Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Sends Grown-Ups to the Barre?

By Terez Mertes

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, is a compulsively readable new novel that chronicles the lives of six precocious young people who meet as teens at a summer camp for the arts, back in the 1970’s. They dub themselves “The Interestings,” because that’s how they see themselves: bright, clever, full of artistic talent and urgency. The assumption between them, as well, is that with enough hard work and determination, professional artistic success will be theirs in adulthood.

But we adults all know what comes next. Wolitzer chronicles the characters’ lives through the next four decades, as the characters learn first-hand, some more than others, that what sets you on fire during adolescence and young adulthood often isn’t enough to sustain you beyond your twenties, much less your thirties and forties, no matter how compelling and special it—and you—seemed in earlier years. Only a few of the friends are allowed the luxury of actualizing their youthful vision, while the others are forced to adjust and re-define goals, ever haunted by “what once was,” and what will never be.

It’s a great read. I’ve long been fan of Meg Wolitzer’s writing, but this story resonated particularly with me, partly because that, too, defined my feelings throughout adolescence, through middle age. My own solution has been to write about the performing arts, and take ballet classes as an adult. And now I wonder about my comrades in ballet class, those other middle-aged adults I share a barre with. Do they share this, too—a sense that they once had an extraordinary streak in them, an artistic impulse, that might have gotten thwarted? A dream, perhaps, once-crushed and now renewed?

Here’s my own “thwarted” story: in my late teens, the fiery infatuation with ballet and the performing arts kicked into full throttle. During my university years I performed with a local dance company, an unforgettable experience with a wonderful group of like-minded people. We were a Tribe. We, too, were The Interestings. When I graduated from college, leaving behind company and country for a job with the Peace Corps in Africa, I fiercely told myself ballet wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. I harbored no further illusions about being a performing arts professional, but, at the least, I felt assured of a lifelong nourishing relationship with ballet. There in provincial Africa, I still clung to my ballet practice, stretching and giving myself a comprehensive barre twice a week. I did so without fail throughout those two years. Back home, in the Midwest, I eventually took on a salaried job, unrelated to the arts. I lived too far away to return to my former company and dance companions, but found, instead, a well-regarded local studio with strong ballet classes and a solid following. But the magic, unfathomably, began to slip away. Even during class, I started to feel hollow, bereft. I remained an outsider in this studio, a stranger, even after a year. Class became something to dread at the end of a long, hard day of work. Yes, I could have found yet another studio. But something else was dying, that little frisson of well-being, the voice that whispered to me that ballet would always be there for me, nourishing my soul. One day it left and never came back. When, a few months later, I was promoted and relocated to California, I said goodbye to family and ballet alike. Out with the childish dreams and illusions. Moving on. I had a real job now, responsibility, I told myself. A real life; an adult’s life.

Over the next several years I grieved losing ballet, even as I scorned it. It was like mourning a true love who went on to be more faithful to someone else. For a long spell, I couldn’t watch a ballet performance, even though now I could well afford the tickets. It hurt too much. Besides, I told myself, that was the past. Like the characters in The Interestings who’d been forced to move on, I’d done just that.

And yet, if the urge is inherent in you, you can’t just push it away. It will return, again and again. And for me, it did. For a while, I ignored it. But a few years later, when parenting clogged up my life, pushed me even further from a nourishing, self-absorbing artistic place, I finally understood that it was time to take back what I could. Anything I could. Without it, without art in my life, the flickering candle flame inside my soul would go out.

And so I went back to ballet.

And I found a home again.

We grown-ups at the barre all fall into one of a few categories. There are those like myself, who danced when we were younger, stopped for a while, and understood, only later, that we needed to return. Others of us are there because we didn’t do it when we were younger, due to circumstances beyond our control, even though we’d longed to. Then there is a third category, those who never even considered doing it in their youth, due to other obligations, or body type, or gender, and now, in this more evolved, actualized adult state, we realize that no one is going to stop us, or harshly judge us, or point and snicker. A powerful understanding kicks in: as an adult in a recreational ballet class, anything goes. Anything. How liberating.

When I admit to people that, not only do I take a ballet class, but I take violin lessons as well, as an adult beginner, many of them share a common reaction. Their eyes will widen, they’ll cock their heads at me and say, “Omigosh. How interesting.” They sound both confused and impressed. Because, of course, this is the kind of thing a kid does. Not the mother of a kid. Not a middle aged adult who should be beyond that.

Oh, thank goodness for the impulse we adult recreational dancers have, to keep life interesting and dynamic through and beyond middle age. I do believe it would make the perfect epilogue to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. And truly, nothing, to me, is more interesting than an adult who has wised up, suffered setbacks, battled loss and disillusionment, and has returned to address and conquer a dream, be it a long-held one, a brand new one, or even an unnamed one. We grown-ups at the barre are The Interestings, indeed.

Terez Mertes blogs at Classical Girl.