There’s an old Harvey Edwards print that used to hang in pretty much every dance studio across the United States. It features—in close-up—a pair of dancer’s legs. They are bent in a fifth position plié, and they are comically covered in layers of torn clothing. The tights have runs, the leg warmers are shredded, the ballet shoes have holes plastered over with silver duct tape. The whole ramshackle outfit serves as both a badge of honor and a visual punch line. The dancer is in the act of creating beauty, yet she is adorned in rags.
As I limped to my ballet class this evening (and as I limp toward my 40th birthday), I thought of the print because I’m the mother of a toddler now and I didn’t have to change my clothes before I left my apartment for class. I was wearing an ancient pair of sweatpants and a stretched out black T-shirt I purchased for $5 at H&M a billion years ago. Playground clothes, I realized, double as clothes for ballet class. People associate sleek pink tights and shiny satin toe shoes with ballet dancers, but the truth is we often look more like the Harvey Edwards print.
Mothers of young children are often mocked for their uniform of comfy clothes, while the ballet dancer’s rags have been romanticized in art. Let me pull back the curtain and show you all the ways that the two roles are the same, right down to the cuddly exercise clothes.
Here are a few ways in which being a dancer mirrors being a mother:
1. Cushioned orthopedic sneakers are your best friend.
When dancers leave a studio, they’re usually wearing sneakers. The human body can take only so much strain. Ditto for the mother, who contorts her body to pull children out of tube slides, climbs swinging chain ladders to retrieve terrified tots from imminent doom, and carries a 30-lb. sack o’ toddler 10 blocks home because she (idiotically) thought, “What the hell, I’ll leave the stroller at home today.”
2. Your hair is never down. It is up in a variety of buns, ponytails and knots. It is pinned down with barrettes, bobby pins and headbands.
With hair flying in your face, you can’t land a pirouette, nor can you madly dash into an intersection to rescue a toddler who believes she is immune to the laws of vehicular physics. Ballet dancers and mothers of young kids make an art of the upswept hairdo, because they have no choice.
3. You own an extensive collection of pain-reducing objects, pills, potions and creams.
For 20 years, I have started the day by taking two Tylenol and damn near scalding my skin in a hot bath. I may have had a head start on motherhood with my cache of Mineral Ice, Epsom salt, Tiger Balm, cushioned rollers, a ribbed wooden massaging object that to my knowledge has no proper name, a heating pad, ice packs, Aspercreme, every over-the-counter anti-inflammatory known to man, and a pain management physician’s number programmed into my cell phone.
4. You miss your former body.
If people walked around as X-ray versions of themselves, one would assume a 40-year-old dancer was 90 years old. We have no cartilage in our joints and many of us have had parts sprained/torn/broken/removed/replaced/restructured/ tightened/loosened/fused. (This gets me back to No. 1, cushioned shoes are my best friend.)
In 2009, I had emergency hip surgery after a fateful split jump. Although I should feel lucky to be walking, I spend a lot of time mourning the now-lost spring in my step. I miss my cartilage. In 2011, I had an emergency C-section, and even though I recovered from that surgery too, organs don’t fall back into the exact places they were before. When you lose most of your hip joint’s tissue, you walk around feeling that a part of your body once at your command has gone rogue and won’t communicate with the other limbs in your body. When you have a baby, your stomach isn’t where it used to be and however lovely your new maternal shape may be it isn’t the one you have been acquainted with most of your life. Mentally adjusting to a new shape and feel is part of the deal of dancing and of motherhood.
It comes down to that song from A Chorus Line, “What I Did for Love.” We trade the shape and health of our bodies to become dancers and mothers. We are stronger for and weakened by these roles. Mothers have biceps of steel and hips that are cranky from serving as toddler perches. Dancers, too, are simultaneously muscular and completely broken down.
5. You constantly compare yourself to other women wearing the same uniform as you, or worse, women who aren’t wearing the uniform.
My jaw drops in wonder and admiration when another mother’s clothes depart from leggings, T-shirts and sneakers. I assume she must be French—how else to explain the cinched-waist trench coat, the boots and the layered bob swaying in the morning breeze? I envy women who manage a calm, collected playground demeanor, who have snacks packed in 100 percent recycled packaging, whose children don’t dash into the nearest thorn bush despite desperate shouted warnings to avoid it. Lined up with 40 other dancers at a ballet barre, you can imagine what sort of mental shenanigans ensue. It isn’t pretty. I mean, someone else is, but I’m not. Why is my arabesque not as lyrical, my balance not as steady, my instep not as high as the dancer’s in front of me? Where did she get that gorgeous leotard, and why did I wear a T-shirt to class again?
6. You know that just because a technique worked yesterday, there is no reason to believe it will work today.
Yesterday, you casually mentioned that you’d added a dollop of fresh butter to the peas, and your toddler gobbled them up as though they were mint ice cream. Today, you breezily assert the same, and she makes a noise so full of disdain that it shames the peas themselves. Yesterday, you told her that washing her hair would give her sweet dreams, and she eagerly allowed you to scrub and rinse away. Today, you try the dream gambit, and she tells you that she’s frightened of mind-control shampoo.
As for dance class, yesterday, you bent your legs in plié a second later and got an extra spring that resulted in four consecutive pirouettes. Today, you replicate the last-minute leg bend and your pointe shoe skids from the extra force. Down you go on your behind. Yesterday, you stood in the front line, and it gave you the confidence to execute the combination flawlessly. Today, you stand front and center and forget every single step, resulting in terrific humiliation. The lesson: Yesterday has nothing to do with today, with kids or in the physics of dance.
7. You are used to scenery flying and many costume changes in one day.
No elaboration needed.
8. You know how to give a good foot massage.
There’s a delicious part of the day called “bedtime.” It involves story books and teeth-brushing and pillow-plumping and my favorite: the foot rub. I don’t know why I find it so rewarding to massage my toddler’s feet before bed, except that’s a lie, yes I do. I rub her feet in the way I always want/need my feet to be rubbed. I mentally go along for the ride as my fingers glide and knead and stroke those little seashell feet. For as long as I have danced, I have rubbed my own feet. My dancer friends and I used to give each other whole body massages between classes. Dancers and mothers know the magic of a good rubdown.
9. You strive for perfection every day, and miss.
As a mother, I want each day to be a balance of peace and excitement and poetry and good food and exercise and snuggling. Similarly, I enter dance class wanting to nail every combination and sail through the exercises without a trace of effort or pain. By the end of class, I’m grateful to have landed even one turn, held some balances, and not pulled anything. By the end of the day with my child, I am grateful she saw some trees, ate any food, and didn’t vomit on a stranger. Both dancing and mothering are a struggle to manage expectations and get back in the ring after falling down.
10. You need music.
When my child cries, we listen to “It’s Alright to Cry.” When my child is grumpy, we blast the Beatles. When my child wants to scat, we put on Ella Fitzgerald. When I feel lonely while we sit and draw, the two of us a picture of familial contentment that belies the ache I feel for adult companionship, I flip through our CDs until I find the right album to chase away the blues. As for dancers, it’s impossible to get through class when the pianist fails to show up, and we are left with a teacher snapping and counting while we robotically engage our limbs. It’s hell. Dancers need music to get our bodies moving, just as mothers need music to get our children (and ourselves) well, moving.
Harvey Edwards zeroed in on the beauty of those ragged dancer’s clothes. Now how about mothers getting some respect for the genius of all-day yoga pants? If you are fast on your feet, have exceptional peripheral vision, measure the beauty of a pair of shoes by their level of support, perform death-defying stunts on an hourly basis, and give everything of yourself while glowing with sweat, you might be a mother or a dancer. Now please pass the Advil and draw me a bath.
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