Why I strain and struggle to develop a decent developé, and something that resembles an arabesque in ballet classes several times a week, isn’t because I have delusions of professional ballet in my future. Hardly. I’m pushing 60. What I’m after is far more ambitious and seemingly impossible.
I had the most fortunate luck to be named P.R. Coordinator at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in the summer of '88. I worked for the crazy and amazing Dick Bass, climber of all seven continent’s highest peaks, including summiting Everest at my present age! WOW!
At the time, we in P.R, and mainly Marketing, (it was Marketing’s idea), decided to give away free skiing to all over 70 years old.
Not an inspired decision in the land of non-drinking, non-smoking Mormons and friends who skied religiously every year of their lives for an average of 50 days a year. Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort was overrun with skiers over 70, 80, and even 90 years old. There must have been what seemed like 50,000 daily taking advantage of this great offer. As you can imagine, they bought nothing. They brought picnics and spread out in mile-long lines across the slopes stopping all non-septuagenarian-pluses from skiing at all, or forcing the youngsters to go around the hordes of elderly ski bums.
We in P.R. and Marketing had to rescind our offer swiftly by bumping the age for free skiing to over 80. There were still hundreds and maybe thousands taking advantage of our misguided generosity.
It was then I determined to do everything in my power, short of giving up ice cream, to be one of those octogenarian skiers who ski for free and piss off the younger generations.
Of course, I’m not “of the blood” like the Mormons, and neither Norwegian nor Swedish with a propensity to live forever, sporting joints made of rubber bands, or matched with the energy of a robust Viking seeking Valhalla.
I’m Italian. Have you ever seen an old Italian woman? We look like a box-of-female with a mustache.
We are short, more than plump, and we shuffle rather than walk. These are the genes I wrestle against while I age. The mustache is under control for the moment, but fighting the box-of-female physique takes a herculean effort.
It requires many ballet lessons in a room full of 20-year-olds in leotards, (an act of bravery even Vikings couldn’t endure). There are hundreds of pliés with crunching knees, the sound of which distracts the young dancers. There are battements that are downright embarrassing. The real dancers are looking directly at their knees in front of their cute little button noses with straight legs. Mine are nowhere to be seen down around the 90-degree angle rather than the 120-degrees. Holding the barre with a death grip, straining to remember the combinations with steps that number into the teens, I struggle to try to follow without screwing up the girl standing behind me. I make feeble jokes, and smile to polite or no replies. They look at me like I have no business in that room. They are right, and I ignore the truth and keep attempting to get my body to do what my brain imagines it can do.
The heat creates swollen creeks of sweat rolling between everything, and down my face. I run to get a sip of water and try to get back to the barre without looking at my out-of-place form in the mirror. Barre is over and we move to the center for turns. Hundreds of turns in complex combinations that stagger my brain to retain half of the string. After three or four stabs at it, sometimes I get the combination only if I’ve attempted the same in many previous classes. I feel like I’ve just won an Oscar, or the lottery. I will be humbled again in just moments, but for a split second of mastery, I’m triumphant. We line up for adagio with more lengthy strings of many steps this time on relévé to passé to attitudes, tombé to pas de boureé, and chock full of arabesques; extending the leg back straight-kneed, and as high up behind your head as you can in relévé. The movements are supposed to be smooth and look effortless. Mine look strained and sad, but I keep up. I notice that my arm placement has improved and my hands don’t look too bad anymore. My feet are pointed nicely. I keep my focus on my hands and feet in the mirror instead of the avalanche of flaws in between.
At last we bow to our brilliant teacher signaling the end of the lesson. My muscles shake as I anticipate the pain levels in a day or so.
Despite my ineptitude and frustration these lessons improve my kinetic balance. Kinetic balance is an absolutely necessity for skiing and aging. In skiing the terrain changes constantly and responding immediately is demanded every second of the descent. The same with aging.
On the days I don’t attempt ballet, I rollerblade, work out with weights, swim, hike and any other activity I can squeeze into my too tight schedule. The result is a slightly slimmer box-of-female physique I hope to keep intact for the next decade or more.
My goal to become an elderly ski bum is in sight, if only I can practice balance daily, keep most of the ravages of age at bay, and focus on the gleaming goal ahead: free skiing. Who’s with me?