Yesterday, my daughter attended her weekly dance class; there were four students, but only two on site. Covid restrictions cut the body of the class in half. Though in-person classes are a blessing after months of closure, the dislocation made my heart hurt.
My kid’s classes are the first time I’ve spent serious time in a studio since my senior year in high school, when I danced in my last ballet. It’s called Concerto Barocco, and it’s considered one of the masterpieces of George Balanchine, the genius creator of American ballet. I wasn’t a soloist, just a member of the corps de ballet. Still, it was the hardest thing, physically, I’ve ever done. Pulling off a Balanchine ballet is no mean feat. You must seek performance rights from the Balanchine Trust; they’re only granted after a Balanchine expert comes in person to check that your staging is faithful and high quality. We drilled that piece. Arms precise, legs straight, heads tilted at exactly the same angle. Being in the corps is usually boring—there’s a lot of smiling prettily in neat rows. But Concerto demanded everything of us. We wore simple white leotards and skirts, the plain costumes underscoring the complex majesty of the choreography.
Finally passing muster was one of the great achievements of my life. On opening night, I felt almost giddy when the curtain rose. We had done it. We had learned to perform as one body, and been found worthy of a masterpiece. And yet for years, when I remembered my time in that ballet studio, I felt a catch in my throat. Onstage, I was perfectly in line with my fellow dancers, but offstage, I felt divided from them. I knew from casual snubs and my own awkwardness that I didn’t really belong.
Was it adolescence? My introversion? The immaturity of a small group of teenagers? I didn’t know. I only knew that some fit, and I didn’t.
Even in Concerto, I felt bitterness underneath my elation. I was done with this group. When I graduated, I didn’t look back.
A few years ago, right after the new year, a fit of curiosity sent me Googling. I found the director of my studio on Facebook. After a moment’s hesitation, I friended her. It had been nearly two decades—would she remember me? When she accepted my request, I hesitated again. Suddenly it struck me as strange that I had never once thanked this woman for her considerable influence on my life. Slowly, carefully, I typed a message, reminding her who I was, expressing gratitude for her years of working with me.
“Of course I remember you, Heather,” she said, “We just had a little reunion with people you know—our founding dancers all came back for the twentieth Nutcracker. Here’s a picture. So sorry you couldn’t be part of it.” I clicked the image and saw the old corps grown up. I searched for my old bitterness as if for a canker sore. Perfect or not, I’d been part of a sisterhood. My bitterness felt petty. Suddenly, I was tremendously sorry to have missed the reunion.
All this time, I had blamed the other dancers for my loneliness. But now, in my thirties, I could admit an awkward truth: I have always struggled with belonging—especially to the body of Christ. I didn’t even realize how automatically I felt bitter until I traveled abroad with my family in 2013. Attending church overseas, I felt the same cynical estrangement I’d thought I’d left behind in the States. Changing congregations didn’t change me.
After that day, I began to realize I carried a deep well of grief everywhere. Grief about family trauma, grief about the abuse I experienced and witnessed, grief about how often church had hurt me instead of healing my wounds. In truth, I was enraged. The bitterness was just a smoke screen. I had never trusted anyone—not even myself—to fully acknowledge my anger. I had cut off a part of myself. My isolation was less about other people and more about my alienation from myself. I called a therapist and my pastor to talk about my old hurts. I wrote about the anger. I began to repent of the habits of mind that held me apart from other people.
In Concerto, I experienced the power of a group moving past individual limits. I stayed stuck and alone because I didn’t realize how simple my heart needed to become. That kind of simplicity comes at a cost. The simplicity the audience sees in Concerto Barocco was the result of years of training, months of work, muscle spasms, blisters, and shin splints. Achieving togetherness isn’t easy.
Once upon a time I thought belonging just happened, was angry or ashamed when I couldn’t experience it. But togetherness happens with practice and intention. First, Christ changes me at the cellular level, retraining every muscle at great cost. It takes everything: pain, grief, rage, as well as my good intentions. And practically, I need to meet my community in its brokenness and limitations, accepting them even as I hope that together we can overcome the barriers that keep us apart. This is even more evident now: though physically distanced from my church, I feel less alone in the body of Christ than I ever have before.
When I drove into the dark studio parking lot to pick up my daughter, she was all alone outside. My heart sped up—had I gotten the time wrong? Why was she by herself? When she got into the car, I asked if she was okay. She looked at me with indulgent annoyance. “I’m fine, Mom. Class just got out early.” Casually, she told me about it. The new choreography was hard. She had seen her friends. They had dressed alike by accident. As she talked so nonchalantly about the class, I felt glad for her. She had shown up for the imperfect community available and accepted its blessings with ease.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri’s work has appeared at Christianity Today’s website, In Touch Magazine, Relevant Magazine.com, The Literary Review, Harpur Palate, and Brain, Child Magazine. She lives in San Diego with her family.