons to pay for and things to buy—tutus, ballet slippers, oil paints, brushes, metronomes, pianos even. But the ultimate lesson was that what matters most is often good for nothing but itself. We never talked about these careers in terms of whether or not they would earn us money. The only questions hanging were whether or not we had what it took, whether or not we could recognize our vocations, whether or not we would answer the call. It wasn’t exactly pressure my mother exerted; we were taught to believe in ourselves and in fate, equally. It was a seriousness about how we were, ultimately, to fill our days. And we gave the ballerina, concert pianist, and painter options serious attention (while continuing to play Toll Gate Operator on the sly).
Unfortunately, being five-foot-eight-inches tall by age twelve and weighing l00 flat does not guarantee the making of a ballerina. And we lived in Cut Bank. There were no dancing schools, as such. There were no ballets to attend, no key parts to covet. Pursuing ballet in Cut Bank, back then anyway, was a quasi-clandestine, esoteric pursuit, something like Sufi dancing or snake handling. And it took place in subzero weather, always, in the meagerly-heated basement of the J.C. Penney’s store.
There were maybe five of us in the class—myself, and a few other hapless hanks of hair, and two older girls, who possessed toe shoes and had somehow earned the right to wear them. These girls clumped through our stretching exercises in a mysterious state of stunted difference, faintly tragic, stoic, not-quite-right. They were Laura’s unicorn, from The Glass Menagerie (they hoped you’d think). It was really hard for these toe-shoe ballerinas to just walk in the things and it was embarrassing to me to witness the attempt. It looked painful and seemed twisted in more ways than one. Years later I was reminded of these toe shoes when I saw my first pair of bound feet, on a largish grandma who was trying to stroll through the botanical gardens in Taipei, supported on both sides, as she swayed and tottered along, by callow, dissolute-looking sons.
So the mechanics of my chosen art didn’t appeal to me and I was even more put off when I saw a picture of myself in my tutu. I’d had to hitch the scratchy netting up under my armpits, because I was the tallest and the hemlines should be even for the picture, or some such thing. Now, when I see ballerinas dance in local productions, such as the recently performed The Nutcracker or the upcoming A Christmas Jewel, I am moved by their odd get-ups and archaic gestures, and if these dancers are pre-pubescent I nearly weep at their sweet gangliness. But that’s an effect I simply didn’t have. I had a droopy, pinched-alien look, like a hollyhock doll. Somehow, I missed.
My mother didn’t argue when I wanted to quit and become an ethnomusicologist and then a writer, with stints at waitressing and administrative assisting, and telemarketing along the way. In fact, she behaved as though I’d fulfilled a goal. Clearly, becoming a ballerina was not as important as pursuing it.
The Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre presents A Christmas Jewel Saturday, Dec. 18 at the Wilma Theatre at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15 general, $10 children and seniors. A fundraiser performance with a champagne reception will be held Friday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $50. Call 549-5155.