catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 8 :: 2004.04.09 — 2004.04.22


Dancing into beauty

I learned the dance steps of beauty as haltingly as I am now learning ballet.

At age 16, I broke a scale. I never told my parents I was the reason our electronic scale no longer calculated any weights. Angry at the number it gave me, I kicked it into the wall, and the red lights went out for good.

At age 16, I pondered another scale: how comparatively ugly I was. I decided I was too knobbly and uneven to be on the least-ugly end: plain—that sounded merely unexceptionable and uninteresting. I wasn’t at the far end: hideous—I had never made children cry or people point. I settled on “homely.”

At age 16, I wanted to take ballet, but the studios I visited scared me off. I read the brochures with their admonishments on matching leotards and imagined my thighs stuffing light pink tights. I couldn’t stand the thought of graceful sylphs gliding around me in my wide and towering ungainliness.

Ten years later and many pounds over what I had at 16 considered an unbearable weight, I finally signed up for ballet.

I had received the course catalog for adult education in the mail and flipped through it to the dance section, my eyes alighting right away on the unthreateningly named “Very Beginning Ballet for Adults.” Nervous excitement fizzed inside as I read and reread the description: “Ideal for the adult beginner. All sizes and shapes welcome!” Could I? No. Maybe?. And the catalog sat on my desk, dogeared, with that one special class circled in tentative pencil.

I debated for a semester. I tested the idea out loud with my husband, Steve. I asked a friend if she’d ever consider taking ballet classes with me, in a half-joking manner so that I could pretend to be kidding if she acted horrified. I e-mailed the instructor: “All shapes and sizes? Really?”

Everything encouraged me to go.

Finally, I hit the submit button of the online registration. The plans with my accompanying friend fell through, so I forged my singular path. Disregarding the website’s gentle reassurance that any color leotard was fine, I showed up in ankle-length leggings, a long and bulky t-shirt, and bare feet. I tried to avoid staring in the full-length mirrors at myself and so had plenty of time to cast surreptitious glances at my neighboring beginners. No one was in a leotard—phew—except my instructor, middle-aged and, though not overweight, sturdier than the ballerina ideal. I dropped my dissection of her physique as the first words out of her mouth struck my ear and entranced me: “All right, dancers, let’s begin!” Dancers. I dropped into a wobbly plié and adopted the new identity with joy.

How did I get from age 16 to age 26? During my first beginners’ class, I sized everyone up and noted without panic that I was the largest person there. Where did the courage come from to keep attending? I think it has something to do with living with love.

After Steve and I married, I was amazed at how easily I fell into the comfort of life as a couple. Steve liked me before I lost weight for the wedding and cheerfully joined me in gaining it all back, plus some, as we enjoyed our honeymoon, the cessation of our first-dance waltz classes, and all the food we’d denied ourselves for the year of our engagement. He never suggested I would look better a different way than I was at any given moment. If I asked him if I’d look good with short hair, he’d help me search for cute haircuts. If I grew it out, he’d comment on how much fun it was long. If I asked him for a color recommendation to dye it, he’d hem and haw, because, he said, he liked them all on me. He accepted me, warts and farts and all.

I think part of this is the way Steve views beauty. We (meaning, I) like to talk a lot about beauty being on the inside, and how a person’s inner beauty is what matters. Steve’s the first person I know who actually thinks this way without trying. We hadn’t been married long when one day we reminisced about a group of girls we once knew and whether the individual members had a chance of finding spouses of their own. (Yes, this is the sort of thing we like to speculate on.) As I mentally listed the appearance defects of several of these people, all good friends, Steve calmly stated that at least all of them were attractive. Taken aback, I started naming them, one by one, to make sure he was remembering each of them. Yes, he agreed, all of those ones were pretty. Oh, but wait, he said, there was one ugly one—and then he named a person he hadn’t liked and who had regularly been mean to him: a person who had acted ugly.

This was my first reassurance that Steve never silently compared me to other women and found me wanting. I realized that as long as I was the most loved person in his life, I was by default his most beautiful.

After basking in that love for nearly five years, I was able to sign up for a ballet class.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that people, or women in particular, need to look to a spouse for affirmation of beauty and worth. I think there are certainly other aspects to my transformation. Most people, as they mature, naturally tend to become more gracefully aware of who they are.

But Steve has been my first example outside myself and outside my family, on this earth, who has gotten to know me deeply and wholly and still accepted and loved me. My parents have throughout my life unfailingly professed deep affection and admiration for me—but parents have to love you. If they don’t, the failure is with them, not you. And my loving myself can always be suspect. But Steve didn’t have any constraints on him to love me, and he has had ample opportunity to decide not to love me. His is my first and best expression of God’s unconditional love: a love undeserved, and still abundant and joyful. A love that transforms the beloved.

For the first time in my life, I’ve been losing weight to be healthier instead of in competition with thinner inhabitants of this planet. I want to keep dancing, and I want my body to be in the best shape it can be to perform well. I bought proper tights, ballet-pink shoes, and a plus-size leotard and laughed instead of crying at that oxymoronic phrase. I can look in those frightening full-length mirrors now and nod at myself with a “Looking good.” I’ve traveled a fair distance from my 16-year-old angst.

I hope I can learn not just to appreciate that love that creates beauty but to lavish it on others. I hope I can reflect the love of a God who gives His Son to transform old creatures into new. I would love to inspire another, relentlessly 16-year-old person to stretch through her fears, seize a long-held dream, and fly across the dance floor.

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