when i was four, i wanted to be a ballerina.

i think it was the tutus. you couldn’t just buy a kid a dressup tutu at the Woolworth’s back then; dressup was old plastic jewellry and mom’s clunky platform shoes to break an ankle in. unless you had a real live ballerina in the family, tutus were relegated to the category of fairytale items, confections of crisp, gravity-defying tulle glimpsed only in picture books.

i coveted.  i fantasized. with a tutu, i would be transformed.  i would be fabulous.

ballet lessons, therefore, were a magical initiation by which i would undergo my metamorphosis. i had no concept of ballet as an art, no concept of sport or applied discipline or unrelenting practice.  i thought i would put on a tutu and slippers and be a ballerina, lithe and graceful, about to take flight.

i jonesed for it all so bad my beleaguered mother finally signed me up for lessons.

my first clue that not all would be as i’d imagined was that there were no tutus; rather i got a stretchy, polyester black leotard that sagged and bagged off my bum.  i did get slippers, but they were my aunt’s hand-me-downs, rescued from twelve years in a closet and cracked and black, not even that pretty pastel pink that looked like bandaids and gum.

my ballet teacher still comes to me dreams sometimes, 32 years later. her face is vague, but her tight-bunned silhouette is has become a mythology unto itself, for me, as if all the evil stepmothers of legend and story were rolled up into one sharp-nosed, straight-backed harpy. she was not from the school of coddling children. she wanted us to work, which was affront in itself to a puzzled five-year-old with little interest in the boring foot positions. i just wanted to soar. 

but the real conflict between my five-year-old self and Serious Ballerina was about costume.  costume, from my perspective, was the core of the whole thing, the reason i was there. if i couldn’t have a tutu, i was set at least on making my dowdy, saggy short-sleeved leotard pretty by wearing a frilly blouse underneath, sleeves and collar peeking out.  

i thought i looked beautiful. i thought beauty would make me dance.

i remember the feeling of a bony hand digging into my shoulder, marching me back to the dressing room. i remember vaguely the big bulbous lights that surrounded the mirrors there, casting yellowish shadows on the cement walls. i remember the goosebumps on my naked arms, stripped of their finery, and the heavy clumsiness of my feet as they tried to turn out and in and tripped over themselves through the repetitive drudgery of classes. i remember my bewilderment; my certainty that if only the dragonlady would allow me dress the part, i could dance.

i took ballet lessons for three months. by the time i turned six, my career in the ballet was closed.

a friend told me recently she’s traditionally dated as if she’s job-shadowing; picking people not for their personal qualities but for their interesting careers/lives/families/circles of belonging. i’m the opposite. i’ve never started a relationship with anyone who really even had a career. the fact that Dave had a car when we first got together seemed glamourous. my career goals have never been based on anything so concrete as job-shadowing, in or out of love.

my aspirations have mostly been based on the same premise as that first dream of the ballet…a completely groundless and non-empirical faith that if i do this, i will be transformed.  

i’ve never learned the lesson.  the promise of the costume, the role, always shimmies in front of my shining eyes, waiting to work its magic on me, transform me from a jack of all trades to a master of…something. i fall again and again for the siren song of the incantation that will release my secret inner potential; i believe each time that if i only take on the mantle, i will soar.

i didn’t get that federal job i did the three-hour interview for a few months back. i did start a small, one-day-a-week gig in the interim, researching research grant opportunities for the university. it’s not my research, in the sense that if i do ever continue that Ph.D i once started in a whole other life, this will not be my area of focus…but the grant knowledge is transferable. and i had the opportunity to adjudicate some local arts grants recently, which was a process i enjoyed way more than i should have, probably because it’s been a very long time since anybody – ahem, i mean YOU, three-year-old – expressed any interest in the whys of my decision-making processes.  i applied for another, non-grant-related job last week. and i actually did some writing that stretched longer than a blog post for the first time since last summer’s workshop.

but the truth is, my focus is still all over the place, professionally. if one were an optimist, this could be said to leave me with many options open; a flexible skillset. if one is less rosy in outlook, one could also level the accusation that i still don’t know what i want to do when i grow up…that i am still, at 37, looking for the tutu that will magically make me dance.

both are true.  and even after all the years i’ve put in doing the grunt work and discipline of learning to teach and research and project manage and write and strategize, i still perch precarious, seemingly aimless and undirected between them all.  i wait, bewildered, for the role to come along that will unlock my potential, even as in the same breath i decry the determinism and passivity all that  implies. 

in some part of me, i still just want to be the ballerina of my childhood mind’s eye, to know what it is to soar

how did you end up choosing the path you’re on, whatever you do with your days? and is there some kind of tutu still out there in your dreams, calling your name?