A few weeks ago, I walked into Broadway Dance Center and bought a 10-class card, ending months of wanting and planning and needing to get back into dance, specifically ballet. I promised myself that I would dive back in when I landed in New York in July, and then life happened, but still I rise, and so here we are. I’m opening up my hips and getting my fifth position back together again, in the same studio where I first met my friend, the grand plié, several pounds and eight years later.
I kicked off Operation: Aggressive Self-Care by joining a gym in December, but until last week, I had only been twice. For all of the fall and most of this winter, I haven’t danced or done much beyond a few sporadic push-ups. I’ve largely spent my time spiraling, wallowing, and self-medicating with food, naps and greenery. Stuck in a valley. Thankfully, power-walking around this food-rich city has helped keep my double chin at bay. The challenge: Get the hell out of this slump and cut back on sitting and stewing in the anxiety, self-loathing, and nothingness. Crotch holes caused by brawling, cheese grits-fed thighs (and a softening, expanding midsection) told me it was time to get moving again. Besides, lovehandles don’t banish themselves. Enter: ballet.
Each class reminds me how out of shape I am. I am reminded during the adagio near the end of each session, when we come center and slowly string together the various movements we work on daily, and my legs tremble and my breathing becomes more audible. Or when my teacher, Dorit Koppel, comes beside me to demonstrate that my leg can, in fact, stretch longer and higher when doing a développé. But: no pain, no poppin’ body-ody.
Everything hurts so good.
I first stepped up to the barre as a work-study student at BDC’s original 57th Street location three lifetimes ago in 2007, after years of blissful ignorance about ballet’s usefulness in becoming a stronger, more versatile, more disciplined performer. I got my training watching and mimicking Janet, Michael, Missy, Aaliyah, Fatima, and anybody else who hit some 5-6-7-8s in a video or during an awards show dance break moment between the mid-90s and about 2003. (Let’s just say that battling me in a late 90s music video choreo moment will not end well for you.) Inspired by Janet’s All For You Tour – watching her live HBO special from Hawaii in my friend’s den, I told my homies, “I want to do that” and held auditions weeks later – I started a dance company at 17, and we performed, competed, and danced like hell for a few years. I got to choreograph, dream big, and flex my creative muscles. I moved to New York from Virginia in June of 2006, after spending the second half of 2005 recovering from my first lupus flare. I had done pretty well in the hip-hop lane, I convinced myself, and figured I’d go right on ahead and stick to more of the same, thank you very much.
Transitioning from Hampton to a place with buildings taller than 12 stories and more to do than eat in a chain restaurant, fuck, have babies, do drugs and gain weight was challenging enough. Ballet felt like unnecessary torture. There was definitely some youthful naïveté mixed in there, too.
Like many dancers coming from a hip-hop background, I wasn’t looking forward to wearing tights and contorting and stretching my body to such ludicrous and seemingly unnatural lengths. Having progressed from mid-sized fish from the smallest of ponds to pretty-good-but-painfully-shy goldfish in an ocean of big-ass extroverted sharks, I was terrified by the idea of starting back at zero in a notoriously difficult style. I wasn’t hyped about joining the rest of the stone-limbed newbies and poorly postured dancers accustomed to bent backs, flexed and parallel feet, grooves, and freedom that exist in the world of urban dance.
Eventually, I signed up for a class, at the behest of a dreamy, broad-backed teacher I wanted to smash. I Harlem shook my way into Capezio and bought the overpriced black leather slippers and the standard black tights, to be worn beneath some basketball shorts or some sweats-turned-coochie-cutters, like a real nigga. And I let the friendly clerk gas me up and convince me to buy another pair of cake-accentuating short shorts because I was feeling myself and my newly toned thighmeats at the time.
Similar to the journey of starting locs from a peasy mini-fro, ballet sucks for quite a while. Unlike everything I’d ever done until that point, at that germy barre, there was correct and then there was abysmal. The first few months are a fight to hack away at the terribleness. Your challenge is to find the grace in that struggle and ensure that this struggle doesn’t look like a struggle.
