I have a granddaughter who loves the ballet. I mean loves the ballet. We’re talking amour here. Every time I see her, the first words out of her mouth are, “Can we go to the ballet?” The irony is that she’s never taken a ballet lesson. I have taken her to her sister’s ballet class a few times and to one recital, but she herself has never had a lesson. When I tell her that the ballet school is closed, fermée, she peers into my soul with her sad, brown eyes and asks again. I don’t bother explaining COVID. She will be three in November.
After months of this, I decided to take matters into my own hands by teaching a few lessons. After all, I thought, how hard could it be? (Note: This will be chiseled on my gravestone.) The first lesson consisted of four grandchildren: three girls in pink tutus and one vaguely interested boy in a Batman cape. I lined them up, put on Jacques Offenbach’s “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour,” and led them through a series of exercises culminating in a grand finale.
If you’ve ever been to a kids’ soccer game, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of how things went. We ended up doing exercises that were more kung fu than ballet and a finale that looked like a parody of Fantasia, which is about right, since most of my classical music training comes from Looney Tunes. But I learned something valuable from the experience. As a teacher, sometimes you have to overlook what the class is doing and just keep on going. My advisor’s words in graduate school came to mind: “better done than perfect, Robert.”
Good advice, that, especially since it applies to everything in life. And especially since finishing is harder than beginning, even in small things. For instance, my granddaughter started the makeshift ballet lesson with such high hopes that she could hardly contain herself. But by the time we finished, she looked somewhat doubtful, even suspicious. We both knew it wasn’t the same as a real lesson. I thought of the first time I tasted a Hydrox cookie, expecting an Oreo. I told my daughter she’ll get over it and added something about not promising a rose garden, which, now that I think of it, would be a great song for a future lesson, should one exist.
The ballet school sits half a block from my daughter’s house and shares space with other groups learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu, belly dancing, and flamenco. I took my grandkids there one day and hoisted up each one individually so they could look through the open window at the empty space. That seemed to satisfy their curiosity for the time being, although staring at a dark room with potted plants and a large mirror goes only so far, even for a three year old.
Then, last week I spotted the ballet teacher pulling out of the parking lot. I flagged her down and told her what was going on. She suggested I bring the kids by the next day to say hello, which I did. She talked to them, gave them some gummy bears, and closed up the school again. We walked back home and watched Leap! (2016), a computer-generated film about a young ballerina, for the fifteenth time. I can now recite parts of the movie by heart. I’m thinking of adding it to my LinkedIn profile.
All of this is to say that the real lesson of ballet is learning to balance desire with discipline. You can marvel at Fonteyn and Nureyev in Swan Lake, but reaching that level of proficiency and performance requires discipline beyond talent. It also requires patience, which many people do not have and why I admire this brown-eyed granddaughter, obsessed as she is with ballet.
Of course, like staring at an empty room, all of this goes only so far with toddlers, who are pushing the boundary of “no.” But for us adults, the lesson is crucial. If we don’t learn it, we’re liable to spend our lives chasing one crazy idea after another. And we won’t give up until we get it perfect, which means never.
Now that the pressure is off, I’m planning the next lesson.
Image credits: feature by Ricardo Moura on Unsplash; ballet shoes by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash; ballerinas by Kazuo ota on Unsplash. For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”