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‘Being a Ballerina’ includes powerful life lessons

‘Being a Ballerina’ includes powerful life lessons

This year, the women’s basketball team of Christendom College, a small school in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, includes a forward, Catherine Thomas, who has averaged 27.7 points and 14.8 rebounds per game. Those are outstanding percentages in any league, no matter its size.

On Saturday, February 25, I watched my grandson and his teammates from Pennsylvania’s tiny Gregory the Great Academy play rugby against another Catholic school, Gonzaga, in the heart of Washington, D.C. It was cold and snowing, and though the Greg’s team over the years has won trophies and tournaments, the highly ranked Gonzaga powerhouse handily whipped them. 

Meanwhile, my friend John, who attended the Gonzaga-Greg’s game with us, later spent the early evening watching his adopted team, the Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets, advance to the Finals in the NCAA Division III ODAC tournament by defeating Ferrum College. 

In each of these sports contests, and in the countless others that occur annually across our country, from the Super Bowl to a Friday night high school football game, millions take pleasure from cheering on their teams and watching the talents at play on the fields, on courts and in the arenas. As we watch these games and contests, it’s easy to forget the incredible mix of ingredients that go into the making of all such athletes: their dreams and the pursuit of excellence, the untold hours of practice, the interior fortress of grit and determination, courage and suffering, and lessons learned, as the old tag from the television show Wide World of Sports put it, from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

In “Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” (University Press of Florida, 2021, 272 pages), Gavin Larsen raises the curtain and turns on the footlights of the stage revealing the role played by these same attributes in the life of a dancer.

Larsen begins her memoir when she is an eight-year-old girl new to the New York School of Ballet. Clumsy and ignorant, she learns her steps and movements by mimicking her older classmates, receives expert instruction and some sharp criticism as she moves forward, and eventually falls in love with the world of dance. By the age of 16, in a rapid succession of epiphanies, she discovers that the deeply-embedded passion she feels for ballet was “her destiny, what she was born and made to do, even before she knew what ‘it’ was.” 

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And at age 17, a senior in high school, Larsen was offered a position with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

For the remainder of this fine autobiography, we follow Larsen’s life at the barre, in the studio and in performances. This life is incredibly demanding, usually consisting of a long and rigorous daily workout, considerations of diet and sleep, dealing with physical ailments grave or minor, and learning steps and movements until she could probably repeat them in her sleep, all the while competing with other dancers for spots in a performance or for a place on a company’s roster.

In four short chapters in the first part of the book, all of them titled “How to Be a Ballerina,” Larsen leads us through the daily routine of a dancer. In the first chapter of this series, Larsen describes the muscle stiffness on rising in the morning, the first exercises of the day, a breakfast of buttered toast, two hard-boiled eggs and hot tea until it’s time “to pick up your bag, take two Aleve, and walk out the door.”

Like the best of our athletes, then, professional ballerinas find their days filled with exercise and intense practice, and watching over the machinery of the body that is so precious to their profession.

And like those football players, gymnasts and skaters, Larsen daily pursued the artistic excellence that will move a performance from the category of good to great. Attention must be paid to every physical detail of the body: a flat stomach, the tilt of the head, the bend and curl of the fingers, no wrinkles on the forehead. In this sense, the dancer resembles the great portraitists of art, with their own bodies serving as the paint and canvas.

Even more, the dancer must, as Larsen shows us time and again, translate the works of composers into a physical form, blending movement with that music in their attempts to captivate and inspire an audience. Here is the core target of all that relentless training, diet and practice.

“Being a Ballerina” is a perfect read for aspiring young dancers or for anyone interested in the world of ballet. Just as importantly, however, it is a study of arete — that old Greek concept about the quest for excellence and the fulfillment of our potential. No matter our situation or station in life, here is a worthy goal for all of us. The mother who spends her days taking care of her children, the electrician who earns his living from his trade, the pediatrician caring for one more case of strep throat: all these folks and the rest of us daily face the opportunity, as did Gavin Larsen, to develop our skill sets, to improve them, and to become artists in our own right.

The subtitle to Larsen’s book — “The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” — has something to teach us all about the power we all possess to strive for excellence and seek that impossible dream of perfectibility. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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