Early this morning, as the rain drizzles down, I drive across town to a ballet studio. I’ve never in my life been anywhere near a ballet studio–at least not one like this. I walk in, moody as the sky.
Classical music, nearly muted, emits from a hallway. I follow it until I’m facing a wall of windows peering in on a room lined with mirrors and ballet bars. A sign on the door says a famous visiting Russian ballet instructor is giving lessons. I lean against the glass and can’t believe what I see: Rows and rows of young men and women–maybe sixteen years old–dancing in leaps and turns and impossible acrobatics. The women have tight buns in their hair, and their pink tights and black leotards move in strict unison.
Why aren’t they still sleeping like normal American teenagers in summertime? How long have they been here?
It feels like a foreign country. I’m only here because my daughter is five and obsessed with ballet shoes and twirls. I’m only here because we’ve saved money for one activity, and as I tuck her in at night, she looks up at me with her hands clasped under her chin and asks, wide-eyed, “Mommy, when, when can I be a ballerina?”
For such an elite dance conservatory, the lessons are cheap enough for us to afford one day of dancing a week. I approach the receptionist, fill out some forms, and then have to wait while she answers a phone call. I find myself pulled back, like a planet in some larger planet’s gravitational pull, towards those dancers.
I’m back at the glass, looking in on this new universe. Now the dancers are lifting one leg high up behind their bodies and extending one arm out in a perfect line as if beckoning me. Their bodies are suddenly so beautiful, so exact in movement.
I steel my face. Why are tears coming to my eyes? I’ve resisted ballet lessons for months. There’s no useful market value type of skill here. I’ll pay a fortune, and what will come of it?
Then, it happens. One teenage girl extends her hand towards me and balances while her leg lifts behind her. She looks down and then up to meet my face. Hers is one of determination and sweat. Hers is a face steeled in a different kind of focus. She looks me in the eye and, for a single moment, smiles at me.
Oh no you didn’t.
I’m her audience; she’s dancing for me now.
As that girl dances, I’m so overcome by the beauty of it that I can’t remember where I am or what I have to do today. I’m lost in wonder. How dare she do this to me.
They are doing all of this for me, for us, for anybody who takes the time to watch.
I want to rush into the studio, stop everything, and extend my arms wide. I want to gather everybody to me and thank them for this supreme act of service. I imagine dancers in other studios all over the world. They are artists perfecting a piece. Bound to the audience, they perform for us. I imagine writers, film makers, painters, musicians, scultpors, photographers, actors. I think of ways they sacrifice, burdens they bear, lifestyles they endure because they must develop their particular art for us to experience. It’s a service industry. It’s a profession of joy-giving and beauty-making.
C.S. Lewis said that “art has no survival value, but it gives value to survival.” My daughter might never do anything at all with her ballet passion. It might come to nothing. It doesn’t matter.
Living with flair means that I acknowledge that beauty has no market value. It’s too good for that.