WHEN THE BALLERINA in the recent movie Black Swan removes her pointe shoes, she sees that she has ripped off a toenail (the audience gasps). She also has a patch of angry eczema on her back, and bleeding cuticles, and the jutting shoulder blades and skinny arms generally associated with eating disorders. Not to mention that she is going more than a bit nuts, what with the looming pressure of her debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake….
Black Swan is not a documentary film. Although I may be a little obsessed with ballet—okay, a lot obsessed—I’m not crazy. Neither are the professional dancers I know, most of whom are sane, practical, disciplined folk, martyrs to their art only up to a point (no pun intended). I won’t give away Black Swan’s bizarre plot twists. Let us merely say that there is a difference between perfectionism and mania.
On the other hand, ballet is not painless. I just started learning to dance on pointe five months ago, and only lately have I even managed to keep the toe shoes on for a whole hour, or occasionally let go of the barre and balance. When I remove the shoes, I expect my feet to be ravaged, like Natalie Portman’s in the movie; in fact, they simply look rather reddish and cramped, with ugly indentations.
Wearing the shoes is difficult enough. Actually rising onto my pointes is a whole other level of agony. Well, not agony, but definite pain. The bulk of the weight is on the first two toes, but in order not to sink further into my beleaguered feet I must pull up the whole body (and raise my head proudly). Think tiara, think tutu. Way, way up. Far from the floor. Tall, queenly, ouch.
The resistance is enormous: When I attempt to step out on one foot, I am asking my body to do something unprecedented, something it was not designed for, so it isn’t surprising that it goes, “Huh?” There is a disconnect between mind and flesh, inner and outer. Deep down I become a weepy kid, wailing “I can’t!” But when my kind yet relentless teacher says, “Again,” I am embarrassed not to try. I steel myself and repeat. And repeat.
I AM CHICKEN about pain. None of this “I was fine with Tylenol” business after a medical procedure; I make sure to have a prescription for the heavy-duty stuff. So it is peculiar that I would invite pain into my life in the form of two box-shaped pink satin shoes secured with crossed ribbons. My other amateur pursuits—music, art—pose a psychological challenge, but less of a physical one. Pointe work packs a double whammy: the burning sensation of balancing on my toes, plus gut-level anxiety about my legs collapsing or my feet shattering or my body cartwheeling forward in space.
Part of the reason I persist is the romance I have with ballet. This is the third time I have taken a shot at pointe: I remember the absolute elation, at 10, of going to buy a gleaming black pair (very Odile). I also remember a girl in my class, a couple of years younger, who could stand on tiptoe without special shoes, registering no apparent pain. There she was in her Brownie uniform: elfin, insouciant. I was a chubby washout.
I floundered again in my thirties, getting the shoes too big, so shy that I dared not ask the Capezio salesperson for help or admit that I was a beginner. I gave up fast. Neither time did I have the right fit, or the right teacher, or the right advice from fellow sufferers about possible ways to pad my toes. Now I do.
And the sight of my feet in the mirror dressed like a “real” ballerina’s is so enchanting that I almost forget how much it hurts. The other day, as I stepped out on pointe into an attitude (supported by my teacher’s strong hands), I joked that I felt like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty doing the Rose Adagio with her suitors. The feeling was seriously glamorous. There is something seductive about attempting the impossible.
THAT ELUSIVE PERFECTION is, I suppose, what Black Swan is about. For roughly its first half, the film gives a fairly plausible sense of the dance world. As the balletic ingénue, Portman (filmed only from the hips up; American Ballet Theatre’s Sarah Lane is her double for the rest) is vulnerable and touching. But toward the end, the film deteriorates into an unappetizing (and unconvincing) stew of horror and sex and swan feathers. If the director had just held back a touch…. Still, until the moment that Black Swan goes into meltdown, it reminded me forcibly that for some people—especially overwhelmed and unhappy adolescents—pain can be a release from the pressure to be flawless. Hence, anorexia or cutting.
I’m no masochist, and certainly no adolescent. But the pain of ballet may have another function for me. Recently I experienced my own personal Black Swan Event (a phrase coined by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe an unexpected occurrence with major impact): I lost my writing job. Just as all swans were assumed to be white until the discovery of Australia, and with it birds of a different color, I’d thought I would be part of the workforce until I keeled over.
Instead, at the moment I am unemployed, and my decision to go on pointe more or less coincided with that unwished-for development. I suffer; therefore I am good, or at least not lazy—so my reasoning goes. I imagine that the difficulty of pointe work will keep me from going soft.
Or, perhaps more aptly, it will prevent me from turning into my father. He retired from teaching in his forties “to write” and then fled to Mexico with a woman other than my mother, where he accomplished exactly nothing for the next 50 years. I shudder to think I might imitate him. For me a failure to work means a failure of morality and responsibility. It’s the Pain Theory of Virtue: Doing stuff that isn’t comfortable bolsters one’s character.
THE PALPABLE STING of pointe shoes guarantees a sense of effort. It brings me back to hard reality—literally hard, with those sturdy reinforced toes that can hammer like castanets in Don Quixote or seem to melt in Giselle. Moreover, ballet class gives me a destination very like an office: I appear punctually, suitably dressed, and work soberly alongside “colleagues” at the barre. I know who I am and what I’m there for.
It has everything but the paycheck. And (thank God) the cubicles.