“You don’t look like a yoga teacher.”
The cutest ballerina I’ve ever seen, said that to me, her arms crossed, braids beaded and swinging as she shook her head. She narrowed her eyes and sized me up.
I met this little sentinel Wednesday, outside the dance studio where I was to teach yoga to 13-18 year old ballet dancers. Wouldn’t you also have been nervous? She was right. I don’t look like a yoga teacher. Not the ones you see in Yoga Journal, anyhow. Does it sound silly to say I really wanted them to like me?
I said, “I know.” I showed her my Yoga Alliance card. She was unimpressed. I felt like she was a bouncer at a dive bar who might get twenty bucks for confiscating my fake id. She asked, “Why don’t you spell your name like Halle Berry?” I told her I get that a lot, but she’d have to ask my mom.
She handed the card back to me and gave me a sideways smile. To my surprise, she opened the studio door and waved me inside. “My name is Keisha. K-E-I-S-H-A. Not like Kesha. Or Keyshia Cole.” And just like that, we both started singing Last Night. “You gonna make us yoga out to classical music?” she asked. I assured her my playlist would have bass and asked if she’d help me make a new one for our next class. She agreed, laughing at my obvious need for cool kid approval.
I have friends who dance professionally. I’ve envied their glamorously tall lifestyle. But I’ve seen how hard they work. They miss holidays because they’re always performing, have rehearsal on days off and they post pics on Facebook of their black and blue feet.
Yoga is like the pothead cousin of ballet. It’s slow and steady. It’s a grounding process. That’s more my speed. Under a caring instructor’s guidance, a student will never feel pain on the mat. The practice is sustainable for life. My mission was to give the scrappy gazelles I imagined a peaceful intro to the healing powers of yoga. I set my intention to make this seventy-five minute gig a reprieve from their daily grand battement.
We found Keisha’s friends, a bevy of quiet and predictably graceful teen swans rolling out fluorescent yoga mats in Rehearsal Space A. They smiled at me, and sat down attentively. They were not who I expected. I thought they’d be very sophisticated and smug. Maybe my study of Black Swan and Step Up 3D misinformed me. I feared eye-rolling and gum-smacking. They were silent and quick to focus on what I had to teach.
We began our sequence in child’s pose. It seemed appropriate. I had been advised by the artistic management to provide the ballerinas with a chill, relaxing class. They’d been dancing hard and fast all week. It was time to get earthy and loose.
When the music started the studious mood lifted. The dancers giggled and smiled. They fell ever so loftily out of balancing poses. The studio warmed with laughter.
The adults I meet in my usual classes are different. They want to get everything ‘right.’ I see myself in them. We must succeed. We want to look like thoroughbred Nata-f#@king-rajasana perfection. Even if it kills us. We don’t want to modify, as much as our teachers encourage it. We’re grown ass American women. We’ve been kicked around, but we make as much paper as men, when we’re lucky. We gossip, cheat and steal from each other. We trade complaints about our sh!tty corporate bosses and compete over who has the most first world problems. One in six of us has survived rape. We’ve made our culture. Now we lie in it.
Yes, these fear-soaked thoughts clouded my mind as I watched two dozen pink, black and white clad girl clouds float into savasana. I have a tiny two year old daughter and saw her face in every single dancer before me. I don’t believe in a god. They’re not my children. Still, I prayed from deep in my mother belly and my heart that they would move safely through life, be cherished and give light to the dark around them.
The unifying, yoking concept of Om comes easily to a circle of young women who embody the power of musical vibration from sunrise to sunset, from head to tiptoe. Our July evening at the ballet ended as softly as it had begun.
La petite Keisha, my new guru, took me by the hand and walked me toward my car. She flipped through my iTunes playlist from class. “You did alright on music, Halle Berry. No doubt though, Björk is not this Asian chick’s real name.” For the record, I think Björk is Scandinavian, but you don’t argue with four and a half foot tall Buddha.
I followed her toward the street. She walked with authority in her leotard and tights. Her tutu stuffed Hello Kitty backpack on wheels dragged behind her. Three miniature porcelain faced bunheads walked past us in the hall. The last eyeballed Keisha. “That girl says I don’t look like a ballerina,” she said as we reached the street, looking up at me squinting in the sun. “You look pretty official to me,” I said.
Keisha’s ride pulled up to the curb. She fist bumped me and dropped something into my palm. Skipping away, she whooped, “See you next week, yoga gangsta.”
Glittering in my hand was a huge Ring Pop. You know it’s been a good day when you go home with a blue tongue and visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.
Beats for Twenty-Four Ballerinas: A Playlist
1. All Is Full of Love, Björk
2. Animal, Javier Dunn (Miike Snow)
3. Black Milk, Massive Attack
4. Sleep Tonight, Stars
5. Rabekin, Doug Adamz and Russ Gautier
6. You Got Me, The Roots & Erykah Badu
7. Warrior, The XX (Magic Wands)
8. Sky Is Open, Donna De Lory (Mac Quayle Remix)
9. Draw the Stars, Andreya Triana
10. Angel Echoes, Four Tet (Jon Hopkins Remix)
11. Little Star, Madonna
12. Latika’s Theme, A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire)
13. Blue Moon Revisited, Cowboy Junkies
14. Porcelain, Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Joffrey Ballet performs their signature piece ‘Light Rain.’