Headed to the Barre

Words and photography by Alicia DeMellier

It is difficult at times to find ways to fully and successfully escape from the stresses of daily life. The last few months have been a little more emotionally taxing than usual. Losing my last living grandparent, learning that a young cousin’s trust has been horribly betrayed by someone we all knew and loved, hearing how my mother and her home are being taken advantage of by an insolent 30 year old step-child, and finding out that my only biological aunt (also my favorite aunt) has lung cancer. Not to mention the political and global issues that are much less personal, yet constant stresses. Some days it feels like I am surrounded by negativity no matter where I look. How does one escape?

I need a break from the chaos of the world from time to time. Everyone has their own ways of doing so, whether it is a mental journey through reading, writing, or playing music, or a physical one through yoga or hiking. Either way, if you like to “get away” as I do, you know it is an emotional journey. When I find that I am in need of an emotional reboot, I turn to dance.

While dancing socially does help me unwind and is certainly fun, nothing beats the relaxation and simultaneous sense of community and escape that I get in a dance class. Just about any type of dance class does the job, but there is something about a ballet class that really does the trick. I am not a professional dancer, but, with the exception of some time when I was 13 (and anyone who has been 13 knows it can be a rough time), it has always made me happy, and I am lucky enough to find ways to keep dance in my adult life.

It used to be my hometown studio surrounded by friends, but since moving to Portland I go to a recommended professional studio where I know no one. The moment I cross that threshold into the studio, I shed away all other cares in the world. I select my place at the barre and then it begins. Ballet takes strength and focus; from the moment class begins my mind is not given a chance to stray. I am counting, focusing on rarely used muscles and muscles that could work harder to keep from noticing the pain of the muscles that are working as hard as they can, but are no longer in their prime. Which foot lands where, tilt your head the right way, what are my arms doing, straight legs, don’t grip the barre! These are some of the things going on in my mind while doing my best to remember the combination of steps that was taught 30 seconds before. I am focused inward on my movement, and in moving I am raising my blood pressure, releasing endorphins and other feel-good chemicals. I can’t think about the government, war, school, my personal life; I am too delightfully preoccupied.

One of the best parts of a ballet class, which is true for many dance classes: there is no talking. The teacher instructs; we dance. There is no chatting between exercises, no gossiping with my neighbors, only me with myself. I find community in a room of strangers to whom I never

speak. We share smiles and knowing grimaces, but there is no conversation. Yet we are all there for the same reason, and most of us get the same therapy from it. The lack of social expectation is liberating, giving me time to focus on myself in a way that truly excludes all outside influence. At the same time, we are all intrinsically supportive of each other. There is no competition; we all want the others to succeed. The retired professional dancers, the 50 year old women who started taking class again after 30 years, and other youngish adults who, like myself, never quite cut it in the dance world but have decent technique and an undying passion for dance; we are all just happy our knees haven’t quit on us yet.

All the ways dance makes me feel better physically, also affect me mentally. I am more confident and efficient in everything I do, which makes me happier. Having this outlet means I can handle the day to day stresses we all have more easily. At work, school, or even while tackling traffic as someone prone to brief periods of road rage, I find myself much more relaxed after I make it to a dance class.

It is difficult to focus on yourself when there is so much going on that exhausts your emotional strength. Despite personal stresses and those of the world, I find respite in being able to tune into all the little things as part of an activity that makes me feel good. Taking an emotional step back from everything else going on helps me remember that life keeps going, and that it will all work out. One way or another, whether I like it or not, everything will work its way out. Instead of stressing out about it, I’m going to go to the barre.