Finding her "little dancer" at OFA dance studio

 Ballet shoesA prodigal return to ballet class after a 14-year absence inspires youthful elation.

By Gigi Kisela '17


Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Degas
“First position. Plié. Grand plié!”

I checked to make sure I was still standing in the Office for the Arts dance studio and was still 21-years-old, because the last time I had heard these instructions, I was 7-years-old. Fourteen years ago. I found it curiously humorous that it was as many years as the subject of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years – a statue I have seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

I signed up for ballet classes offered by the OFA half on a whim and half because my 7-year-old self was petulantly unhappy to have to stop dancing. I felt like I owed her.

Back then, I remember being so happy doing wobbly pliés in a baby pink ant-line clutching the barre. While furrowing our little brows in earnest focus, we buoyed up and down in time to a cassette player of fuzzy adagios.

“Second position!”

I returned to the present moment awash with that same childish thrill, but the fuzzy cassette player of years before had been replaced by a professional pianist. His tender treatment of short phrases made a series of barre exercises feel like opening night of Swan Lake at American Ballet Theater, and you were the prima ballerina.

The instructor, Catherine Ulissey, demonstrated form with contagious enthusiasm. Periodically she would flutter towards the piano at the end of a sequence. It was as though the music, like a puppeteer, folded her form and compelled it to twirl with delicate power and unrestrained euphoria.

“Don’t worry about making mistakes. You have enough stress at school!” she called out.

I’m inherently terrible with my left and my right – I like to believe it’s because I’m left-handed – so this was reassuring to hear, particularly during the polonaise she taught us as a means of crossing the stage. I devolved into inaudible curses and laughter when I realized I’d started on the downstage foot or did the battement with the wrong leg – but I was happy.

At the end of the class, I felt like my little-dancer self approved. In my mind, she was standing in full ballet attire, mischievous as all hell, with her legs crossed and one hand behind her back while offering me an outstretched thumbs up and the largest grin her little round face could make.

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