When my son was three he started taking ballet. He had been doing parent and child music classes before that and he corrected me that it was not the singing, but the dancing that he loved. So when The Ballet School offered a special to get boys interested in ballet, we signed him right up. He has loved it ever since.
I remember dancing around on my toes wishing to be a ballerina as a little girl. My parents never enrolled me in a class. But as I watched my son doing all the intricate exercises and living the beautiful music through his little body – and I noticed my own ‘Mommy bulge’ and ‘Mommy blah’ increasing – I decided that at 40 I would jump in myself and take an adult class.
I was horrible. I wasn’t just horrible compared to the graceful 20-somethings who had taken a few years off and were trying to get back into dance. I was also horrible compared to the other beginners of all ages and experience levels. I tried to remember my yoga days – do what you can do. Try not to look at the others around you.
There were weeks I cried as I left the studio. But the tears just made me more determined to come back. Because I was learning more than I had in years, not only about dance, but about myself. It became my spiritual practice for a season. Here are some things I learned:
I am strong. There are ways that my body is exceptionally strong, even though I had neglected it terribly for many years. Underneath the rolls, I had some of the strongest abs in the class. And this strength was matched in mental and emotional strength as well. I did not give up easily. I took criticism and learned from it. I refused to be defeated just because I didn’t look as graceful as the others. My strength was beautiful in itself. My husband commented on how much more beautiful I was in my newly-rediscovered confidence. (He’s a great guy!) I learned strength comes from our center. Physically our core holds it all together and is the source of our strength and balance. This is even more true for our spiritual strength.
I am weak. Much of the reason I was so bad at ballet is because my feet and ankles are naturally weak. I finally had to give it up when my foot and ankle ailments became extreme. Ballet as a physical exercise reminded me my body can fail me. Ballet as a spiritual practice showed me I had weaknesses in my spirit as well. As an adult beginner, I realized that I rarely do anything I am not good at. In my job I sometimes have to do things I do not like, but I’m still good enough at even these things. When I play, I choose games I am good at. When parenting requires things I am not good at, I pass them off to my spouse, who tends to complement my weaknesses. And in my spiritual life, I can be equally as resistant to areas where I am weak. Ballet forced me to confront my physical and spiritual weaknesses, to lay them both before God and to allow God to be my true source of strength.
I am curious. I persisted for more than a year with pain, because I loved learning more about myself, my body, dance, music, my friends at the studio. I also persisted because, I loved the mental stimulation of delving deep inside myself. I rediscovered my breath. I had not done centering prayer in years, but I found myself returning to it naturally both in class and after, during my walks to try to strengthen those pesky feet. I once again found myself curious about what God had to say to me in a more disciplined way. As a pastor, I was always listening for God. But the discipline had been lost to the press of time as a new parent. I started exploring spiritual direction again. I began reading books: both deep spiritual writings and trashy romance novels with equal glee. I had been too exhausted to be curious, but the timing was right and the new experience of ballet drew me back into loving to learn.
I will never be a professional ballet dancer. This makes me sad. But that’s what I had to learn most in this season of spiritual discernment: I cannot be everything. We tell our kids: “You can be anything you want to be.” And I hesitate to call it a lie, but, well, there are some things that we simply cannot be or do. Which does not have to diminish us at all.
Learning the lesson to say “no” to some things frees us to others. While I may not be a professional ballet dancer, I can still dance around my living room. I can much more deeply appreciate the tremendous growth my son has made in ballet now that he is ten and still going strong. I can explore other styles of dance that might not be so hard on my feet. (After writing this, I am contemplating a ballroom class – want to join me?)
And the time I used to spend dancing, I now spend building my spiritual direction practice, tapping into that re-discovered need to listen for God in a disciplined way.
What new things have you done recently? Do you ever stretch into areas you’re not good at? What do you learn about yourself through these activities?
Enjoy the dance!
Rev. Mary Beene is a spiritual director with Openings: Let the Spirit In and pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Rincon near Savannah, GA. Her husband, Eric Beene, took the lovely ballet feet photo, which may not be copied or used without permission. (See more of his photos here.) The feet are not Mary’s – she’ll never be on pointe. Still, she admires them not only for their beauty, but for the amazing amount of work it took to get up there. In her dreams (and sometimes in real life too) she’s been known to dance around her living room on her tip toes!
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