Back in the studio: Tales of a ballet-obsessed reporter

Another year, another stint with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet. What can I say? I’m obsessed. 

With every story assignment I find myself thinking “Hmm. How can I possibly fit ballet into that context?” 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This latest piece for Professor Moen’s Intermediate Writing class is a vignette. It focuses on a slice of time in the life of a professional dancer: a single ballet class.

Peer critiques start tomorrow, but why not open the floodgates? Give it a read and tell me what you think. 

The air is tropical-rainforest thick; so hot that the wall-to-wall mirrors are smeared with a thin fog. A sheen of sweat covers everyone and everything in the room. As they move across the floor, the dancers glisten.

“Hot, isn’t it?” asks Emily Baker, grinning.

She’s come to rest against the long wooden barre that runs along the walls at waist height.  She leans on it and her arm forms a right angle, elbow jutting out over hip. Her earrings jangle as she tilts her head back and laughs.

Brown sweat-curls have escaped her bun and are plastered to her forehead and the back of her neck. A quick adjustment of her olive-green leotard and she’s off across the floor again, arms held aloft and legs extending above her ears. Her face betrays no hint of the effort it takes to get them there.

Baker, 23, is the newest member of Columbia’s Missouri Contemporary Ballet. For Baker and other MCB dancers, hours of classes and rehearsals are the norm. To pursue the craft they love, professional dancers restrict their diets, devote their days, and push their bodies to their physical limit.

Baker has been injured what sounds like a dozen times. She taps each body part as she names it, starting from the top and working her way down.

“I dislocated my shoulder once in rehearsal,” she says nonchalantly. “I’ve sprained my lower back a bunch, I’ve had tendonitis in both my hips and strained both my hips, I’ve sprained my knee, I’ve had Achilles tendonitis, I’ve had flexor hallucis tendonitis.”

But you’d never know watching her dance. She and the rest of the class have moved on to jumps. The Ballet Mistress, Julie, sets a combination. She says it once, expects it to be memorized, and it is.

Baker stares Julie down, moving her hands as though they were feet to memorize the steps. The music starts and she’s off. Every time her pointe shoes leave the marley floor there’s a sticking sound, like scotch tape peeled away from plastic wrap.

She goes through pointe shoes at a varied pace, depending on their make. Some pairs last months, others are busted in a single week. None are comfortable.

“I have a lot of toenail issues: losing them, bruising them, all that jazz,” she says.

“How do you work through that?”

A pause, then, “Motrin.”

Baker has more serious problems than toenails. She has asthma, and her attacks are induced by activity and humidity.

One summer when she was 18, Baker was the lead in five out of seven pieces for Atlanta Ballet’s summer intensive performance. The air conditioning broke the day of the show, and she suffered an asthma attack halfway through one of the pieces.

“It was in-studio, so everyone could hear me wheezing,” she says. “It sucked, but I danced through it.”

Today, class ends without incident. The final exercise, fouette turns in the center, is optional. Baker opts in, spinning in tight, centered circles. Her head whips around in time to the music. One leg rotates and comes into passe at a perfect 90-degree angle; the other leaps from pointe to flat to pointe as the knee straightens and bends and straightens again. She is perfectly balanced. She defies gravity, and it’s all in a day’s sweaty work.

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Back in the studio: Tales of a ballet-obsessed reporter

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