I ducked into the doorway off Congress Street, placed my hand on the smooth cool of the banister and took a breath. The stairwell was redolent with the oddly familiar smell of plaster dust and sweaty socks. The sound of muted voices drifted down from the floor above me. My heart began to beat faster.
What was I getting myself into?
Though I’ve passed by Mechanics Hall countless times in the nearly 40 years I have lived in Portland, this was only the second time I had been inside. (The other occasion was years ago, when I was on assignment to write about its excellent members-only library, which I then swore I was going to join and promptly forgot until this moment.)
As I made my way up the stairs I paused on the landing to regard an oversized oil painting of a ballet class. Thick-legged mademoiselles clad in toe shoes and tutus clustered around a stern master, who appeared to have some sort of crop in his hand. No business for sissy girls, I thought as I made a creaky courtesy. I was trying to gird myself for what awaited me around the next bend: my first dance class in 37 years — modern dance, in a group labeled “12 and up.”
I was clearly going to represent the “and up” sector.
While you may think it more likely to find Elizabeth Peavey bent over a bar than a barre, my childhood might’ve indicated otherwise. I started ballet lessons in my hometown of Bath when I was five or six years old. The instructor was an imposing woman the students addressed as Madame. Each week my mother escorted me up the plaster-and-sweat-smelling staircase to the second-floor studio, where ancient radiators clanked and sunlight poured onto the scuffed floors through soaring windows. Mom would discretely produce a check from her wallet, while I took Madame’s hand and gave a deep courtesy. Fingernails were often inspected for cleanliness, which meant a brush-scrubbing prior to arrival that made me howl. But, as the last child and only girl in my family, most everything made me howl.
Madame imposed rigor. To this day, my feet fall into first position when I stand. I point my toes when I dive. If I am not slumped over a beer or a computer, my posture is generally erect. Madame once told our class we were to never go tobogganing, because her daughter had been in a sledding accident that ended her dream of becoming a professional dancer. From then on, I’d eye my parents suspiciously when they suggested we join the frequent sliding parties in back of the Eastmans’ house, as though they were trying to sabotage my brilliant career. Except, according to Madame, I had already missed the boat. She told me that, at age six, I had started too late. I, of course, blamed my parents. All those years wasted in the sandbox. Thwarters! Saboteurs!
In junior high I graduated to jazz and tap with Faye Pye, a ponytailed reed of a woman with Barbie bangs who could walk the circumference of her studio on her hands and who expected us to do the same. The skill came in handy as a party trick well into my 30s, until one day when I was trying to catch the eye of a certain fella at a picnic and my right elbow buckled under me and I crumpled to the ground. I learned many things from my years of dance, but how to gracefully right myself from a Picasso-esque heap was not one of them.
When I was in high school an exotic émigré from New York City moved to Bath and offered a class in something called “modern dance.” Rather than explain what this is, I suggest you try it for yourself: Go stand in a corner of a large room. Take off your shoes. Run urgently to another corner on the balls of your feet, arms trailing behind you, as though approaching a long lost love. When you arrive, have a change of heart (What did I see in this creep with the crop, anyway?) and collapse into a ball on the floor. Roll around. Raise an arm to the sky. Rise as though that arm were pulling you up by a string. When you’re on your feet, chase that arm around for a while. Now take a bow. You’re a modern dancer!
My devotion to modern dance continued into college. One of the first things I did when I moved to Portland in 1979 was sign up for a class at Ram Island Dance Company. I recall taking the bus from my apartment near USM to the company’s studio, a walkup on the corner of Exchange and Federal streets. This was back when the Old Port was still a little seedy and dangerous — filled with all those sketchy artist types — and I felt like such a bohemian clad in my legwarmers and unitard. I longed for someone, anyone, to stop me and ask where I was going, so I could say with a flip of my scarf, “My modern dance class.”
An injury I suffered later that spring prevented me from finishing that class and, subsequently, also ended my dance career. I had found theater, and I never looked back.
That is, until the moment I arrived on the second floor of the Mechanics Hall. I could see bodies flitting around in the rehearsal room and heard the thudding strings of a standup bass warming up. The instructor rushed out to greet me. “We’re just getting started. Come in and meet everyone.” And with that, I was swept into my new world.
Now, what would compel a 56-year-old woman to think she could take up dance again after all that lapsed time? Well, we Peaveys are a sporty people. My fit-and-trim older brothers are long-distance cyclists, among other athletic pursuits. The three of us are all dedicated gym-goers. My niece is a personal trainer, my nephews lean and strong. My parents always included competitive sports (emphasis on competitive, replete with gloating on my father’s part) in their social life. My mother played tennis three times a week well into her 70s, until her health took a turn and she started to slow down. And then she became a sitter.
This wouldn’t do for a Peavey. We all urged her to walk, join a gym, take an aerobics class, but she wasn’t interested. Come on, Mom — don’t go softly into that good night. Rage, rage, rage to the greatest hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The only thing she tried was chair yoga, which she treated — Peavey-like — as a competitive sport. She overdid it during her first session, ached for days afterward and never went back. The matt and gloves my niece had given her were still in the original packaging when we later cleaned out Mom’s condo. Maybe we could return them.
The class was small: two teens and two of us “and uppers.” As we began our stretches and warm-ups, my age-appropriate comrade leaned over and confided, “I feel so old.” I lunged to and fro. “Not me!” I chirped, as I sprung from the floor and pranced across the room. I’m a woods sprite, a nymph, a fairie queen! Watch me fly!
I don’t know if I can describe all the ways a nearly 60-year-old wood sprite can hurt and ache, but I surely experienced them all. To make matters worse, I had e-mailed our instructor to thank her and tell her how fabulous I’d felt during the two days after class. “All those years of going to the gym and stretching have paid off!” I gloated.
Then Saturday morning arrived. I opened my eyes and tried to roll out of bed, but nothing happened. To say I was stiff would be like saying a week-old cadaver was having a little joint trouble. My bunions barked. My knees were polka-dotted with bruises. My sits bones were en feu. I was hobbled, and humbled.
I have since dedicated the better part of the past month tending to my beat-up body. Epsom-salt baths are de rigueur. My feet have become a craft project. Elaborate taping and padding are done before each class: moleskin applied to the great toe and heel pad, bunion guard taped to pinkie toe, thick socks donned that gather around my ankles as though I were in a John Hughes movie. And yet, when each Wednesday rolls around, I can barely wait for the appointed hour to come.
Last week I noticed something. Mounting the stairs to class hurt a little less. I made fewer oofs when I rolled around on the floor. And I was able to keep up with my partner: a freshman in high school.
When I left class last week, I stomped down Congress Street in the fading light and had a thought: I wish you could’ve stuck it out, Mom. It gets better.
Elizabeth Peavey jetés pour joie here each month. Keep up with her latest pas de deux at elizabethpeavey.com.