Monday, January 07, 2008

MARTI ZUCKROWV "Dance on Paper"

My granddaughter, Sarah, and I walk into the dance center. Sarah looks around trying to appear cool and disinterested. I can almost hear her ten-year-old heart thumping away in her chest. Getting her here was no small task.

A cluster of pre-teen, gangly, lithe girls in leotards and tights lounge on two couches opposite the front desk. An equally gangly, lithe, full-fledged teenage girl stands behind the desk, punching class cards, answering the phone, and pointing new students in the right direction. Sarah fidgets with her hair as we wait for the class to begin. The manicures we both got last week are no longer perfect although the air-brushed flowers she had put on over her bright red nails are still decipherable. She's wearing her designer jeans and a shirt that cost an arm and a leg -- nothing I would have ever agreed to buy her, but that's my
daughter. Spoils her rotten.

We are here to observe the children's ballet class. I peek through the glass door of one of the studios and notice the piano has been moved. Well, what did I expect? I haven't been back here in how many years is it now? Edmond is dead, his amazing piano playing gone from the world of the living. He transformed all
of us, the motley crew of wannabes. We leaped higher,pirouetted faster, and we grew wings when he played. His fingers danced across the keyboard and we
danced our hearts out.

"Sarah," I say, nudging her toward the studio, "your Mom took ballet in this room when she was about your age."

"I know Grandma, you told me that a million times already."

Boy, if looks could kill.

She's busy sizing up the girls waiting for their instructor to show up. Agile as cheetahs and lean as string beans, they sit straddle legged, their chests
pressed to the floor.

“Do you have to wear leotards?”she asks, her eyes glued to the boniness of one girls ribcage.

"In ballet yes, in modern, no."

There's a stampede of little feet rushing down the stairs, four and five year olds spilling out of class and into the gloating arms of their mothers or fathers or
nannies. You can almost harness their exuberance, excitement flooding the stairwell, each tiny person gushing with passionate self-discovery. Sarah's passionate self-discovery, that's what I'm after. She's gone through gymnastics, soccer,
basketball, jazz dance and tap; she's tried guitar and cheerleading.

Ten years old and already bored with life. Go figure. Oh, and I almost forgot, she no longer likes to draw, an early passion of hers that I thought might stick. Nothing is cool enough for my aspiring-to-be-a teenager granddaughter.

A wisp of a young woman breezes into the dance studio, CD's in hand.

"Hello girls," she says with a breathless Italian accent, "let's get started. We'll begin on the floor." She is poetry in motion as she descends to the
floor, her thick black hair pulled back and cascading down a long, swan-like neck, her sculpted arms and muscular legs melting like butter.

I just about salivate, longing to be in that studio, longing to point and flex my toes, to portebrae my arms, to stretch my spine and arc my back and transform into a beautiful being instead of the aging human being that I have become. Sour grapes. Not
really, but rather, a moment of grief, the loss of my dancer’s body.

I stumbled onto this studio days after we arrived in California, December 1969. I was 28, and my daughters were two and four. The girls were tucked away safe and
sound at the Telegraph Ave COOP Kiddie Coral (two hours free child care for shoppers, unbelievable in this day and age). With little money to spend and
waiting to hear if our welfare application had been accepted, I scanned the shelves, bought a few staples and decided to take advantage of this windfall of good
luck; I could take a walk, just me, with no kids. For an hour and a half, I was free.

I'd loved dance all my life, taking ballet and modern classes from the age of five. When I was Sarah's age, my favorite movie was “The Red Shoes,” a movie about a
ballerina who could not stop dancing no matter how much her feet bled, no matter how fatigued her legs became, no matter that she danced to her death. She
was my heroine and I, too, knew that I would die for the sake of dance and that it would be the greatest thing I could do. By the time I was ten, I had
discovered the trance I fell into when I danced, a trance that carried me away from the terrors of McCarthyism. I soared above the whispers of my leftist parents and their friends; my worries: who was next, who would give names. Would they kill my parents like they did the Rosenbergs?

A favorite outing of mine, which happened about once a year, was to ride the subway downtown to the Capezio store on Broadway and 47th street, where the
professional dancers bought their dancewear and where I bought my ballet shoes when I'd outgrown a pair. My mother would finish up work at her sewing machine,
exhausted from the long hours and the dreary factory, navigate her way through the noisy, bustling garment center and the two would meet, both enchanted with
what awaited us.

The world of dance. Close proximity to the ballerinas who inhabited that world. I think we both dreamed of citizenship although my mother never had the chance.

The elegant ballerinas, their long swanlike necks,their long, long hair pulled severely back emphasizing a widow’s peak at the top of their flawless foreheads,
their prominent clavicles and long their sinewy arms,I was sure they really could fly. Oh, the thrill of watching them sort through boxes of those pink satin
shoes, the graceful arches of their feet as they pointed their toes and extended a perfectly-muscled calf. My mother, with her ugly feet, so wide and stumpy that she'd hide them under her chair, her ugly orthopedic shoes almost hidden. Only then would she allow herself a peek, and maybe she, too, fantasized having such beautiful feet. I'd stare, praying that if I looked hard enough, I'd escape my mother's ugly feet
and her stocky peasant body.

Bubble bubble toil and trouble, I'd wish with all my might that I, too, could be a dancer.

So there, in the studio that day, were four generations represented: my mother from her grave, me, a grandma who wanted to be 21 all over again and study dance all
over again and do it all over again, my daughters, who had both studied dance there (one of them going on to dance with the San Francisco Ballet Company) and Sarah, who
didn't really want to be there at all.

I was in lala land doing the ballet moves in my head as the students struggled with their form. Sarah and I watched 15 minutes more of the ballet class before
she poked me, "let's go." Unimpressed, she walked outside and asked for a treat.

"Ice cream? Gelato? Please, Grandma."

We walked to the corner and waiting for the light to change, it hit me. My mother was really dead. She killed herself 10 years ago, while I was in Tunisia on a camel trek in the Sahara desert. By the time I got
back to the states, my sister, in shock and beside herself with grief, had cleaned out my mother's house, arranged a funeral and watched our mother get lowered
into the ground, right next to our father.

I heard the news and felt numb. I tried to cry. I wanted to cry. For years I wished for the tears that never came. Slowly, small snatches of the reality of
her suicide began chipping through the wall I'd constructed. Bringing Sarah to the dance center today knocked more of the wall down.

In side the gelato shop, Sarah studied the many flavors. As usual chocolate won. She watched the clerk scoop the silky treat into a cup.

"Thanks, grandma," she said, mouth full.

"Thank you," I said.

"Why thank me?" She looked puzzled.

“For being you," I answered, thrilled to give her a glimpse of the world of dance. Maybe she, too, would want citizenship. And if not, that was just fine.

Marti Zuckrowv is an Oakland, California-based writer.

1 comment:

kwolph said...

That was a beautiful glimpse into the world of dancing. I am new to this blog and am not sure if that was fiction or non-fiction but that it was engaging and elegantly described. It was sad to her that the granddaughter was not over excited for the ballet session, even for her grandmothers benefit but the grandmother's reaction was brave and admirable. I work on behalf of a child's enhancement center in Manhattan and think some parents that bring their children to our ballet classes would really get an appreciation for this story. Thank You!

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