The first time I walked through that very ordinary doorway, I entered a portal into another world. It was an unexpected discovery, that world of beauty and grace. Girls lined up against the wall like dominos in a row, one behind the other. Alone, each was not so different than me. Wispy girls with freckled noses and hair pulled back as tight as onion skins.
As the music first trickled, then flooded into the room, the girls began to move. They ceased being individuals and became intricate parts of a larger organism. The great animal had a long set of identical pink legs, all of which traced shapes on the floor, sliced through the air, and melted toward the ground in perfect unison. Out of the creature’s left side protruded a row of delicate arms, all grasping the walnut-colored bar that ran the length of the room. When I walked through that doorway, my life changed forever. I took my place in line, and began the first of what through the years would become thousands of hours of barre work.
To the dancer who aspires to reach her full potential, barre work is a fundamental, necessary discipline. Every session of ballet class begins with a familiar cadence of exercises, each with a specific purpose. Through a repetitive series of tendus, pliés, and grande battements, tension forced upon specific muscles causes them to contract and strengthen. The observer would see nothing outstanding, impressive, or creative. Yet over time, with endless repetition and correct technique, shaky muscles become dependable. Tentative positioning becomes resolute. Easily-fatigued core muscles become an unshakable axis for the rest of the body.
Repetition and increased difficulty force tension, tension produces fatigue, and fatigue endured results in strength.
Unknowingly, I was being prepared for the endurance needed in marriage… through disappointments, struggles, and challenges. The decision to love, or more specifically to acknowledge and starve my own selfish desires, often required more energy than I thought I could muster. At times, I’ve failed abysmally. Yet over the last 18 years, we’ve continued to lean toward each other more frequently than back away. Working through tension and fatigue rather than quitting (even silently), has slowly produced a foundational strength. From that growing foundation, we’ve been able to give more freely – in our community, at work, and in service to others.
Work at the barre also produces increased flexibility. Certain exercises are designed to reduce internal tissue resistance. Over time, those muscles can stretch more easily, allowing a much greater range of motion. However, the dancer must use caution. Flexibility can only be increased through time. It cannot be forced. When tissue is overused, it may become fatigued and tear, resulting in significant loss of flexibility. Arms, legs, back, neck – all must be taught to relax through a gradual series of slow, deliberate stretches. Even the foot must work diligently. The subtle movement of rolling the beautifully arched, pointed foot through to a dramatic angled flex involves the engagement of thirty-eight muscles working in perfect concert.
A flexible body has greater range of mobility, can thrive more readily during difficulty, is more adaptable, and is less apt to be injured.
With every stretch and extension, I was being prepared for the flexibility required in motherhood… with five very different children who have five very different sets of needs and personalities, and who also happen to be in significantly different phases of life. Rigidity leads to injury, both in the world of dance and in the world of parenting.
Strength and flexibility must increase in proportion. Too much focus on strength training alone can result in rigid muscles that limit range of movement. Too much focus on flexibility alone can result in a body that is easily fatigued. Over time, and often through experience, the dancer learns the difference between productive discomfort and destructive pain. She learns to endure that which will bring her closer to her full potential while wisely heeding signs of danger and injury.
Understanding the difference between productive and destructive pain is critical to healthy development.
Through strained muscles and bleeding toes, I learned that not all pain is to be avoided. Some pain is a signal that hard, necessary work is occurring. It serves a purpose. When relationships are unhealthy, there is often some degree of pain necessary to bring healing and wholeness.
Day after day, class after class, tendu after battement after plié, the dancer finds that she no longer has to think intently to find perfect perfect positioning. Correct body placement and exercise execution become routine. Routine becomes habit. And habit becomes instinctual – as natural as breath itself.
The result of submission to intense training at the barre is the development of strength, flexibility and muscle memory. As a result, the dancer is liberated to experience the emotion and creativity of her art to the fullest.
Only through discipline comes the truest form of freedom.
I learned much through the exhaustive hours spent at the barre. I was stretched beyond comfort, pushed beyond my assumed capacity, and challenged to wrestle chaos into obedience. Yet rather than being broken or subdued, I was being prepared for life.
As the years passed, I began to understand that the laws of dance were only reflections of the laws of the Universe. Minor truths pointing the way to Ultimate Truth.
If we pay attention, we’ll see that we’ve been given signposts all along the way…
Through our stories.
Through our passions.
Through our hopes and dreams.
Through our dance classes,
And our ball games.
Through our band practices,
And our games of make believe.
Through our reading,
And our playing, singing, laughing, arguing, sandcastle building, snowball launching, fort making, wave jumping and story reading.
All very ordinary doorways, each granting temporary access to the extraordinary, ancient, and eternal world.
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” – Aslan
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader