I Used to Do Ballet

Lily Plum, Sophomore, New Canaan High School

I used to do ballet. I stuck my gangly legs into pink ballet tights for way longer than when it was cool, which ended around first grade. I was bad at ballet. Not quite bad enough to realize I was bad, but enough to be in the back of every performance. I loved it. I really did, all of the leaping (which is the one thing I was good at) and spinning (even though one time I smacked my instructor straight across the face while doing a pirouette circle by accident). But the one thing that I didn't like was how skinny everyone was. Even the high schoolers, who we worshipped within an inch of our lives, looked as if they could be blown away by a light breeze. The tall mirrors that lined the front of the room seemed to make them stretch taller, squeeze tighter. I was never like that. I was able to leap so high because my legs were so strong, but I never saw it that way. I always saw it as being grotesque in my pink ballet tights. I had been holding myself to an impossible standard, which I have realized only with hindsight. But finally, in seventh grade, I quit. It was the best decision I could have made.

For a while, I was lost. Just about as lost as any seventh grader could be, though. By the next fall, I had joined crew. The first time I walked into the boathouse, I very nearly walked right back out again because of how absolutely rank it smelled. But once I got over that, I realized what magic sweat and dirty ergs could weave. The girls there looked like me. Not one of them could have been knocked over by a tornado, much less a light breeze. They wore black spandex shorts, designed be out of the way when you worked. They had muscles that flexed when they pulled the weights, reflected by the only mirror in the place, a little one in the corner placed to correct stance. They were grinning like they knew something I didn't. I was enthralled, to say the least. When I did my first 2k, I realized what their secret was. A 2k is this arcane, animalistic endeavor to pull the chain of the erg machine so hard and fast that you either Died or achieved The Greatest Achievement of All Mankind, a personal record. They lasted about eight minutes if you did it right, hopefully below. The day we did them it poured rain. It was a few months into my novice season, and it had been hyped up to the point that I was expecting some sort of medieval battle between machine and man when I walked into the boathouse. Instead, I saw a few dozen athletes, squeezing past each other in our tiny boathouse, each one looking petrified to the point of peeing their pants or so fiercely determined you knew that they were quivering on the inside. The first round of girls was scheduled to go ahead of us.

The clouds swirled around us ominously, and I swear to you I heard thunder, though my teammates staunchly deny the existence of any such dramatic symbolism.. The ergs were brought down and placed in such a specific line that you could not have gotten better spacing if you had measured it with a meter stick. Each girl sat at her erg, a predetermined placement next to her friend (or rival). And they were off. Someone cranked music so loud that the building must have shook, and the rhythm of erg fans and gasping breath settled in. Sweat dripped down their faces onto old regatta t-shirts, and down their bare legs. The freshman and novices were ganged up together in the corner, an anxious huddle hoping to hide from the erg test by camouflaging with the bags. At one point, a girl on the varsity team fainted straight off her erg. The coach ran over to her on the floor, but the girls on either side of her continued with barely a glance. The looks exchanged between the novices was clearer than a shout in what it had to say.  โ€œOMG OMG OMG OMG We Are Gonna Die I Wanna Call My Mom to Pick Me Up."

And then it was our turn. Each girl was swapped out, and my spot near the middle made me aware of each panicked glance shot between us. We set up our screens and started. I was panicked- but the nervous adrenaline running through my veins drove my legs to push harder, arms to pull faster. Soon I was a quarter of the way done, but I was already tired. Until I looked at the girl next to me. She had already given up. Within her first stokes, she had decided it was Too Hard. I turned back to my piece with renewed vigor and pulled. Hard. Really hard. I was panting and couldn't get a breath in my lungs and could barely keep my eyes open. My last 500 meters came and went, and then it was done. My legs burned so much I couldn't lift them to put them on the floor. But someone behind me helped, handed me my water bottle and made sure I was alright. When I turned around, I realized that there were a dozen people behind my erg. Not someone elseโ€™s, but mine. I had gotten the best time and had even beaten some of the girls on varsity. And I was damn proud.

It was that day, that split second, that I realized what the big secret was. Sometimes, having legs that push and muscles that flex, are way better than looking good in tights.