Tonight I went to church (after my usual Sunday ballet class) and the pastor spoke of death. Not exactly my favorite subject. I have no negative reactions to the subject, so it's not as if I fear the topic. It's just that...I would rather not dwell on it. It's inevitable, it happens, can't I just deal with it when it arrives?
So as I was listening to the sermon, which was in reference to Psalm 90 in case you want to turn to your Bible and follow along, I was thinking about how the talk seemed to be getting a little cliche for my liking. It became the whole "if death is inevitable, what does that mean?...we must learn to number our days...how should we choose to live?...if we knew when we were to pass, would that change the way we lived?..." And as the pastor continued, I kept trying to stay focused and get something out of the sermon, but I just kept thinking that, for the most part, I live as I would live if this were the last year of my life. I am lucky enough to be able to spend literally, and I mean literally, everyday doing the things I love or working toward doing the things I love. And I think that compared to most of the world population, I am lucky enough to have a very high quality of life. Even when things are not what I'd like them to be, I still, if I take a step back, think that I try on a daily basis to put into place the things that I want in my life. We can't control everything, but I do try to "seize the day" as much as possible in this chaotic and sometimes discouraging world. And that's the best that one can do.
So as I was feeling pretty good about myself and, not necessarily prideful as much as enthusiastic, I got home to the reliable news source of Facebook that David Howard, ballet teacher legend, had passed away. My initial reaction, of course, was sadness, as is anyone's reaction to the news of a death. My second reaction was sadness specifically that a legend in the dance world was gone. This is always a travesty, as it means that the industry and artists lose necessary access to very important information. My third reaction was a sense of gladness that I had been fortunate enough to have been a semi-regular in his classes, making it almost feel like I vicariously left, maybe not a footprint, but more of a hair ON the actual footprint left by the life of a legend. At this point, I immediately started thinking through all of the things that he had taught me. Or tried to teach me. I began thinking through the classes. Thinking about the combinations he gave and the corrections he gave. And no matter how hard I tried to come up with jokes, critiques, and comments he had made, only one thing kept popping up in my head. And this all led to my fourth reaction: guilt.
You see, whenever I would take David Howard's class, it always seemed like he would get frustrated at everyone for not repeating the combination enough. For instance, we would be doing a medium allegro consisting of arabesque saute and saut de basques in a circle around the room in groups of six or so and after each person had gone twice, we would stop, as was the norm for most ballet classes. Well, not for David Howard. He would have the accompanist continue the music and he would start asking us why we had stopped dancing? I always wanted to answer, "because we did it twice. What else do you want from me? I have chronic knee problems. Not to mention my Nutcracker tendonitis that flares up only when I do a saute arabesque. Do you know how hard it is to survive these days? You should be lucky I showed up! I'm retired from ballet, so this is like extra credit. I'm lucky I'm not injured after the audition I went to today. You should have seen what they made us do...and it's not even in the show. You should hear how many jobs the people in this class are working just to eat. They can't afford to eat so they shouldn't burn too many calories. Can we please just move on to the left side?"
Of course I never said anything. No one ever did. Sometimes we would give him a blank stare, as if we hoped he would think we suddenly didn't speak English. Sometimes we would smile and nod, hoping he would think that we just took it as a joke. (Haha, you're so funny, David Howard!) Sometimes we were moody New Yorkers and would stare at him, daring him to look away first. Sometimes I would lean over and fix my pointe shoe. Okay, MOST times I would lean over to fix my pointe shoe. Avoidance works wonders...let everyone else decide what to do, I'll just go with the flow. But sometimes, people would gird their loins (or in my case pointe shoes) and get back to the right side of the sautes. And while it may have hurt the knees and the tendonitis, I don't think any of us really regretted doing the right side again. (Perhaps it was always a different story with the left) ;)
So as I sat there reading of David Howard's news, I thought about how much hard work meant to him. How important dedication is. How necessary it is. How, in the world of ballet, there is no other way. And I was convicted of how I don't always take class like that. I show up, granted. And I make it a top priority in my life to go to class. But when I'm there, am I REALLY there? How many times have I done an adagio and just given up? A lot. To some extent, every time. And while I can't remember the last time I didn't put on my pointe shoes for a ballet class, what does it matter if I am not truly challenging myself to get beyond my comfort zones in each combination?
So I started to get really upset with myself. And then I remembered the sermon I had just heard. About, knowing that death is inevitable, how am I to live my life? And I began to think of all the things in my life that I would do differently. I would call my mom more. Especially considering that I, ashamedly, only talk to her on the phone maybe once a month. Maybe. I would FaceTime with my sister and her family more. I would not just help strangers more when they asked for it, but I would LOOK for strangers who needed help. I wouldn't shut myself up in my room all the time. I would read less. Worry less. I would do more saute arabesques.
I once went through a phase when I was dancing with a ballet company where I would get really scared before going onstage. Not stage fright. (That was a different phase.) But scared that something would happen and that would be the last time I danced. It became a sort of regular paranoia for me as I waited in the wings before each performance and lasted a couple years. It was a really scary moment for me each time, as I worried about what my life would be like without dance. But on the other hand, it made each performance special. I would immediately forget about my fear once I stepped out onstage, but I think that the building up of anxiety led to a certain building of appreciation that I could then express once I was onstage.
So tonight, after feeling the guilt and conviction with the combination of the death of David Howard and the sermon, I imagined what it would be like if I took ballet class as if it was my last one every time. I would wear my favorite leotard, for sure--the pink one with the zipper down the front. And, of course, a head scarf. Duh. I imagined myself drenched in sweat during barre, using every port de bras possible, as that is my favorite thing to do in ballet. And I would use so much strength for my frappes (my least favorite in ballet), the teacher wouldn't know what hit him (or the floor, I should say). Once ronde jambes came along, I would be crying, because that's always my favorite barre exercise. (I'd probably also run over to the accompanist to request a couple songs throughout class, too. My favorites, of course...Act III Pas from Sleeping Beauty for adagio, Don Q for grande allegro, and, yes, the Dumbo song when the mother is in jail...that always makes me cry so lets save that for reverence....because, YES, in my last class there would be some SERIOUSLY dramatic reverence!) Come center, I would go in every group. It would be nonstop dancing. Even across the floor. Every group. It would be the biggest, best, most graceful cardio session anyone has ever seen. I would add battu to every assemble, jete, and even sissone. I would change every changement to an entrechat six.
And the more I pictured this, the more I realized that this is NOT POSSIBLE. Not at all. I couldn't take a single class like that without passing out or losing a foot or...well creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and MAKING that my last class. Plus everyone would absolutely HATE me. And that realization made me realize that in daily life as well, we cannot do this. I cannot call my mom as if tomorrow is my last day. She would freak. And my sister has a family to raise and she probably cannot FaceTime me as if it's the last time she will see my face. And I certainly cannot help EVERY stranger who needs help. Let's face it...lots of New Yorkers need help.
But I can fall somewhere in between. I can call my mom more so she knows that 1) I'm alive, and 2) I care. And I can listen to her. Really listen. Not just act like I'm listening, but listen with compassion. I can schedule more FaceTime dates with my sister and be a bigger role in my niece's life. I can maybe not read a library book EVERY time I sit on the subway so that I can pay more attention to those around me who might be in need. (Getting me out of my room to be more social is another thing.)
And for the legendary David Howard, I can do more saute arabesques. Because you never know when your last class will be. Thank you, Mr. Howard. I will always remember you for yelling at me to do more. And I like that.