Four years ago, when "A Chorus Line" held auditions here in Washington, I packed my dance bag and lined up at the National Theatre with hundreds of other dancers. Eventually we were taken on stage in groups of 10, where we were told to state our names and ages and then do a double pirouette and a time step. When our group was called, I was at the end of the line, stage left. They started at the other end--"Hello, I'm Debby Smith and I'm 18 years old," or "Hi there, I'm Sally Jones, 21 years old." They were fast approaching my end of the line and not a soul was over 22. The girl next to me chirped her name and age and her feet became a blur. My turn. "I'm Lynn Schrichte and I'm 44 years old." A titter came from the blackness out there. I managed to do a passable pirouette and a tolerable time step. Then we got into the ballet and jazz combinations from the show. I did all right and went home feeling good.
Dancing is a habit I can't seem to break. Two years ago I quit ballet for the second time in my life. The first was when I was 23. After a year of getting down to the last handful of people at New York auditions (you can imagine what seeing "A Chorus Line" did to me) and then hearing "Thank you very much," I packed my slippers, wept a little and headed home. The plan was to gain physical and financial strength for a return to New York, but Fate had another itinerary planned. Within a matter of months, I was married and living in Germany. During the next eight years, I had four children and didn't dance at all. Funny thing is I didn't really miss it. Finally, I went back to class just to "get in shape," and before I knew it I was taking four classes a week.
Then five years ago, we moved from Wisconsin to Washington and I immediately enrolled in an advanced summer class at the Washington School of Ballet. Never mind everyone else being 20 years my junior. I persevered for about three years until one day my teacher said that I had executed a particular combination like an old lady. I laughed, but his words remained. Was he trying to tell me something? Like maybe "Margo Fonteyn might have been able to pull it off, but not you, honey." Was it just that day or did he mean it was chronic? I stayed in class for a few more months and then one beautiful May morning I knew that was the last ballet class I would take. At home, I went through the crying-into-the-pointe-shoes ritual again and packed them away for good. Never again would I know that marvelous elation that ballet can give you. But never again would I have to endure the agony of holding my leg higher than my ear for what seemed like years at the barre. Oh bittersweet moment--I wallowed in it.
But I didn't really quit. Off I went to jazz class. Not quite as strenuous, but an excellent workout. Now, as I put on my bifocals to put on my leg warmers, I think about how lucky I am. They'd never let me do this in Russia.
Being in one's forties is like being 13. You don't really know how old you are. You see yourself looking older every day, but you don't really feel any older. This contradiction is compounded by the fact that you don't know how to act. Are you supposed to effect a more sedate style, speak in lower, more authoritative tones and gradually take on the aura of a grande dame? And how can I maintain my grande-dame air while boogying with the rest of my jazz class to the beat of "Do You Think I'm a Nasty Girl?" Only Bea Lillie could have done that.
Meanwhile, I like to think that what I'm losing in ability I'm picking up in style. My dance style now has more humor. I can tell because people watching me sometimes seem quite amused. But I'm not discouraged. Occasionally, I find another diehard my age in class and I know our numbers are growing. Some day we may even become a force in the dance world. Whatever, I intend to keep on dancing.