When your mom is a ballerina, and other members of your family’s network—friends and other relatives—are involved in ballet or other performing arts, people expect you will go down that road, too: it’s only natural. My earliest memories are attached to ballet mainly, and they are powerful and sensorial: I can’t smell rosin or walk into a theatre or hear certain familiar strains of music without being pulled back to those primordial roots. And it’s true, I had sparkly pink aspirations as a young child, as many little girls do, whether they come by them honestly as I did, or just happen to love the intoxicating glitter and frothy layers of pink tulle. At some point the conversation in our household shifted though—as it had to when my mom also became my ballet teacher, and when I became a teenager—from the pink trappings of little-girl obsessions to the realities of the professional ballet world.
At first the dialog turns to your so-called ‘facility.’ In ballet this means, will your body comply with the demands made of it, and do you possess the ballerina aesthetic? Are your limbs long in relation to your torso, do your feet have lovely, high arches, are you reasonably flexible, and lean—in short, were you born with the classical ballerina genotype? That’s not really up to you—you have it, or you don’t (although no ballerina is perfect: the best ones make the most of the hand they’ve been dealt). And what of musicality? This goes beyond merely hearing the music: can you internalize it so that your movement flows with it seamlessly? Because in dance, music and movement are inextricably bound. How about theatricality? When you are on the stage, you must possess it in spades: you must be able to tell a story convincingly with your whole self, because the spoken word is not in the ballerina ‘kit.’ To these keystones you could add supporting bedrock that might include athleticism, focus, a work ethic or drive (even at twelve or thirteen), and the beginnings of professionalism—the capacity to go to classes and rehearsals every day without complaint and to give them your all, whatever distracting thing may have happened earlier in the day or week. It is all part and parcel of preparing the body and the mind to dance professionally.
But arguably more important than any of these is the desire to dance. It is one thing to show proficiency in the classroom, and maybe at various points during your formative years on the stage, but it is quite another to long for this lifestyle more than anything, to know unequivocally it is your calling, that you were meant for it, and that you will get there, whatever obstacles you must clear to do it. You can be many things when you are training to dance but there is no room for indecisiveness. And there was the rub in my young life as an aspiring ballerina, during the often tumultuous relationship with my teacher-mom in those years, when the conversation shifted yet again to include this bothersome dimension. Do you want this? came the question, over and over, and for a long time I could not bring myself to articulate the answer out loud, for fear I would horribly regret the words the instant they tumbled from my mouth: I’m not sure.
After I left ballet (I’d return to it again in fits and starts, spend a minuscule amount of time on the stage with a small chamber ensemble out west, and then much later settle into a more comfortable role as a pedagogue) and started college I felt the same disquiet, though. Choose a major? How on earth could anyone possibly expect me to do that? Making this decision felt a little like being asked to choose which ice cream you’ll have from this menu of 32 flavors, and hurry it on up, please: people are waiting in line behind you. (In a moment of exasperation, I recall my mom demanding, Just pick something! Anything!—about my college major, not ice cream.)
In the end I felt tugged towards the written word, the other thing that enchanted me so much in those early years of glitter and tulle, although it took a little time to get there. And then antiquity, by way of the social sciences—archaeology, of all things—which blazed a path straight towards graduate school, where I kept on exploring language and local history especially, because it was also my family’s history, and specifically, scrutinizing the built environment—vernacular architecture, some of it by then in ruins, but also the highfalutin stuff. To this day I can’t go anywhere without looking up, up, up, at the cornices and cladding on old buildings, as a mentor once taught me to do; you miss a lot when you don’t take in the entire elevation of a structure that someone envisioned as art once upon a time. I pined for my undergraduate years, though, when I might have chosen architecture, were it not for a perceived weakness in mathematics, a weakness later debunked by an astute statistics professor. But I’ve always been afflicted, at least a little, by choosing the wrong flavor and then wondering how the right one might have tasted.
This affliction, though, really is a luxury. How ghastly to live life with a preordained outcome, knowing its blueprint from the get-go, bound to your lot, good or bad, because of some birthright, because there were no other choices, because your daddy and his daddy before him did it, or maybe for some more sinister reason. Equivocation held against that backdrop looks an awful lot like freedom.
Years ago I read a news story about a woman embarking on her medical degree at a smallish school in upper East Tennessee—she was in her eighties. Her eighties, for crying out loud. That story stuck with me for a long time. I can’t recall specifics, except she told the reporter she always wanted to be a doctor, but until then never had the opportunity. Imagine that: pursuing a lifelong dream to become a medical doctor in the twilight of your life.
On another occasion when I was in graduate school, hanging out in the Art and Architecture building because I wanted to, I observed a pair of 70- or 80-somethings sitting at a table in the atrium that bisected the building. They ate from boxed lunches and chatted for a while, and then one turned to the other and asked, Shall we do our English or our history first?
Co-eds! Sharing homemade banana bread and working on their homework together in the Art and Architecture building at the University of Tennessee. What a discovery, and how I yearned to be in their company and ask how they had each arrived at that moment.
These days I find myself explaining to people who ask, that because of the turns my life has taken and decisions I finally made, but also simply circumstances, I find my career as a writer and an editor still very much in its infancy. When you reach a certain place in your life, though (probably a different place for each of us), I think there is a new urgency to making decisions: the people standing in line behind you start poking and jostling you. The beauty of all this is you never know what amazing thing you may be about to do, or discover, or write, or build.
The possibilities really are endless. And that may finally be reason enough to equivocate.