Often, before I teach class, I pray. Although I love teaching, I don’t always feel inspired. Sometimes, I just want to cancel the class and call it a day. But, except for rare exceptions, I don’t. Instead, I pray. In my prayer, I give thanks and set my intentions for the class, particularly for how I would like to show up for the students, as I have no control over others.
Once in a while, as I am setting my intentions I feel…blocked. It feels like I am trying to push against something. In those instances, I have come to learn that something is up. Something beyond my control. When I feel this blockage arise, I set my intention to remain centered, open, deeply present and intuitive. I do my best to handle what arises with grace. I sometimes fail at that.
But generally, if I get into a good flow with my intentions, I have a good class, regardless of how I feel prior to its starting. Recently, I came upon my last class of the day. I was tired but took a moment to go inward. I was getting into a good flow with my list of good intentions when suddenly I switched it up a little. I prayed to be with spirit, with light. To bring light, to be in light and to leave light behind me.
As class progressed, we got into a simple, yet deadly pirouette combination: soutenu to fifth, single pirouette that finishes in tendu a la second, all the way across the floor. Slow. At some point coming from the left side, one student started crying. Then another.
I am no stranger to tears during a ballet class. During my training years, it was not uncommon that at some point during class one or more of us would make a quick escape to the bathroom, just off of the studio, to release a fitful burst of tears. As this distraught student said, “There is this emphasis on getting things right, and at some point you realize that you will never be perfect and somehow you have to make peace with that.” Well put.
In the moment of that deadly pirouette combination, she was not quite able to find peace and no wonder. The difficulty of learning ballet, such an unforgiving art form, is that it brings up every limitation. You are challenged physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Any hidden caves inside the self will show up and want attention. And sometimes it gets to be just a little too much.
But the beautiful thing, the miraculous thing is, that it is often at this precise moment of breaking that something else is allowed to flow in; the breaking point is also the moment of opening, of birth, of grace.
Feelings of overwhelm began to spread throughout the class like a wildfire. Like a virus. I realized the futility of continuing with pirouettes, so I sat them down and told them a story instead.
Once upon a time, when I was around the same age as my students, I joined a dance company. Actually, I was not technically in the company yet. I was not even an apprentice. I was in the most advanced level of the school when I was told to learn the corps of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco. Talk about trial by fire…
I had little help. The women in the company were resentful of me, a peon, getting an opportunity to perform such a difficult ballet. I did my best to pick up steps in the back of the rehearsal room while the other casts danced. I watched endless hours of video and rehearsed by myself after work. I memorized the music until I could sing it myself. The dance has many complex interweaving patterns that involve eight women and are impossible to do alone. I got one rehearsal. I was at my wit’s end. I was afraid. After my one rehearsal, I waited until everyone left the stage. In the wings I let myself have a long cry.
That evening, I stood in line onstage. As the curtain went up an extreme calm descended. It seemed as though a presence (I don’t know what else to call it) was with me. Something, seemingly outside of myself. Throughout the entire dance, this presence told me what to do a split second before it happened. I felt gently, lovingly guided. Warmly held.
Then it was over. I had sweated like never before. I was ecstatic.
To this day, I have no explanation for what happened. Was it a spirit? My own higher self? I have never felt that presence quite that way again but I am so grateful to have felt it at all.
At the end of my story, I looked at these young performers. There was a good feeling all around. The students left in a palpably lighter mood. I remembered my prayer before class and felt deep gratitude. And it occurred to me that perhaps that is the point of practicing such a difficult form: to take one beyond oneself and into a state of grace.