A few weeks ago I walked into Broadway Dance Center and bought a 10-class card, ending months of wanting and planning and needing to get back into dance, specifically ballet. I promised myself that I would dive back in when I landed in New York City in July, and then life happened. But still I rise, and so here we are. I’m opening up my hips and getting my fifth position back together again, in the same studio where I first met my friend the grand plié, several pounds and eight years later.
Each class reminds me how out of shape I am. I am reminded during the adagio near the end of each session, when we come center and slowly string together the various movements we work on daily, and my legs tremble and my breathing becomes more audible. Or when my teacher, Dorit Koppel, comes beside me to demonstrate that my leg can, in fact, stretch longer and higher while doing a developpé. No pain, no poppin’ body-ody.
Everything hurts so good.
I first stepped up to the barre as a work-study student at BDC’s original 57th Street location three lifetimes ago in 2007, after years of blissful ignorance about ballet’s usefulness in helping one become a stronger, more versatile, more disciplined performer. I got my training by watching and mimicking Janet, Michael, Missy, Aaliyah and anybody else who hit some 5-6-7-8s in a video or during an awards show dance-break moment between the mid-’90s and about 2003. (Let’s just say that battling me in a late-’90s music-video choreo-moment would not have ended well for you.)
Inspired by Janet Jackson’s All for You Tour—watching her live HBO special from Hawaii in 2002 in my friend’s den—I told my homies, “I want to do that” and held auditions weeks later: I started a dance company at 17 and we performed, competed and danced like hell for a few years. I got to choreograph, dream big and flex my creative muscles. I moved to New York City from Virginia in June 2006, after spending the second half of 2005 recovering from my first lupus flare-up. I had done pretty well in the hip-hop lane, I convinced myself, and figured I’d go right on ahead and stick with more of the same, thank you very much.
Like many dancers coming from a hip-hop background, I wasn’t looking forward to wearing tights and contorting and stretching my body to such ludicrous and seemingly unnatural lengths. Having progressed from a midsize fish from the smallest of ponds to a pretty-good-but-painfully-shy goldfish in an ocean of big-ass extroverted sharks, I was terrified by the idea of starting back at zero in a notoriously difficult style. I wasn’t hyped about joining the rest of the stone-limbed newbies and poorly postured dancers accustomed to bent backs, flexed and parallel feet, grooves and freedom that exist in the world of urban dance.
Similar to the journey of starting locks from a peasy mini-’fro, studying ballet sucks for quite a while. Unlike everything I’d ever done until that point, at that germy barre, there was correct and then there was abysmal. The first few months are a fight to hack away at the terribleness. Your challenge is to find the grace in that struggle and ensure that this struggle doesn’t look like a struggle.
But I soon grew to love the struggle. I got used to being one of no more than three black dudes in a class, and occasionally the lone Mandingo warrior in a sea of Lena Dunhams. I didn’t take my responsibility lightly; after a few months in Dorit’s basic class, I became the go-to Negro in Studio 1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “OK, now watch Alexander,” she’d say. This also meant that she was particularly hard on me and would put me on blast with the same smile: “OK, we’ll all keep doing it until Alexander gets it right.”
In July 2009, fueled by a hunger for more, I moved to North Hollywood in Los Angeles to continue chasing my dream job: Janet Jackson’s best friend, choreographer, artistic director and off-season eating partner.