It requires a level of physical awareness that hip-hop dance never did. It’s just as much a mental workout as a physical one. After learning feet and arm positions, there are an infinite number of combinations to learn, and naturally, arm placement depends on the leg’s location and direction of moment. Grasping that “en croix,” or “in the shape of a cross,” meant that my moving leg repeats X movement to the front, side, back, and side again? That moment felt like winning free fried chicken for life. I also have to be strong and sturdy yet light, agile. My neck must be long and my shoulders relaxed, never hunched. Chest up, open, and presenting to the audience. My back must be engaged, broad, because it supports my arms, which must be elongated, with soft lines in my elbows, wrists, and hands (which cannot, of course, be mangled like claws). And then I must be at once tall, “as if I am dangling you from a string at the top of your head,” and firmly planted into the floor, my toes spread, my weight evenly distributed. Tailbone tucked under, never poking out. Head high, “looking to the people in the cheap seats up top,” as Dorit says. “Stomach in towards the back,” she told me, coming beside me to press me in and up, both nine years ago and last week. And then I have to remember all of that shit while moving and gliding and leaping to and fro with ease. Chile, it’s a lot.
But I soon grew to love the struggle. I got used to being one of no more than three Black dudes in a class, and occasionally, the lone Mandingo warrior in a sea of Lena Dunhams. I didn’t take my responsibility lightly; after a few months in Dorit’s basic class, I became the go-to Negro in Studio 1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Okay, now watch Alexander,” she’d say. This also meant she was particularly hard on me, and would put me on blast with the same smile: “Okay, we’ll all keep doing it until Alexander gets it right.” I challenge anyone who underappreciates a ballet dancer’s athleticism to a single class, for it is not for the faint of heart.
Training with Dariusz Hochman rude ass, I was pushed to jump higher, to plié deeper, to dance bigger. He’d say slick shit like, “Use those big legs, Alexander” or “Now, do it again, but this time, like you know what you’re doing.” When I was the only man in class, he’d have me go across the floor alone just the same, “with all the men.” He’d point out my missteps and have me repeat whatever had stumped me until I did it correctly. Or at least better. And he didn’t shy away from telling you that you moved or sounded like a fleeing three-legged rhinoceros that’s in labor. Or that your clothes were unflattering or unacceptable for his class. It all helped.
That muscular warfare, fear, heightened body awareness, and daily stretching taught me discipline and made me skronger. Life was good for this early-twenties eager work-study mofo who whiled away his days charming hongry folk out of glorious tips, thotting before thotting was thotting, and taking between 12 and 15 classes a week. 2006 to 2009 will forever be remembered as a wondrous time in Majestic Hindparts history. And then I did that fuck ass master cleanse and, well, nothing was the same.
Dorit and Dariusz gave me the juice to try contemporary dance, which challenged me in ways neither ballet nor hip-hop did. It tested my comfort with my sexuality. The teachers I rocked with, Brice Mousset and Michelle Barber, loved slow and sensuous body rubs and floor work and thrashing moments. I struggled for a while with finding a balance between the homothug and the juicy fruit. How much sex face is too much sex face? Can I grab my dick a little more? Is that overdoing it? How would a real nigga interpret this whimsical Björk ditty? And so forth. Ultimately, occasionally looking like an asshole in a fast-moving, physically demanding class – it was not uncommon to leave Brice’s class with bruises – was the perfect chance to implement the technique and strength ballet had given me. I could dance more freely, be strong and nimble, but also funky and aggressive. And I could bend my back and flex my feet at will. Taddow.
In July 2009, fueled by a hunger for more, I moved to North Hollywood in Los Angeles to continue chasing my dream job: Janet Jackson’s best friend, choreographer, artistic director, and off-season eating partner. I did work-study at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio, manning the front desk and doing light cleaning in exchange for free classes, picking up extra hours some weeks, dropping the coins for more classes other weeks. Some days, when not slinging red velvet waffles or buffalo chicken/blue cheese/bacon waffle fries at The Waffle, I’d arrive at 2PM, dance like a motherfucker until well into la noche, smash something excessively gluttonous because magical metabolism, go to bed and do it all again with ease the next day. Shoutout to 25-year-old Alex’s youthful, struggle-free knees.
I have always loved setting and attacking high goals, but beating lupus sent the goal-setting and the high expectations into overdrive. Ballet, which, like bootyjoy, requires superhuman focus and power, was a daily lesson in humility, and a wonderful gateway drug to those feelings of inadequacy and the unhealthy obsession with being tiny (hello, Hydroxycut) that had me straight tripping for a few years in my mid-twenties. I felt like the King of Zamunda when I realized I could fit into those Levi’s 511s. For a minute, I ate meagerly in an effort to fit oxtail- and cheese grits-fed Negro hips and ass into the 510s, the super-skinny jeans. Dancing up a storm and “forgetting” to eat full meals, chaining my self-esteem to those numbers on the scale. Absolute madness.
