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Walking on Slinkies

I wish I could dance. I mean, I can dance - I've got the beat, lots of energy and few inhibitions - but really dance dance? To speak, in the words of Martha Graham, the "hidden language of the soul?” Not a chance.

Lord knows I've tried.

When I was eleven, I signed up for ballet lessons (where I was promptly told if I wanted to pursue dance professionally I should have started when I was younger. Is there any advice less welcomed or more depressing than "it's already too late?")

I was also told I had "bad feet" (in fact, I have terrible feet. Long and thin with high arches and boney, finger-like "Morton" toes, they are supremely unstable. Attached to these wobbly feet are spindly ankles, so I'm constantly off balance. It's like walking on Slinkies.) I was informed that, in order to be a "real" dancer, I'd have to have my feet broken and reset. Seeing as I also had zero flexibility, strength or coordination, I figured bad feet were the least of my worries.

There was one ballet school in my small town. The SJ Studio belonged to Miss Shirley, who (as evidenced in the photos adorning the wall) was once a lithe ballerina, but now resembled Miss Piggy - solid, round, and pink.

Miss Shirley wore a large, pink bow in her omnipresent chignon and spoke in a quavering, lispy little girl whisper. She was a Madame Alexander doll come to life (without the creepy death eyes); a sexless and ageless woman/child; a gentler, less murderous version of Bette Davis' character in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane."

I studied dance with Miss Shirley for eight years and never once saw her in the Real World. I never spotted her shopping at the market, never witnessed her driving a car, never spied her dressed in anything other than a black leotard, pink tights, pink dance skirt and matching bow. She didn't seem to exist outside the studio.

Devoid of actual facts, I concocted a vivid fantasy of her life on the outside. I imagined she'd had her heart broken by a dashing, Russian dancer and now lived with her aged mother in a rose pink Victorian mansion festooned with dainty tea cups, lace doilies, and fragile porcelain figurines; tiny ballerinas, gamboling kittens, kitschy babies with pointy heads and giant, tear drop eyes. Each night, bathed in the warm glow of a Tiffany oil lamp, Ms. Shirley would read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice aloud to her mother, an invalid (or at very least hunchbacked, felled by osteoporosis, her hands bent into crab like claws.) Was Miss Shirley's mother appreciative of her dutiful daughter? NO. Mother's legendary overbearing, disdainful manner had not mellowed with age, rather it had calcified; crystallized into an amber of vitriol that imprisoned poor Miss Shirley in her supplicant, pandering, permanent childhood.

Or so I imagined.

Although Miss Shirley was the spitting image of a graceful, ballerina hippo, she was obsessed with our weight. She would hold surprise "weigh ins" and then lavishly praise the slender sylphs while passive aggressively deriding the rest.

She loved to compare us to one another with no allowance for age or body type - thus advising the tall, muscular teenaged Bronwyn she should aspire to look like Lisa, who clocked in at a mere 64 lbs. (Never mind that Lisa was eleven years old.)

While I've never been fat, my body eschews muscle definition, preferring a soft fleshiness and primordial fish-like pallor. Mine is an incongruous physic - small boned and long limbed with sizeable breasts and thin waist atop sturdy hips, a regtangular ass and the aforementioned weak ankles/boney feet, I'm a "mix and match" figure from a kid's flip book, my refined top half meshed with someone else's sturdy, inelegant bottom.

In my teens, I wasn't failing the weigh ins, but I wasn't winning them either so, spurred on by Ms S's insinuations and my own adolescent misery, I managed to starve myself down to a hundred pounds and change. I still wasn't a real ballerina, but at least I looked like one.

While anorexia, or any eating disorder, is a sign of (at its very base) a deep unhappiness, in the moment, it made me quite happy. I had a mission! A goal! Here was something I could actually do! (Unlike the advanced ballet class I finally clawed my way into, I was so far out of my league, I'd leave every class choking back tears, my substandard body quivering with fatigue, my brain chastising me for being "SUCH A LOSER ASSHOLE.")

Eating just enough to keep from passing out requires a lot of attention, careful planning and subterfuge. It gave structure to my life which, for several reasons, felt increasingly untethered. I managed to maintain rigid control over my diet and Look Like A Ballerina throughout high school but once I left for college, all bets were off.

It is rare to credit alcohol and boys for affecting a positive life change, but it was the discovery of both that led to my abandoning the starvation diet and ditching dance class. Late night bacchanals were SO much more fun than early morning Grand Jetes. I eventually stopped trying to shoe horn my Square Pegged self into a Round hole and I hung up my toe shoes for good. Once I stopped berating and punishing myself for what I could not do (dance), I was able to shift my focus to what, potentially, I could do (write, act, teach, eat, boss people around, get laid, have fun) and I am, in retrospect, so much the better for it.

While I do miss the world of dance (The discipline. The ritual. The leg warmers!!) and I sure as Hell miss being a size 2, I am no doubt more suited to my scrappy, messy, unglamorous writer's life - one that allows me to celebrate my strengths, accept my largely imperfect body, drink wine, eat chocolate, and still bust a move when I feel like it - bad feet and all.

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