Birds in Ballet

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Right now, it’s drizzling freezing rain outside. You think, “How am I going to survive this?” But, like muscle memory, it all comes back to you, and the cold is refreshing, revitalizing even. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s stimulating. Each day, there is a miracle or a tiny bit of improvement, one way or the other. Life. I watched the birds the other day, some still high in the trees, singing to each other loudly, and I wonder, “Why are you still here?” Why haven’t they all flown South yet? We are staying warm inside, but one must venture out into the cold, bundled up, breathing through your nose, though it it not that cold yet, it has hit some pretty low temps these past couple of weeks. I am still waiting for the snow to dump on us. I like layering up my clothes and wearing fuzzy mittens. Sometimes these things remind me more than ever of my childhood and my mother’s concern for me freezing my ear and other cartilage. I wonder how the birds do it. Fly South and know exactly where to come back to. If you are starting something new, something difficult, take it very slowly and practice it correctly, until you can do it correctly faster-that is one way to make improvement. Correctly.You should still do eight and work up to 16. Another thing I was thinking about is a la seconde. Pointing your foot or anything else should be like the owl pictured above spreading his wings. I mean why do it if you are not reaching, trying to fly, to get free? When you jump, you should sustain it, like a bird riding on an air current. Practice. There are so many comparisons to birds in ballet.


I remember when my son was very young and I was having a conversation with my mother. She said, “You may have to work very hard to support your son, you know-to get by.” I got by, and that was 28 years ago. I worked a lot of jobs. ” You might have to work two jobs, maybe waitress. I lot of mothers pay the bills by getting two jobs. You are a single mother.” I remember thinking about all of the jobs I had, working in the cafeteria at age 14, a bakery, other menial positions, but I wasn’t even a single mother then-I was supporting my mother who was sick then, and myself, paying for everything this way. Especially ballet. Ballet was the inspiration, what kept me behind the counter, so to speak. Dancing and thoughts of it, while I worked. Why was she telling me this? As if she had to remind me of my duty? Had anyone ever had to remind me of my duty? Ever? I was born dutiful. I still am. All the years she hadn’t even tried once to work came tumbling down from the shelf where I keep them, battering me. Oddly, now that she is gone, I hardly think of them. She had always said she wanted to be there for me, be a good mother. The books and little pamphlet with drawings in them that she had made to teach me French and Spanish, dancing umbrellas, birthday cats, ballet shoes and ribbons trailing, all passed by.

There was one Summer, after the cafeteria, the one in which I began ballet at Sinclair Community College, where I painted walls in the Alternative School by University of Dayton. Not painted them white or beige, but with colorful and sage advice about the optimism which comes from learning, and choices, about the values of education, to inspire passers by. The then secretary, a middle-aged woman, with one son in parochial school, whom she supported on her own, watched me in the office, tried to teach me things, like the correct ergonomics for typing, and sitting for long periods in a chair, filing, and errand running, and underfoot (probably), she pulled me from this job, and asked me if I could paint a picture for her on the entrance wall outside her office. I painted a field of poppies. Red poppies. Grass shooting up in shades of olive and army and lime.  She liked it. She said it made her happy when she came to work. Dancing and reading made me happy.

The proper way to prepare lettuce is to break it between the fingers, and not cut it-cutting bruises the lettuce. At our library, downtown, was a poem written on the wall in aluminum scroll by Langston Hughes.

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”

