Perspective: A Writer Learns to Dance

Michelle Herman
Michelle Herman

In my living room in Clintonville, all of the furniture has been pushed back so that there's room for my friend Judith and me to practice fouettés on the wood floor. We work on them—“whipped” turns—and on the two jump-spins with outstretched arms that lead into them, plus the little phrase (both of us muttering arm, arm, left leg, right leg, shoulders) that comes right afterward, until neither of us makes a mistake. Then we do it again. And again (10 times, 12 times, 20 times—I lose count), trying to get it not just memorized but good, before we move on to another part of the four-minute contemporary piece. This time only Judith mutters (ankle, knee, hand, left leg, head-hand, right leg, shoulders, turn) while I sing the lyrics that go with these 10 seconds of choreography: and the rest of our lives will the moments accrue.

We practice for an hour. Then we put our shoes on and walk down the street to the dance studio for a real rehearsal, then a ballet class.

Just to be clear: I am not a dancer. I'm a 63-year-old novelist and college professor, a lifelong life-of-the-mind type who has spent decades sitting at one desk or another all day long, seven days a week. But for a year now, I've also been devoting part of nearly every day to dance. And last July, for a few weeks, dance was virtually all I did as I prepared for my first public performance along with nine other adult beginners.

Besides Judith, an epidemiologist from Los Angeles who is a decade older than I am, there's Youji, from Korea by way of China, who's majoring in art at OSU and is 41 years younger. There's Karina, who is in Columbus doing research on plant molecular biology and will soon return to Brazil, and Rian, a part-time fashion model from Indonesia who's just gotten a job as an assistant manager at Kroger. Holley's a speech-language pathologist. Doug's a video producer, Melanie's an academic librarian, Gail's an occupational therapist, Charles a retired engineer.

I take four ballet classes a week. At the barre, doing tendus and ronds de jambe, I concentrate as hard as I ever have on anything—extending my leg just so, pointing my foot, “presenting” my heel, one arm à la seconde (talking myself through it:elbow lower than my shoulder, wrist lower still but no, don't drop that hand—now rotate the whole arm).

It's not only that I'm in my body—as I never am, otherwise—and not in my head. It's also that I'm learning a new discipline, a new vocabulary, a new way of seeing myself and expressing myself. Sometimes it seems like I'm learning a new way ofbeing myself.

There's a well-known aphorism, attributed to Freud and widely disseminated by psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1970s, about what it takes to have a meaningful and happy life. Love and work—a simple formula.

I'm lucky. I've known since childhood what I wanted my life's work to be. In my sixth-grade autograph book, I confidently filled in “author” in the space for “future profession.” But I worried in my 20s and into my 30s how I'd make a living, because hardly anybody makes a living only writing books. By 30, I'd already cycled through a good half-dozen jobs like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit before I eventually stumbled onto my second vocation: teaching. The occupation even ultimately fulfilled the “love” half of Freud's happy-life equation, since I met my husband through it after years of misbegotten, ill-advised romances.

But as it turns out, I want more.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow describes a hierarchy of human needs that starts with life's physiological requirements—air, food, water, sleep—and moves up through security and safety (a roof over one's head, a way to earn a living) to “love and belonging” and then what Maslow calls “esteem” (respect, recognition, dignity, appreciation, self-respect). But he proposes something beyond that—beyond survival, satisfaction, success and even happiness. It's what he calls “self-actualization,” which he defines asbecoming more and more of what one is—becoming everything that one is capable of becoming.

Balancé, balancé, tombé pas de bourrée, piqué arabesque—we are dancing across the floor from the corner: Sophie, an accountant, and Jiung, a pianist. Kate, a physicist-turned-banker, along with Judith, Karina and Rian, who never miss a ballet class, and Madeline, a musician and farmer who travels 80 miles each way to take class with us.

After class, those of us who are rehearsing will stay and dance some more.

