Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And now for an encore

Here's my June column:

A dancer’s leap of faith

Nearly every little girl gets a taste of ballet class at some point in her life. Even with a dizzying array of other extra curricular activities from which to choose, most girls, at one time or another, still go through the paces of learning the five positions of the feet and arms and how to do a grande plie.

After that, a small minority stick with ballet’s strict regimen and go on to learn the intricacies of entrechat quatre and pas de chat, among other graceful and complex steps. Others go on to modern dance or hip-hop, or abandon dance entirely for sports or music and other pursuits. A demanding art form, ballet is certainly not suited for everyone.

Friends of mine are sometimes surprised that I still go to regular ballet classes, twice a week. Officially, my explanation is that I am terribly undisciplined about putting myself on an exercise schedule. Ballet class begins and ends at prescribed times, which makes it easier for me to find the time to be there, and the classes themselves build strength, flexibility and endurance, offering a well-rounded workout. (Anyone who thinks ballet is for sissies has obviously not met my teacher, Maria, who compares herself to a drill sergeant.)

But really, the other reason I take ballet is that a big part of me still aspires to perform the graceful leaps and turns that I have loved since I first saw a televised ballet as a child. I may be naturally clumsy, but deep inside, I was born to dance.

My physical limitations and religious priorities kept me from ever considering life as a dancer. With rules of modesty and restrictions that make Shabbat performances verboten, Orthodox Judaism and ballet are an uneasy mix.

However, some time ago it occurred to me that the two disciplines really have quite a bit in common.

Both demand dedication, sacrifice and passion. Both have their own vocabularies, both literal and symbolic. Both are best appreciated by devoted followers, and are easily misunderstood by outsiders. Both are learned best from teachers who mix firmness with compassion, and who understand how to transmit love for their field of study.

On a sadder note, ballet and Orthodox Judaism both have legions of disillusioned former students, sometimes because of the influence of shortsighted or overly strict teachers or a general aversion to the demands of regimen.

Another challenge of both disciplines is that many people see the rules and restrictions and never see the beauty that such guidelines can produce.

For example, a newcomer to ballet class may find it frustrating that three quarters of class may be spent at the barre, instead of leaping across the room. Similarly, one who drops into an Orthodox service may hear lots of Hebrew recitations without ever feeling a connection to God.

However, a veteran of either discipline will tell you that without a solid plie, a dancer will never soar, and that by delving into centuries-old prayers and texts, one will eventually learn how to connect to the Almighty.

There are certainly other paths to artistic beauty and other ways of finding God, but I have found that these time-tested and intricate methods work best for me.


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