Fathom Mag

Back to the Ballet

I don’t think my life is a failure, but I did think of myself as a failure for a long time.

Published on:
October 15, 2018
Read time:
6 min.
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The girl was clearly a baby ballerina, a summer student on a temporary stay in the greatest city in the world. I pointed her out to my two friends. “See? You can tell she’s a ballet dancer; legs up to her trachea.” I felt the sun on my own long ballerina legs exposed by my short red dress.

I heard Brenna inhale to speak. “You know, Jessica, if someone went to that girl right now and said, ‘Look. Look at this woman right here.’” She pointed at me. “‘This is the life you will have in eighteen years.’ She would be thrilled.”

If they couldn’t sense the chasm in my heart left by dancing while standing right outside the School of American Ballet, then they might never get it.

I had to really think about it for a second. “Yeah,” I answered quietly, but inside I was calculating. Would she be thrilled? No. I knew she wouldn’t, but I wasn’t sure whether to explain that to my friends. It felt like Brenna was saying, “Your life is fine without ballet.” After a couple beats I said, “You know that I don’t think my life is a flop, right?” 

“Well, no,” Blythe said. “We don’t know that. Sometimes you act like it is.” 

We strolled the plaza at Lincoln Center, and I showed my friends my old dorm window at the School of American Ballet. Did I? Did I act like my life was a flop? I didn’t think so. For weeks I had been looking forward to bringing them to this holy site. I certainly knew that my life was wonderful, one I wouldn’t trade for a career full of curtain calls. This was the place where all my dreams lived. Each of my children’s faces came to mind. I thought of my husband Brendan taking care of them back in Seattle and being genuinely happy for me to be on a friends’ weekend. This place for which my child-self longed for was only the initial stop on our steady march downtown to Times Square, tacos, and a show. I felt pride over my completed manuscript, a memoir of my time dancing and then not dancing.

“I really don’t think it’s a flop. It’s a wonderful life that contains a huge loss.” The combined weight of the place and the memories pressed uncomfortably on my chest, and I looked into the sky. I did not want this moment to be hijacked by my frustration, but, like always, I longed to be understood. 

If they couldn’t sense the chasm in my heart left by dancing while standing right outside the School of American Ballet, then they might never get it. “Maybe you don’t understand the weight of the dream, the magnitude of wanting all this.” I slowed my roll, aware that Blythe will say out loud that she wants to win a Nobel Prize. She understands dreams.

Loss leaves need.

“I don’t know,” I continued. “Maybe you do. I don’t think my life is a failure, but I did think of myself as a failure for a long time. There was a long period of shame, but now I’ve come out of that. I understand now that it wasn’t my fault and that I wasn’t wrong to want a ballet life. That’s why being here is such a big deal. I have a good life that includes a big hole.” 

I tried to turn back into a tour guide and stuffed down my desire to be there alone for a couple hours. They took pictures of me in an arabesque tendue because I lost the full arabesque many years ago. 

I turned toward the Metropolitan Opera House and imagined the spiky crystal chandeliers sparkling down on droves of well-dressed people filing into the theater. I swiveled to face New York State Theater and pictured former schoolmates dancing inside. Drawing closer to the posters in glass cases, I pointed out the dancers who attended summer programs with me. “You see,” I started with a big voice, “it’s called Lincoln Center because Lincoln Kirstein was. . .” Then I choked. 

Brenna pulled me into a humid hug on the sunbaked plaza. “Such a useless body of knowledge,” I cried. “A whole life that doesn’t get used.” She nodded sympathy, but I didn’t want to talk about it. “Nevermind,” I sniffed. “I don’t want to cry here right now.” 

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry I said the thing about the girl.”

A group of little dancers walked past us, and I filled with compassion, an emotion that only recently had emerged. For over a decade, encountering a spindly knot of dancers instigated shame. But there in New York, I felt a motherly affection rather than the bitterness of a failed competitor and wanted to gather them on the fountain’s edge for a little story time. 