Our teachers, Filippo Pelacchi and Russell Lepley, are from Florence and Hilliard, respectively, and I'd like to say that when they decided to give up their positions in a European dance company to make new work of their own and open a dance studio, they flipped a coin and Ohio won (too bad, Italy)—but really, I know that it was a pragmatic decision, financially and otherwise. Columbus, which has been attracting young artists and entrepreneurs at an astonishing rate over the last several years, was exactly the right place for this venture. They also chose Columbus over Florence because while civil unions are legal in Italy, same-sex marriages are not, and the Lepley-Pelacchis married in 2016.

From the day it opened, Flux + Flow, a studio with a focus on adult beginners and those with experience who want to make dance a part of their lives again, attracted a devoted following that's only strengthened by the owners' kind, compassionate, funny, charming personalities. A year in, there's a solid community of dancers (and “dancers”), and every new person who turns up is welcomed like a long-lost member of a big extended family. There's a lot of laughter during classes (which, I am assured, is not customary in ballet). Russell laughs at my visible delight when we do our forward port de bras (a simultaneous lift and dive, bringing the arm along toward the floor) in relevé—which is to say, on one's toes—which is my favorite thing to do at the barre. Or no—it's grand battement, in which the “working” leg is thrown high into the air, that's my favorite.

Except I am also sad when we begin grand battement, because immediately afterward, I know, either Russell or Filippo—they take turns teaching this class—will say, “Thank you for the barre,” which signals that this portion of the class is over. And I am happiest at the barre, which I suppose real dancers must regard with boredom: The barre is only preparation, practice, readiment. But I like preparation, practice, readiment. I like repetition and precision, doing something carefully, focusing on getting it right. Or righter, anyway.

I like that ballet requires so much effort. Even standing still in first position takes effort—and you wouldn't know it just to look at it. I like it when things look easy when they're not.

Like writing—which is, I realize, what this reminds me of. Except writing is lonely. And dance—dance is the opposite of lonely.

The contemporary piece we're working on was originally choreographed by Russell for Filippo and five BalletMet dancers for the FluxFlow Dance Project, the company Russell and Filippo have created here. Obviously Russell has had to adjust his expectations in remaking the piece with us. In the final days of rehearsal, he is so patient with us it sometimes brings me to tears.

We forget what he's just told us, we don't point our toes when we're supposed to, we can't seem to get the lift and drop of a leg into synchronization. One of us—a different one each time—accidentally skips a crucial transition. Many of us literally stumble (once, I actually fall down while executing a turn—and Russell expresses admiration because I seem to have fallen into a near-perfect split). The first time we rehearse a part of the piece we affectionately call “the clump,” Judith and I have a giggling fit as we are squished together, chest to chest. Gail notes that this gives new meaning to the phrase “bosom buddies.”

The clump—all 10 of us pressed close—moves forward and back together, a 20-legged creature. This feels like a metaphor: We have become one.

But it's not just a metaphor. In the world outside of the studio, none of us are ever in such intimate physical contact with anyone except our romantic partners, if we have them, or our children, if they're still young enough to want to snuggle. And at first, being in the clump—sweaty skin to sweaty skin, breathing into one another's faces, depending on each other to keep from tipping over—feels weird, embarrassing, uncomfortable. “Get closer,” Russell says. “No. Closer.”

We get closer.

People ask me what it's all about—my spending so much of my time in the dance studio. “It's not really a hobby, is it, if you're working so hard?” It's true—it's not quite a hobby. But it's not work, either. It's concentrated effort toward something hard, knowing that it's not attainable, and not caring that it's not—and still trying, anyway.

Plus: I am so happy the whole time I am doing it.

When we finally perform the piece, it isn't perfect. But by then, the 10 of us have learned to pay attention to each other without seeming to, so that we can truly move in unison, and we all remember every bit of Russell's brilliant, beautiful choreography. For the moment—the four minutes we are onstage—all of us are more than we were before. Or rather: We are all becoming more and more of what we are.

Michelle Herman and students from FLUX + FLOW Dance and Movement Center perform "The Things That I Knew," by Russell Lepley-Pelacchi.