It was back in the late 80s, when we were young dancers. So young that being at Steps on Broadway every day of the week for class, rehearsal, or work-study duties felt like a joy instead of overworking. So young that taking 4 or 5 classes a day didn’t automatically send our minds to the word “hospital.”
Our youth made us over-confident to the point of mocking, or even insult.
In those days at Steps there was an older gentleman who took class pretty frequently. He was in good shape for an old timer. While his middle could be described as boxy, he was far from chubby or soft. His muscles were lean and knotty, and in true 80s style he showed off his physique in shiny navy or chocolate brown milliskin unitards – a ballet Jack Lalanne.
You could tell that this fellow had enjoyed a classical dance career, and that ballet was now his exercise of choice. Maybe the muscle memory was reassuring. Maybe he relished the artistic physicality. Maybe he wanted to keep his glory days alive.
However noble his reasons for taking class, we thought he had stayed too long at the fair. Way too long. We nicknamed him Gepetto, after the old cobbler in Pinocchio.
The problem with dubbing him Gepetto (we never did learn his real name) was that Gepetto was a kind-hearted man, while our ballet senior was a certifiable curmudgeon. Give him a house in the 'burbs and he could easily have been the old codger shaking his fists and barking, “You kids! Get off my lawn!” He spared no one his indignation. Not us, the young staff who didn’t give him the proper respect when he signed in for class. Not the current professionals who couldn’t hold a candle to so-and-so. And not even the Steps faculty.
Apparently things were way better back when he was dancing with Louis XIV.
I happened to be in class one day with Gepetto. The teacher was a gentle sweetheart named Kathryn Sullivan, the kind of person who gave thorough feedback, while still making everyone feel validated and whole. I can’t remember what she said to him, but her correction was offered as a mere suggestion, as in, “You might want to think about…”
Whatever she said, Gepetto wasn’t having it. “What do you want from me?” he snapped. “I’m 66 years old!”
Well, okaaaaay then.
Everyone was aghast. I thought Gepetto was even more of a brazen, pompous ass after that, and giggled archly whenever I saw him. For years that incident became one of my choice dance tales, because it seemed so ridiculous, so deliciously and unbelievably WRONG.
Until now, that is.
These days, when I take class I could be the mother of 75% of the students present, and not having given birth at age 12 either. I’m the one in class ranting about youngsters' brazen disregard of class etiquette, and sneering at lazy, sloppy behavior. I long for steps that haven’t been done since white jazz shoes became a joke.
And, like Gepetto, every now and then I’ll hear a correction and think Like hell I will. Lady, that ship has sailed.
Still, I won’t leave the studio.
When something doesn’t go quite right, it is humbling to say the least. I have dancer friends my age who never set foot in a dance class for that very reason. As for me, I have no plans let it go; I’ll take class for as long as I can. Class is my favorite form of exercise. It’s no longer about striving to be among the best in the room, but about doing something for myself and getting to move.
I remember looking askance at the brittle or soft old ladies in the room taking class with their skirts. I’m offering a retrospective apology. I’m not quite there yet, but I see it coming.
In a few years, I’ll buy my honorary skirt.
To all you young’uns, look at what an older dancer is doing instead of what s/he isn’t. Admire him or her. Smile and be supportive.
You might find yourself the most senior dancer in class someday, and if you are, you'd better be damn proud of it, too.