Once upon a time, I was just like you, young and excited, fresh and peachy. I used every drop of courage and effort I could hold. The harsh realities of dancing and the ballet were hidden from me. I spun in the sugary haze that surrounds you now, and I melted every moment on my tongue. I believed every dream of footlight heat and sweeping curtains would be true forever. Then, suddenly, a cruel fate threw me down on the stage. My body cracked open, and the pink clouds dissipated. Cold, hard indifference bruised and chilled. I took my dancing soul, locked it in a drawer, and did my best to apologize for living and wishing. I retreated to the woods of utilitarian life. But, darlings, the great king who made me coaxed me from hiding. He carved out ears for me to hear him say, “I love you,” to hear the music for new works.

We marched away from the scene much sooner than suited me, and I silently prayed until we hit 47th Street.

If someone had told me at sixteen years old that all my dreams would go up in smoke after a terrible stage accident, not a bone in my body would have been glad. There would have been a part of my heart with perspective, a part that knew life is always more than we think or expect. But, I would have wept and prayed that the curse would be lifted. 

I do not understand why people settle for the idea of cosmic symmetry: bad and good, grievous and exhilarating, closed doors and open windows in equal measure. I don’t care how unrealistic it is; I want all good all the time because I was made for glory. 

I have been told so many times that there are explanations for my pains, some kind of replacement joy or wisdom that requires the void of loss to come to existence. Certainly, under the care of a loving God, brokenness can still lead to glory. I do believe that loss and pain are doorways to growth, empathy, and compassion. Our attitudes and God’s mercy affect what we receive from our disasters. There is no reason to expect the advent of good and bad to depend on the occurrence of the other. Choices include opportunity costs, and decisions affect the future. But, we each have only one arc of life. “Might have been” is a vapor. There is no Sliding Doors version of our lives, no It’s a Wonderful Life, no ideal set of circumstances that can be ours if we rightly choose between door one and door two. I don’t have Seattle instead of New York; I had one and now the other.

What if the wonderful family and Seattle life I lead did cost me the strength of my body and the dreams of my young heart? I remember a woman attempting to comfort me after I told her about a miscarriage. “You know,” she said, “if you had that baby you wouldn’t have your son.” While factual, those words were meaningless at best, terrifying at worst, with no use as balm for mourning. What if God required the child sacrifice of my first baby in order to give me Ezra? It sounds preposterous because it is.

I have been told so many times that there are explanations for my pains, some kind of replacement joy or wisdom that requires the void of loss to come to existence.

My story is one of profound loss and everything that came after. The “prize” of losing ballet is not the life I have. Loss leaves need. I have a deep need for comfort and love bigger than anything I can get from others or generate for myself. The love God pours into me is inexorably tied to his glory, to a prize that will never spoil or fade. Maybe I would have my family if I had ballet success; maybe I wouldn’t. We do not choose our own adventure; we can only mine the one we are given for all that it is worth.

Walking away from Lincoln Center, I promised myself that I could go back and grieve another time. I regretted my friends’ words, even though I love them for trying to protect me from the threat of despair. I wasn’t going to wallow; I just wanted the chance to show them the depth of what I have been through and to give more internal real estate to God’s love. He is not made bigger by belittling our troubles; he is made smaller. Examination of the shape and size of the hole left by dancing is another way that I can better understand the width, depth, and quality of the love of God. The Lincoln Center-shaped void will never be filled by my Seattle life, but the liquid gold of love transforms every crack.

Jessica Ribera
Jessica Ribera moved from Texas to Seattle at seventeen years old to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now she lives and writes in North Seattle with the encouragement of her husband and four wild children. Her first book, a memoir of ballet life, death, and resurrection, will be available in 2019 from White Blackbird Books. Find Jeskybera on instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and jeskybera.com.

Cover photo by Bruno Horwath.

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