Living Pointe to Point

Degas Dance Class painting

On average, a ballerina’s career is very short, but even I was surprised when Greta* said she retired at 22 years of age.

Greta had danced for George Balanchine, one of the most prominent choreographers of the 20th century, co-founder of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet Company.

In other words, if you danced for Mr. B, as he was called, you were probably one heck of dancer with a very bright future.

So why retire at age 22?

“I had an accident and that was that.”   

Every dancer (and athlete, artist, or tradesman/woman) shudders at these words. We all know and dread the career-ending injury. It is the only event that trumps the career-stalling injury, which occurs more than any of us like to admit.   

Twenty-two year-old dancers are known for being resilient, so this must have been quite an accident. Greta, now somewhere north of 60 years of age (quite possibly 70, because dancers are also known for looking younger), poised and yet completely at ease, seemed to have made her peace with the premature ending of her dance career. I searched for a delicate way to inquire about the accident that changed the course of her life.

“My teacher (I’m fairly certain she was NOT talking about Balanchine) stepped on my back. He wanted to show me…(she searched for the right words) to…get me to bend farther.” She punctuated her explanation by gesturing the intense impact of her teacher’s foot on her back. It was a careless move. Not malicious, but devastating nonetheless.

Teachers and choreographers have always been physical with their dancers. Those stories you hear about ballet dancers getting whacked by some authority figure toting a cane are largely true.

Pirouettes (turns) for the better have been made in the years since. The professional dance world remains a world not for the faint of heart nor the faint of body, regardless of how delicate its inhabitants look. Taking a beating, body, mind and spirit, still comes with the territory.

Needless to say, the gesture Greta described was not surprising, given the dance world and how it brutal it could be, particularly during the time Greta was performing. What did surprise me though, was Greta’s next statement.

“Ultimately, it was a good thing, because it meant I had a life.”

Greta became a decorative painter. Greta went on to live, by her account, a full life. A life she did not think she would have had if she had continued as a ballerina. We commiserated that a dancer’s life, at least for a time, is all consuming: “When you dance, all you want to do is dance.”

Our conversation led me to marvel at the path of Greta’s life.  How does one go from living a life completely devoted to fulfillment through one, singular avenue, find that road unexpectedly shut down and inaccessible, and then transcend it, releasing the attachment to the course that life was taking in order to blaze the trail of a different future?

Every day is filled with moments, moments that shape us and potentially change the course of our lives. We live our lives point-to-point, connecting dots that invariably move. The question is not whether to devote our lives myopically, but rather what happens if our circumstances change? What would Greta’s life been like if Greta had stayed in the moment of mourning her dance career…or had spent year after year trying to resurrect it?

Leaving something behind before we are “ready,” can make moving on feel a lot like settling. Anything new in our lives can compete with the shadow of “what was” and the fantasy of “what could have been.” And yet, it is not the change in circumstances, but our own readiness to let go and let in what is next, that seems to hold the key for being able to truly appreciate and enjoy the life we are living.

I take my pointe shoes off to you, Greta.

*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of this very inspiring woman.