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

Zen for reporters

Sometimes reporting is a daily grind. Recently I’ve found myself grinding to a halt. The culprit? Mononucleosis.

This nasty little disease has turned my eyeballs a tasty shade of yellow (it brings the sources flocking, let me tell you), swollen my liver to twice its normal size and bullied my body into needing about 12 hours of sleep per day. Fat chance.

As rough as the past few weeks have been, I’ve managed to find solace in an unlikely place: a reporting assignment.

It’s still very much in the works, but the assignment is part of a Vox multimedia project tentatively called “Having Faith.” For the project, each reporter will highlight a member of Columbia’s community who’s experienced a spiritual journey. We’re really branching out here, writing about everything from Judaism and Christianity to Islam and Baha’i. Some stories don’t involve faith at all but cover broad topics like “forgiveness.”

I’m learning everything I can about Ken McRae, a local yoga teacher with an interesting background. Ken graduated in Canada and was living in Toronto, a successful computer consultant with a wife, two kids, a dog, a half-million dollar house and opera tickets. But he felt that something was missing.

He attended his first yoga class shortly before Christmas of 1988 and found the fulfillment he’d been searching for. Eventually Ken and his wife sold everything they owned and moved to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. Ken trained there as a monk for 5 years, traveled the world for several more (India, Bali and Italy) and somehow ended up in Columbia teaching at alleyCat Yoga.

Ken’s story fascinated me. I couldn’t help but wonder what, what would compel someone to throw in the towel, to ditch all signs of material success and devote himself to yoga as a spiritual practice? Let the reporting begin.

I’m learning more about Ken every time we meet, but I’m also learning more about yoga. The studio at alleyCat is one of the most calming places I’ve ever been. So is Ken’s house, which I visited last Wednesday. Yoga’s energy permeates both spaces. You can feel it.

A key principle of yoga, says Ken, is letting go of stress by accepting life as it comes. You can’t change how things show up, but you can change your attitude about them.

Ken’s words hit home. The stress of reporting is sometimes more than I’d like to admit, but Mono on top of everything… it’s been rough. Here’s the takeaway: I can’t change the fact that I’m sick, but I can accept what life has handed me and try to work around it as best I can.

That, ladies and gents, is as zen as it’s going to get.

Bonus if you got the reference in the title of this post! It’s “Zen for Head” by Nam June Paik, an artist active with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. Three cheers for Art History class!

Ken McRae lights a votive on the altar in his alleyCat studio Thursday, March 21. Photo by me.
Ken McRae lights a votive on the altar in his alleyCat studio Thursday, March 21.
The studio at alleyCat just before Ken's 5:30 class on Thursday evening. A more peaceful place I cannot imagine.
The studio at alleyCat just before Ken’s 5:30 p.m. class on Thursday, March 21. A more peaceful place I cannot imagine. Photo by me.
Zen for reporters