At age 58, I lost my long-time job in journalism, and entered a period of depression and wandering, looking around for something to do. That’s when I started writing about dance, first for Ballet Talk and then for www.danceviewtimes.com. I also signed up to volunteer at the School of American Ballet. The following is adapted from my memoir, “A Beginner’s Life – The Adventures of Tom Phillips.”
My wife Debra showed me an item in the School of American Ballet newsletter that Cassie brought home. SAB needed tutors for foreign students attending public schools in New York. These kids spent most of their time in the dance studio, and their heavy work load plus the language barrier made school difficult, if not impossible. So I signed up to help them with their homework. I spent hours every week with dancers from Asia and Latin America, explaining US history, reading Macbeth out loud, smuggling in Cliff Notes for a Korean boy who didn’t have time to read Les Miserables.
What a strange ending, we all thought, but somehow moving. Why scotch and milk? I never heard of such a drink. But milk is good for you, and scotch is dangerous. They’re like the good and bad of life, mixed together in one nourishing, intoxicating brew.
And what is the “cup of trembling?” We began to talk about ballet. When you rise in a full arabesque, every muscle in your body is tense, pushing to its limit. But inside you’re soft, vibrating with the music. One of the girls was living on the edge in New York, with no money or family, lost in school, lacking the right papers to stay in America. But she was a gorgeous, powerful dancer. “Yes,” she said softly. “It’s the very cup of trembling.” She wrote a paper using that line, and got a good mark for a change.
Ballet, for me, was the road not taken. By the time it diverged from my path, it was too late to take it. But I wandered onto it anyway, repeatedly.
Grinnell College had a modern dance group, and I joined it on a lark with a couple of other sophomore men. We were the only men in the group. I enjoyed leaping around and grappling with nubile young women, but wasn’t too serious about it.
Then one weekend, the Canadian National Ballet came to perform at the college. I didn’t expect to like it -- the only ballets I’d seen, on TV, looked old-fashioned and stilted. I went as a dancer, out of curiosity.
First on the program was “Concerto Barocco,” to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. The ballet was by George Balanchine, described in the program as a leading contemporary choreographer.
The music began. Following the first violin line, a Russian ballerina stepped out onto her pointed toe, unfolding her other leg into the air. Her arched foot soared, even as she was falling forward, then running. A second ballerina stepped out, dancing against the second violin part. By the end of “Concerto Barocco,” my views on ballet had changed completely. This was music made visible, in the flesh.
Another Balanchine ballet, to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” left my liberal arts education in ruins. We’d been taught to divide the arts into classical, romantic and modern eras, each with its own distinctive style and values. But “Serenade” was all of these, and more. It was a love story, a Greek myth, an abstraction, a revelation. I wrote a column for the school paper, raving about Balanchine’s art.
After graduating and moving to New York, I went to see Balanchine’s New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, in 1965. And shortly after that I tiptoed into a Ballet Fundamentals class at the New Dance Group Studio on 46th Street, in my first pair of ballet slippers. I’d learned to wear tights, but this was embarrassing. Then I saw that the shoes were part of the aesthetic -- the arched foot and extended fingers were the outer reaches of the human body, pointing beyond itself.
The extreme turnout of the feet allowed the body to move fluidly in any direction. And the turnout of the hips and thighs made the center of the body not just more mobile, but more visible, more expressive. Ballet caught my imagination like no other performing art. This was meditation in action – the whole body, the whole self as an instrument.
Unfortunately, it was ten years too late to even think about becoming a ballet dancer. At twenty-three, I couldn’t force my feet into a fully turned-out fifth position without wrecking my knees and hips. Besides that, I had a wife, a child, and a career.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t let it go. I took two or three ballet classes a week, and thought about it continually. I became a balletomane, hanging around Lincoln Center in the days when ballet was a cheap ticket, following New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, as well as the Royal Ballet and other visiting troupes.
I couldn’t be a ballet dancer, but I could be a ballet dad, and introduce my children to something I never knew as a child.
I took the whole family to Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” year after year. And when my daughter Jenny was a teenager I dragged her from New Jersey, over my former wife’s protests, to the New Dance Group Studio in New York, where she started jazz and modern dance, and after some resistance, ballet. Jenny was a natural, and I tried to help her every step of the way, even taking her to her first audition and standing in her way when she saw the other girls and immediately wanted to go home. “They’re all better than me!” she wailed. No, they’re not, I said, and I was right.
