April 13, 2021

Rebecca Dinerstein on the Unique Comfort of Instagram Ballet

5 min read

During the uncertain first months of quarantine, ELLE.com asked several novelists to chronicle their new normal with a tribute to the person helping them get by. The results—heartfelt and harrowing—are presented here as a grateful salute to those who kept the world spinning in the year’s darkest moments.

At age 11, I joined a thousand other hopeful and hopeless prepubescent twigs at the audition barre for the School of American Ballet. Founded by Balanchine and Kirstein in 1934 as the official training academy of the New York City Ballet, the school and its legendary audition is a crucial point in a child dancer’s story. I stood, I spun, I was sent home.

Still, the New York City Ballet remained my artistic ideal as I studied at more approachable studios throughout adolescence. On birthdays, I’d dress up and ride the 1 train in my bat mitzvah best to see the Sunday three o’clock Firebird; years later, after work, I’d rush over to the State Theater in office pants to watch Jewels alone in the 4th Ring. The summer of 2019, I walked down the aisle to music from the ballet Emeralds. And this spring, when the NYCB principal dancer (literally prince-ipal, as in, he dances the prince roles) Russell Janzen reviewed my novel Hex, it felt like a royal benediction.

As the pandemic created sad and surprising channels for creative online communication, an old friend from ballet class got back in touch. Eve had grown up training very seriously in Boston and moved to New York brandishing a technique and elegance so ferocious, I stood behind her in adult classes in awe. We hadn’t seen each other since I left the city years ago, and she wanted to know if I would take an online class with her, taught by NYCB’s legendary prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, on Instagram Live.

Wendy Whelan is one of the most celebrated dancers in recent history. She performed with the company for thirty years and held over 125 principal roles, more than fifty of which were choreographed specifically for her. Of Whelan, Baryshnikov says simply, “She’s the best.” Whelan embodied the highest and most distinguished achievements in form, career, and presence. Now, she would break down tendu sequences over IG Live. Such was the strange and equalizing crux quarantine had created.

“On Instagram Live, you have come to dance.”

Per quarantine’s second trademark trend, maniacal baking, I had hoped to slide a batch of Alex Witchel’s Fudge Brownies into the oven before Whelan’s class began, to smell them as I bended, and then serve in celebration. The recipe made me almost morally uncomfortable with its three sticks of butter and two-and-three-quarter cups of white granulated sugar, but I wanted to relax some of my misguided ’90s sugar-free reduced-fat mumbo jumbo and make the damn brownies.

My husband and I keep a couple chickens in New Hampshire and haven’t had to buy eggs in over a year, but strangely, during isolation, they stopped laying. It may have been a strike under pressure, or a seasonal reset, but their previous egg-a-day pace (which had always astonished me as a biological feat) had slowed to egg-a-week. I’d already put the walnuts in the oven to toast, and combined the ungodly amount of butter with the nine ounces of baker’s chocolate and volcano-sized mound of sugar before realizing the egg basket contained only one egg, laid by Kyoto—our largest chicken who lays the smallest eggs. I picked this egg up and, incredibly, dropped it. Lying theatrically broken in our onion bowl, its contents shellacked the onion and garlic skins in yolk. I walked out to the chicken coop to ask the ladies for more. Less is more, they cackled. Inside, the walnuts had burnt to char. I opened my phone to look up egg substitutes, and saw it was time for class.

So while I’d intended to put on a leotard for old time’s sake and slipper up, I found myself frantically propping my phone and its relatively miniature-sized screen against a squat candle on my dining room table, taking Wendy Whelan’s class in a tropical fish apron while holding onto the back of my couch. It’s hard to describe how different this is from premiere ballet class environments, how diminished, and how oddly sublime. The traditional ballet class requires abject uniformity: black leotards, white tights, pink shoes, wood barre, and bright mirror, wherein individuals try desperately to appear identical and level out their varied personalities in service of unity, of geometry, of common lines. Over five hundred such individuals had tuned into @nycballet’s live stream. I couldn’t see any of them, none of them could see me, and Wendy alone filled our screens with her long limbs, perhaps the best possible use of a phone’s vertical orientation.

The terror, and the privilege, of taking class with a master is her scrutiny. She paces the floor taking stock of your simple movements, criticizing them, and making them more correct. You have come to be judged. This is the only way to strengthen. But on Instagram Live, you have come to dance. And in this case, you have come to admire the impeccable instruction of a dancer you would never, ever, have been able to learn from in ordinary circumstances. Taking Wendy Whelan’s class is a reward typically reserved for those who have committed themselves to the most advanced pursuit of this craft; now, it’s a service keeping dancers of all levels, around the world, sane and upright.

Of course there were technical obstacles: frozen screens; exercise instructions that halted for minutes at a time, then played back at triple-time; and a couple of pre-recorded music tracks (instrumental versions of 2008 Lady Gaga singles and so forth) that made one yearn for an old-fashioned class, with a pianist, in a stuffy studio. But the upward stream of multicolored hearts that rushed up the right side of the screen, Instagram Live’s simple metric of appreciation, expressed what Whelan’s students felt in surges: relief, a return to the hopeful and hopeless exercise of standing up and spinning our sorry selves around.

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