Before I wanted to be a writer, and before I wanted to be an opera singer, I fantasized about becoming a ballet dancer. Of all my dreams, including those that never came to fruition, my first one was to dance. I used to watch my sister in ballet lessons when we were children and remember how much she hated it. I would sit with my mother outside the studio while my sister rehearsed and peek in through the window. You could see on her face, as a rambunctious 6-year-old, how much she’d rather be doing anything else than grand-plié’s on the bar with the other young girls. In contrast, my 4-year-old mind thought, “That should be me up there.”
Last week, the Joffrey Ballet arrived in Los Angeles to begin a brief residency at the Music Center for two separate performances held this month, one in partnership with L.A. Opera in its production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, and another for its own production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Under my job title with L.A. Opera, I’m supposed to sit in on various rehearsals and keep my ears perked for stories that can be produced into written and visual content. In other words, what stories do I want to tell for this show? Who specifically do I want to showcase? How does this show relate to what’s going on in the real world?
In the six months I’ve spent working for the company, I’ve never had a problem developing content. Having come from a musical background, it’s been like second nature. But the addition of the dancers has been a game changer. At every rehearsal I have attended, I’ve been extremely distracted by the elegant movement of the ballerinas, so much so that I’ve barely been able to do my job. Every movement, whether it is properly executed or not, is so mind-blowingly beautiful that I can’t help but put my notes down and just watch. There was a point a few days ago when I forgot where I was — I was so mesmerized by the ballet dancers that, like Orpheus, I, too, felt like I had descended into the Underworld.
I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the choreography in detail, but from the warm-ups to the formal rehearsals, the dancers’ grace has me inspired. A singer or musician’s discipline is quite different than a dancer’s. A pianist must be conscious not to overexert the hands, or a singer the voice; but the dancer’s body is the vehicle for their art, and they must be conscious of their movements from start to finish, both on and off-stage. One false move or misjudgement in error and catastrophe can arise. And it’s the beauty of their movement, intertwined with risk itself, that makes it so tantalizing to watch. I feel like I missed out on something so special by not taking ballet lessons when I had the chance. But it’s no fault of mine — I begged my mother to put me in ballet classes ever since my sister started. And at risk of playing the blame game, the reason why I never trained formally in ballet is that my mother wouldn’t let me.
As an Iranian-raised woman living in the United States, my mother had very conservative views on gender norms. She thought that as a boy, I should engage in more masculine activities, like competitive sports. Against my will, I was forced to swing bats and punt balls or whatever you call it — the terminology doesn’t matter. Had my mother not been so concerned with my image, as well as what her peers would think should her son engage in an activity not perceived as masculine enough, my life could have turned out very differently. And that’s what upsets me the most. In the end, she was more concerned with me not being perceived as a “sissy” (her words, not mine) than my happiness.
Of course, that isn’t to say I would have stuck with it in the long run, or would have even been good enough to eventually have been accepted to a major dance company. Given my track record, I probably would have given up in a few years.
However, I don’t think I’d be so sour about the whole situation had it not been for my mom’s internalized homophobia. True, it was the ’90s and discussions about equality weren’t as widely regarded as they are now. But that’s not really an excuse. I clearly had enough passion for ballet if I was begging my mother to put me in ballet classes. Instead, I was set to rot on a sports team with a bunch of straight boys who smelled. And no matter how much time passes, I’ll always feel like I missed out on an opportunity that could have shaped the rest of my life. That’s something I’ll always regret.
The point isn’t to blame my mother for disregarding my forlorn dreams. But it does make me sad that I’ll never know if I had a talent for dance, because that ship sailed long ago. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had issues with my weight had I trained as a dancer starting in my toddler years. Maybe I could have been good enough to perform professionally. I can’t seem to get the “what ifs” and the “maybes” out of my mind, because even today as I watch the Joffrey dancers work their magic, I think, “That should be me up there.”
Arya Roshanian is a graduate student studying library and information science. His column, “From The Top,” runs Tuesdays.