In 1984, when she was 20, she made a splash at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, break-dancing with a troupe from the streets of New York, under the name “Jenny Jem.” She went on to dance professionally for ten years, mostly in musical theater.
By this time Mary Jo had remarried and had two more children. On an impulse one year, I took Jenny and her nine-year-old brother Dominick to the “Nutcracker.” Dominick cracked up at the “Tea” divertissement, where the male soloist pops out of a box for a series of spectacular leaps, then pops back in the box. He couldn’t stop laughing and talking about “that Chinese guy!”
Jenny followed up, taking him to a few ballet classes. The next year he enrolled at SAB, and they chose him for the role of Fritz in “Nutcracker.” The year after that he was playing the prince! He was the star of the children’s cast for a couple of years, and loved being the toast of the town during the Christmas season, signing autographs at the stage door.
Dominick had a short career in ballet – like many kids, he drifted away as a teenager. But for years after that, his picture was on the cover of the SAB catalog, looking like a little angel at the barre.
Neither Debra or I wanted our little girls to be ballerinas. But I made sure they knew about ballet, and could try it if they wanted. Cassie wanted.
She took her first ballet class at a neighborhood studio, and came home with a forged note in her kindergarten scrawl. She said it was from her teacher. It said, “Cassia goes to ballet avrey day.”
At ten, when her friend Olga was in the “Nutcracker,” she tried out for SAB, and got in. For the next few years we were ballet parents – schlepping her to classes, rehearsals, and performances, doing her hair, comforting her if someone else got the part.
Eventually Zoey followed her to SAB, where she was a star pupil for a couple of years, before leaving to pursue her circus arts. More than once I was moved to tears at the ballet, watching Cassie frolic as a Polchinelle, or Zoey leaping, leading the line of Candy Canes. My worst meltdown came at summer camp in Miami, watching Cassie dance the second violin part in “Concerto Barocco.” When she knelt and stretched her arms out at the end, I was speechless – crumpled over, flooded with emotion. Debra comforted me, as some other ballet parents -- former dancers -- clucked knowingly behind us.
Cassie was in Miami because on a hunch, I drove her to Newark one year to watch a performance by the touring Miami City Ballet. We had to drive in the breakdown lane to get around a traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike, but I felt it was that important to get there. This was Edward Villella’s company. Somehow I thought Cassie would like this company, and Villella would like her. She was small, as he was, but danced big – she meant every step. He did like her and at 17, she decided to accept an offer to dance in Miami, and leave home. I wept.
-- That’s the first time I ever saw you cry, said Cassie. She was crying too.
For five years she danced in the corps of Miami City Ballet, and I made several pilgrimages to Florida to see the company. In New York, parents were considered pests, and kept away from the performers. In Miami they were welcome, so I got to watch several ballets from backstage. The energy and intensity when the dancers rushed on, and breathlessly off, was like nothing I’d ever felt, far more electric than any sports contest. This was life, and art, at its peak.
For my fortieth birthday in 1982, Jenny had given me a pair of ballet slippers. I was too busy to even try them on. But I never threw them out – I’d just stare at them in the closet.
At 55, bored with my job and approaching old age, I finally put them on. It was my last chance. I told CBS I was coming in late, and went to a nine a.m. beginner class at Steps on Broadway. I came out laughing like a man released from prison. I could still do it! My body was rusty but it hadn’t forgotten anything – the teacher even complimented me on my knowledge.
I had planned to take one class a week, but this was so much fun I went back two days later. This time, I came down from a leap and felt a pain as if I’d been shot in the calf. I hobbled off the floor. A classmate asked me if I was all right. Oh yes, I gasped, it’s just a cramp. It turned out to be a torn muscle that took six weeks to heal.
As soon as it healed, I went back to ballet class. This was the first of a series of dancing injuries that dogged me for the next ten years. Debra told me I shouldn’t be jumping. My response: “Jumping is my life.”
My first ballet class at 55 was the beginning of the end of my working career. Three years later, when the boss told me my heart wasn’t in it any more, he was right. My heart was at Steps and Broadway Dance Center, where I continued to leap, and come down in pain, until I finally gave up in my mid-sixties.
I never regretted going back to ballet. On the contrary, it restored my life. The body-memory of a full releve at the barre -- on my toes with arms fully raised, back straight, every muscle and bone engaged in soaring higher -- will be my inspiration until I die. It’s the very cup of trembling.
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