And then I found out about California’s wonderful community college system and the fact that I could take ballet and whatever else for $Free.99, the lone upside of living La Vida Broka. And so I took a social anthropology class. And a weight training class, because it forced be to lift regularly. And I took ballet and more ballet. And a string of writing courses at Los Angeles City College and UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program.
As I fell back in love with writing, dance gradually shifted from professional obsession to favorite pastime. The pressure of training or looking the part for music video and stage work was gone. I didn’t have to worry about befriending (or humping) the right choreographers or being too short, too black, or not ethnically ambiguous enough. Or having too much hair or not enough technique or muscles for a particular job. By the end of my time in Los Angeles, writing had replaced dance as my main boopiece.
I moved to Panama in July 2011 with a box of condoms and a dream, and wound up starting an English-as-a-second-language academy situation, teaching a pretty popular cardio-dance class (that combined hip-hop, dancehall, Latin rhythms and aerobic workouts) in gyms and fitness studios, and choreographing and teaching with a school, BEAT Dance Studio.
It was the first time I had ever worked for myself exclusively. Balancing it all worked for a while. When shit was rolling, there were more private Business English clients than I could handle. I taught dance workshops, performed in a huge flashmob for Reebok and at a few concerts, working my way up to nine hip-hop and fitness classes around Panama City a week, on top of perfecting my Spanish while somehow running/growing a business (in Spanish), securing my Panamanian citizenship, employing a handful of English teachers, tending to my personal clients, slinging dick, maintaining a website, making my family proud, building a career as a freelance writer, and failing at carving out a suitable, fulfilling social life.
When mental exhaustion, anxiety, hysteria, and the panic attacks set in, dance was the first thing to go. The English classes were far more lucrative, so I figured focusing there would help. Teaching English eventually became a chore and source of stress and misery. And then writing became a source of stress and misery. And then life itself became a source of stress and misery. My enthusiasm for Panama and living both dwindled as I battled to keep it together and not backflip into traffic.
I taught my last dance class in June 2014. I moved back stateside that August and hadn’t been able to muster up the courage or desire to dance until this January, 19 months later.
From my arrival here in New York last July until my okay-so-this-is-what-the-bottom-feel-like moment in January, I felt like I was on a rollercoaster with no brakes, leaping from setback to setback and, thankfully, not in front of a train. But ballet – along with fellowship, hugs, therapy, and regular breaks from this city – helps me heal, grow, and feel alive. This class forces me to get out of bed, get dressed, leave the house, arrive somewhere on time, interact with people, concentrate, and care about myself, all things I sometimes struggle with, especially recently.
Even when I’m spiraling and stewing in the anxiety, I can (usually) scrape it together enough to jump into those tights, get pon the train and get my tondu, my port de bras, and my pas de bourree on. Each class is a battle against rigidity and requires me to push and trust myself, to focus 100 percent of my brainpower not on a deadline, luchini, self-loathing, anxiety, or problems real or self-perceived, but on getting stronger, being more precise and more confident in my movement, dancing bigger and more gracefully, listening to my body, and thriving rather than log-rolling through the mud with the nothingness. I shall not pretend that some of this fervor isn’t fueled by a desire to return to the days of Majestic Hindparts glory.
But most importantly, for a few hours a week, I feel light and unburdened. No anxiety. No pressure to dazzle with a snatched body and gig-ready technique or impress anyone but myself and Saint Damita Jo Jackson.
Whereas my mind normally attempts to run 25 races simultaneously, during class, all that matters is articulating my feet, stretching my legs to their capacity, keeping my muscles engaged and my stomach in, and nailing whatever combination is thrown my way. It doesn’t hurt that Dorit, an OG Israeli drill sergeant, is hilarious and deploys wacky metaphors, one-liners, and love-coated corrections like none other, always with a smile.
After months of scratching and fighting and powering through New York’s barrage of fuckshit, doing little feed or replenish my depleted soul, this weekly purposeful struggle helps me feel strong, capable, and worthy of everything before and ahead of me. And passionate about something, anything (other than food and sleep). And alive. Finally.
Shoutout to growth. And grand pliés.