At seven, I'm considered a late starter to ballet class, surrounded by girls three or four years younger than me. But though, at first, I feel awkward, the soothing, positive tone of my dance instructor, Mrs. Catherine Treon, makes me feel like I belong.
I had never expressed a desire to be a ballerina, and my parents' expectations were low: they only hoped Mrs. Treon could teach their clumsy tomboy a little grace. It is the end of class. We are in a circle facing inward. She tells us to lift up our chests, to raise our arms above us and to look at our beautiful, beautiful hands. She says no one has such beautiful hands. I believe her.
Looking back, I realize Mrs. Treon's ballet school didn't offer quite the professional experience that a competing school did. Enterline's had big, bright studios with mirror-lined walls, whereas we rehearsed in a church multipurpose room with portable barres we had to pull out of the closet. Enterline's had a staff of a half dozen or more instructors and offered specialty instruction in ballet, jazz, tap and more. Mrs. Treon only taught ballet, and a career-ending knee injury meant she left most of the demonstrations to older students, pulled down from the advanced classes to help.
Our classes were filled with girls at all levels of ability, whereas Enterline's courted only the students perceived to have "potential" (and whose parents could afford the accompanying price). While we might have envied the Enterline's students for their seemingly superior skills -- their glossy photos, displayed proudly in ads in the high school football program; their glitzy routine, dancing down the parade route for the annual harvest festival -- deep down we knew we had something they would never have. We had Mrs. Treon's loving voice, her motherly guidance and gentle, inclusive instruction. And we knew we had the most beautiful hands.
In the years since, my beautiful hands picked up new skills: piano, clarinet and typing. Only the last of these was practical, truly, but beauty is not practical, and beautiful hands have their own designs. Beautiful hands want to touch, and flex, and dance. They enjoy the tactile challenges of folding shirts; but they also love plunging into dirt to plant seeds. Preferring to be naked, and clean, my beautiful hands compel me to wash them repeatedly while cooking, and to shirk gloves (my glove revulsion having begun with some particularly dreadful knit gloves in childhood, with stray strings that crept under my nails and gave me the shivers).
Wide and muscular, adding to their abilities, my beautiful hands prefer to be working: to type and photograph; to fold, spindle and manipulate. When my mind grows too busy, I put on music and let my hands work: dancing while dusting, or sorting or brushing.
Did Mrs. Treon, in her black leotard and tights, leaning on her cane, realize what a gift she was bestowing upon us? With her blonde cloud of hair and her black plastic glasses, a body soft like our mothers', did Mrs. Treon know what power her words held? She must have known something of her impact: the Christmas gifts and gushing cards that kept coming from her students for years after they graduated. She must have guessed: in the bright eyes fixed on her -- the grown students bringing their daughters for instruction -- that she was making an impact.
Her words were not just lovely but practical. She taught us to pay attention to the smallest details. If we remembered to hold our bodies properly -- like royalty -- and if we focused our elegance right out to our fingertips, our every move would be lovely. Not perfect -- that was never the point -- but beautiful nonetheless.
After a Zumba class recently, a classmate praised me on my execution of the instructor's new, complicated choreography. I knew I had stumbled as much as anyone else, but throughout it all, I held my chest proudly and let my hands work their magic. My mesmerizing, beautiful hands, the pay-off for my parents' investment: in this grown-up tomboy, just a hint of grace.