The bus stop was right across the street and so I stared at this, upon leaving the library, which is kind of the last stop leaving downtown Dayton traveling up Third Street. It’s broken down. Michelin Tire signs, brick factories, greasy spoon the size of a closet, public pay phone. And the library with a garden behind a fence. A pretty garden, a listening area, archive, microfiche machines, bathrooms. Puppet shows. Books. I went right in there and got the poetry book by Langston Hughes and read his poems and drew in my sketchbook I carried around with my dance gear, and other things.  On the way out I stopped and took out cassette tapes of Lifeboat, and jazz. Dayton always had so much potential. Behind the library was Sears. Then over another block or two was Memorial Hall. The Victory Theatre, and the bus. You could transfer from the bus to anywhere. There was this old arcade, which was a several leveled building of shops, like an indoor mall and it had been shut down many years before, and they had renovated it, reopening as a reminder of a bygone era, replete with original railed, an atrium, and stores, Mostly food and little clothes shops for secretaries on their lunch hours. But there was a lot of space for rent. While I was studying Chines with Mrs. Lee (who ran the Chinese restaurant for he daughter), I went next door to the bakery and applied. It was a kosher-Italian bakery which had been in the Jewish neighborhood in North Dayton for many many years and was expanding.I was hired and worked there off an on for a couple of years during high school and once on a break during college. The owner had asked me to stay and manage it, but I had declined, wanting to go back to school. I remember thinking, “Seriously?” I was sophisticated and living in New York, wearing expensive and chic leather boots, lipstick jeans, hair long and very trendy. Long, confident strides. One day, I was walking aimlessly around the shops in the atrium, and I saw an elderly-looking man with a cane. He was graying at the temples, and talking to a friend, sitting there. As I approached, he tried to get my attention. He looked up at me and half-smiled. That gold tooth! Mr. Booker???? Yes!!! My seventh grade social studies teacher a la militant black man. Playing Earth Wind and Fire, writing legal definitions on the chalkboard, allowing me to be a leader on a project about the Space Shuttle. A rebel, a hippie, a man I had looked up to, and one who inspired his students with his passion about equality and freedom. A man who got fired for his “radical” teaching methods. At least we never saw him again. He was friends with Ms. Atkins. A very skinny teacher of English. Very elegant and precise. I wrote a poem in her class about the night, something about envelopes and darkness and light, and riders. She sent it to a competition, and unbeknownst to me, I won. She was taking roll one day and she just dropped the certificate on my desk as she passed, and kept on walking up the aisle.  And Mr. Amos. 7 feet tall, huge afro, long white coat, playing jazz in the ceramic room with the kiln. He did weird art projects, like clay with your eyes closed in 5 minutes, reading about art in magazines and books, using found materials to create sculptures, painting old fired pieces or objects that people had left in classroom from many years before. Forgotten. Make everything in your life about art, about creating, about beauty, about love. And listen to music while doing it. Our detention for talking was to clean out the kiln-room and take home whatever we wanted because he was going to throw it out if we didn’t. This always worked with me, cats, books, whatever I was afraid would be thrown out, or left behind, simply had to come with me. I stayed after school willingly every day, and following some exercise in art, drawing or painting or listening, or reading, came the forage.  And Mr. Booker now looked up at me, with my apron and superior 17 year-old smirk, half aware, and he smiled, and said, “Hello, Ava.” Suddenly, I was me again. The smirk faded and I just stood there, 12, again. Teachers can do that to you. I remember that I about fell over from shock-how could someone age that much in such a short time? Hardship. I did not recognize his former self at first, so aged he seemed from the swaggering, 70’s rock star that had taught us about human rights, but he remembered me. We chatted briefly, he kept looking around, maybe he had had an injury, hence the cane, hence the change. I told him I was going to college, to NYU. He was proud, you could tell, and he congratulated me. We parted. Forever.

Many times there is a phoenix, rising from the ashes. The Firebird, although we never equate the two. But, there has to be ambition and a desire to see oneself as one can be, not necessarily as one is now.

I had gone back to high school, where I took that information, about what I could do, and why dreams were important, and that there was a point to an education, and toughness might be required in order to avoid getting one’s ass kicked and surviving it, if you let it happen, where eventually I graduated. I was driving in the car, with the man from the Dayton Board of Education, who headed a program for at-risk youth, and poor kids from the west side, which though black, did not discriminate against whites. He was the President.  he was an older black man and he had hired me in this program so I could continue my Summer employment. It was to paint houses on the west side of town. I must have grimaced, or made a face. She then went into the anti-snob lecture, you know about my grandpa. He was a working-class contractor. He built half of the country with a firm called Arthur Rabkin (from Cincinnati) during the war, and after. You know the type-black gangster hat (Fedora), Irish mug, piercing blue eyes, leather jacket. He was very handsome and work was his life.  I am an optimistic person. He said he never treated anyone any different, the banker or the bum. He said good morning and raised his hat to both. He said they were the same. One was not any better than the other. One might give himself airs, but he was actually no better.

And then there is Rothbart, half man, half bird of prey. The dark side of ballet, an evil sorcerer, who turns his harem of swans back into princesses at night-how convenient. He is always there, the villain, all-seeing and watching like the raven, looking for an opportunity. I think the villains in ballet are so much more interesting than the noble princes, possibly with the exception of Albrecht, who is a rascal of a man.  All of the birds in ballet. So many real characters to play. So many references in ballet to bird-like qualities. Wings, even when there are no birds, there are fairies. Man’s desire to ascend, a dancer’s desire is to ascend, to transcend. That is theater and art. But art is for everyone, too, not just the wealthy. If companies and schools do not sell all of their ballet tickets, they should reduce the prices for the rest and even give away a good number to the poor and children in school who might not otherwise be able to afford to come! That is good publicity. One never knows where the next birds will come from….

Keep on dancing!