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.
I did work-study at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio, manning the front desk and doing light cleaning in exchange for free classes, picking up extra hours some weeks, dropping the coins for more classes other weeks. Some days, when not slinging red-velvet waffles or buffalo chicken-blue cheese-bacon waffle fries at the Waffle, I’d arrive at 2 p.m., dance like a motherf—ker until well into la noche, smash something excessively gluttonous because magical metabolism, go to bed and do it all again with ease the next day. Shoutout to 25-year-old Alex’s youthful, struggle-free knees.
Ballet, which requires superhuman focus and power, was a daily lesson in humility and a wonderful gateway drug to those feelings of inadequacy and the unhealthy obsession with being tiny (hello, Hydroxycut) that had me straight tripping for a few years in my mid-20s. I felt like the king of Zamunda when I realized I could fit into those Levi’s 511s. For a minute, I ate meagerly in an effort to fit oxtail- and cheese-fed Negro hips and ass into the 510s, the super-skinny jeans. Dancing up a storm and “forgetting” to eat full meals, chaining my self-esteem to those numbers on the scale. Absolute madness.
And then I found out about California’s wonderful community college system and the fact that I could take ballet and whatever else for free, the lone upside of living la vida broka. So I took a social anthropology class. And a weight training class, because it forced me to lift regularly. And I took ballet and more ballet. And a string of writing courses at Los Angeles City College and UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program.
As I fell back in love with writing, dance gradually shifted from professional obsession to favorite pastime. The pressure of training or looking the part for music-video and stage work was gone. I didn’t have to worry about befriending (or humping) the right choreographers or being too short, too black or not ethnically ambiguous enough. Or having too much hair or not enough technique or muscles for a particular job. By the end of my time in Los Angeles, writing had replaced dance as my main boo piece.
I moved to Panama in July 2011 with a box of condoms and a dream and wound up starting an English-as-a-second-language academy, teaching a pretty popular cardio-dance class (that combined hip-hop, dancehall, Latin rhythms and aerobic workouts) in gyms and fitness studios, and choreographing and teaching with a school, BEAT Dance Studio.
When mental exhaustion, anxiety, hysteria and the panic attacks set in, dance was the first thing to go. The English classes were far more lucrative, so I figured that focusing there would help. Teaching English eventually became a chore and a source of stress and misery. Then writing became a source of stress and misery. Then life itself became a source of stress and misery. My enthusiasm for Panama and for living dwindled as I battled to keep it together and not backflip into traffic.
I taught my last dance class in June 2014. I moved back stateside that August and hadn’t been able to muster up the courage or desire to dance until this January, 19 months later.
Even when I’m spiraling and stewing in the anxiety, I can (usually) scrape it together enough to jump into those tights, get pon’ the train and get my tondu, my port de bras and my pas de bourrée on. Each class is a battle against rigidity and requires me to push and trust myself, to focus 100 percent of my brain power not on a deadline, luchini, self-loathing, anxiety or problems—real or self-perceived—but on getting stronger, being more precise and more confident in my movement, dancing bigger and more gracefully, listening to my body, and thriving rather than log-rolling through the mud with the nothingness. I shall not pretend that some of this fervor isn’t fueled by a desire to return to the days of majestic-hind-parts glory.
But most important, for a few hours a week, I feel light and unburdened. No anxiety. No pressure to dazzle with a snatched body and gig-ready technique or impress anyone but myself and St. Damita Jo Jackson.
Alexander Hardy is an Afro-Panamanian writer, foodie and teacher who divides his time between plotting meals; running his blog, the Colored Boy; and slinging words across internet land on sites like Gawker, Saint Heron and Very Smart Brothas, where he works as a senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.