The final thrust is the one which leaves you reeling.
It’s a long run-up to the line: eyes set, shoulders squared, back straight but not so straight you spoil the spring that coils electrically around your spine. Breathe in and you can feel it suck the tension from your limbs and hoard that fire for itself, ratcheting in not tighter but stronger until its pastel slinky surface hardens into taut sprung steel. Breathe out and you can hear the hammer of your heart squeeze blood along its causeways until it throbs with the anticipation. Your spine is the pillar of courage and movement.
I took ballet when I was younger – maybe four, or five – dressed in the plain black ballet shoes and featureless white top of a young man struggling to follow along in an activity he barely understood. Very little of my time spent then in dance remains to me; but I recall leaning sweatily over a wooden bar beside the wall and kicking my leg enthusiastically back up into the air.
Presumably, this exercise was intended to convert my wimpy little calves into the rippling muscled flesh-mounds shared by dancers, Tour de France cyclists, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in that movie where he plays an obscenely oiled Conan. Perhaps the transformation to smooth-chested barbarian might have even worked if I’d stuck around, but I was out of there long before the kicks and pliés could work their magic, and I wouldn’t touch dance again for decades.
In my time-muddied mind’s eye, those ballet classroom walls were always lined with faceless rows of parents judging silently, arbiters of extra-curricular achievement. This part I know is fiction because my own parents were far too supportive to ever so much as frown at an aborted saute or fumbled step-change to the fifth position. Any parent who could be proud of a thirteenth-place Sunset Lanes bowling trophy wouldn’t scoff at mere balletic missteps.
But there’s another part to that imagined recollection, one I hope desperately is true. In my memory, the young Sam dances like the child in the picture, heedless of the world outside but immersed in its color. I can see him spring and leap around – not graceful by any means, god no, stumbling like an idiot – but starting to come to grips with the joy to be had in running and dancing when everyone and no one is watching. In my more unreasonably optimistic imaginings, he’s already questioning the roles he’s fed and daring to dream of being hoisted aloft in silken slippers before the crowd.
His spine is straight: that crucial spring coiled tightly, arms thrust to the side for balance, dreams and fears and desperate motion stored as elastic potential. He stands tall beneath a rapidly descending future and the crushing weight of mountains.
Over two decades later, I have misplaced his secret of standing tall alone. My shoulders are hunched and rounded; often I am blind to the vivid colors that surround me, distracted by details. When I dance now, the cold and inflexible brass pole running from ceiling to floor becomes my spine. I caress it with my thighs, rub my body along its length and cling to it for the support my own worn-out and rusty bones cannot provide. I twist and gyrate to crude pop rhythms, dragging my limp body across the floor. I scowl at my stiff hips.
Still, there are moments where my spine remembers. The first ragged breath at the end of a routine sends a lick of fire shivering through its disused coils. There are days where I walk alone in public and the burning glares of others sink beneath my skin and feed the furnace smoldering deep within.
It’s been a long and lifeless hibernation, but when I slap my palm onto the pole and lean back, I am sure that I will learn to support myself once more. The effortless courage of my youth left an impression that learning to ride a bike never did, and my spine retains it. Slowly, beneath the weight of mountains, I will stand tall once more.