Once a Dancer

by Gavin Larsen

[This is a guest essay by friend-of-the-blog Gavin Larsen, who lives and teaches dance here in Asheville after an illustrious 18-year career in professional ballet.  I invited Gavin to share her “what it’s like to be me” story here at The 100 Billionth Person, and I extend the same invitation to my other subscribers.  Hope you enjoy. – CHC]

In the ballet world, we say, “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” and it’s true: no matter how defiantly we may turn our backs and try to walk away from the art and craft of dance, particularly ballet, we cannot rid our bodies of its imprint.  Ballet tattoos itself on our physicalities and embeds itself in our souls.

I was a professional ballet dancer for 18 years.  Before that, I trained for about ten.  And after I retired (“retired”) from my job as a performer, even then I couldn’t quit.  I kept taking technique classes and even performed a little bit, on smaller stages and in less technical choreography.

But slowly, I felt my mind and body loosening their grip on my fine-tuned, fiercely perfected technique.  I remember vividly the day I stopped wearing pointe shoes.  I was at the barre, warming up with a few relevés, when I found myself struggling to find my balance — I had to hold the barre a little too tightly for support.  Though a casual observer might have thought I was very much on top of my game, I felt like an amateur, not a former professional with decades of experience.

But appearances were not what mattered:  I cared about how this felt to ME.  And I knew my struggles would only get worse.  So, I decided this would be my last day on pointe.

I’d begun teaching dance long before I stopped performing — most dancers do — but being a full-time instructor presented a different challenge.  While I was a good teacher and the work was engaging, it didn’t leave me with the same sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.   For professionals, a day of dancing always follows the same pattern (class, rehearsal, performance) and leaves you feeling full.  Whether or not the day went well, whether you mastered the tricky choreography or not, at the very least you know you have given of yourself, physically and emotionally and intellectually, to something larger — to the dancers around you, to the art form, to yourself.  You go home with the satisfaction of having worked hard and well, and the fatigue in your bones is proof.

But I didn’t have that fulfillment anymore.  No matter how capably I demonstrated the exercises to my students or how exhaustively I worked on them in the studio, I felt I was losing my grip on the life I had led.  And I got scared that, with every passing day, my memories would fade and that the dancer part of myself — which was, really, all of myself — would be gone forever.  I needed it and clung to it.  And in a fit of desperation to preserve it, I began to write it down.

• • • • 

One day in 2011 or 2012, after I had transitioned from performing to teaching, I was passing through the lobby of the building that housed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s company and school.  One entire wall of the lobby was a window to the main studio space, offering everyone who entered the building a view of whatever dance activity was going on.  Company dancers and school students, warming up, taking class, rehearsing ballets or learning new choreography, all were on full display, as if life in the studio was also on stage.

That particular afternoon, company dancers were in rehearsal with artistic director Christopher Stowell for his ballet, The Rite of Spring.  Standing in the lobby watching them practice, memories of my own experience as a member of the cast a few years earlier came flooding back.  It was an unusual production in that the piece was largely en masse: almost the entire company appeared in it, but only a couple of us danced apart from what was literally a mass of bodies.

I had been a principal dancer then, accustomed to using my single voice, so being back in an ensemble was jolting at first.  But I soon relished the familiar comfort of being in the corps de ballet where I had started my career. The warmth of camaraderie, the different and energizing sense of “power in numbers” and the hilarity we shared to break the tension when the going got tough – all the familiar feelings of the days in my late teens and twenties when I was learning to be a professional dancer re-emerged.

My view through the lobby window that day — although just a brief snapshot — stirred up a strong, visceral reaction in me.  The dancers were working on a section that we had called, years before, the “human monolith.”  Christopher hadn’t given us any technical steps to execute — he simply told us to “ooze” our way into a tower of people.  One dancer would become the capstone at the top, supported by a few of the strongest men in the group.  The rest of us cascaded downwards from there in gradually smaller, flatter, muddier positions. The only directions we were given were that everyone, at all times, had to touch at least one other person— a hand or a foot or a neck or a torso — and that no one except the supporter-men could be upright.  And no ballet positions were allowed.  We were to embody humanity emerging from primordial slime.

Through the window, I watched those dancers work on “oozing” into the monolith and I immediately felt myself in there with them — as if I were outside my own body, watching myself in the past, yet physically present.  I felt I was reliving a dream.  Every physical and emotional feeling from my own days in The Rite of Spring came flooding back with such force that I almost thought I was late for rehearsal and needed to run into the studio to join them.

Seconds later, another emotion overcame the first one: the relief that I didn’t have to.

I was retired – I had no need to pull my body into shape and into a leotard, no need to be ready to do whatever moves a choreographer dreamt up.  But what I suddenly longed to do was relive those experiences, capture the essence of them, and find within them a thread of truth about what on earth this dancing life of mine had meant, how and why it had happened, and why had it happened to me?

I went home, opened my laptop, and began to write.  What came spilling out, in one sitting, would become Chapter 46 of the book that many more years of memory-capture ultimately delivered.

• • • • 

After that afternoon in the lobby, a flood of other snapshot memories cascaded down, so many and so varied that I feared losing them if I didn’t work fast enough.  I furiously wrote them down.  Some were a couple of pages, others a few paragraphs, or even less.  There were episodes, fragments of episodes, slivers of thoughts, reflections, images, conversations.  Eventually, feeling I needed some instruction in how to do what I was doing (always a dancer at heart, I wanted direction and correction), I signed up for a memoir-writing workshop, led by the marvelous Merridawn Duckler.

Each week, Merridawn gave us a title prompt and an assignment to write two pages about it.  (Five of her title prompts became chapters in my book.)  I distinctly remember how excited I felt to run to my computer to write about “The Fork in the Road” and “The Time I Taught Someone Something” and “My Scar.”

The workshop members shared their writings each week.  As nervous as I was to read my essays aloud to the group, it finally proved to me that my conviction was right: people — not just other dancers but real people — could be as fascinated by ballet as I was, if they were shown something a little below its surface.

• • • • 

Now, at last, I have found gratification again: my book, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, was published in April by the University of Florida Press and reviewed in May by the New York Times.

How does a dancer become a writer?  One would think these art forms could not be more different: the one is intensely physical, interconnected with and dependent upon other bodies and minds, and effervescent, disappearing forever the very next moment; while the other is completely stationary, solitary, and permanent.

But for me, the similarities that make expressing myself in words on a page as natural as using my body are strong.  I still don’t have to speak out loud, which emboldens me to be forthright, daring and fully revealing.  On stage, costume, characterization, choreography and the buffer of a proscenium stage gave me that fearlessness.  On stage, no one can stop you.  On the page, no one can, either.

Once a dancer, always a dancer.

[Gavin Larsen retired as a principal dancer in 2010.  Her final principal performance was in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” music by Stravinsky.  For several more minutes of pleasure, I recommend you watch this video of Gavin’s movements and reflections.]

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4 Responses to Once a Dancer

  1. Bruce says:

    This is a fascinating snapshot of an amazing life journey. The book sounds great too. Thank you, Gavin, and thanks Craig for inviting her to write here.

    • Gavin Larsen says:

      Thank you, Bruce, I hope you enjoy reading the full story now that you have the history behind how this book was born!

  2. Sue Collins says:

    Gavin’s book provides a wonderful education on ballet. Then when I went on Youtube to view her ballet exercises, I understood the amazing art of ballet in such a different, visual way. I have never been to a ballet. It made me realize how little exposure the average person has to live performances and how much I have missed.

  3. Ryan says:

    As with Gavin herself, this story is ‘forthright, daring and fully revealing’.

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