Fifteen weeks pregnant, I felt it. A quick one-two, a light fluttering punch. A surprise. A tease. A flirty call for attention. Hey, mom! Look at me!
“Something moved,” I said. We had been lounging impassively on the couch, but now Kory sat up quickly and placed his hand on my stomach. I held my breath.
“Are you sure?” he asked, disbelieving. I was sure. I had been still, and in spite of me, something inside had moved, jolted, jumped. On the outside, there was absolutely nothing to prove my claim, but I knew that something—someone—had moved. Rationally, I knew she had moved before. We had both seen her on those ultrasounds. But something infinitely more primal and more immediate had happened on the couch, and its aftermath was not unlike the seconds after a small earthquake, when everything about the world you know is cast into doubt, when your own terra firma promises to slip away forever, irrevocably, without hope of reprieve or certainty, ever again.
In pregnancy your body moves without your knowing it. Your hamstrings tighten and contract. Your calves seize with odd and unaccountable cramps. In my tenth, my fourteenth, my thirty-second week my body felt battered and worn, more taxed by the hormone Relaxin than it had ever been by any dance class. Some mornings I woke to find my stomach sore, as if I had done a hundred crunches. It became hard to twist my torso, not because of my girth, but because of the pain. My ankles, my knees, my shoulders, but most especially my hips throbbed. All I wanted was to stretch, to rotate my hips and shoulders deep in their sockets. In the dark predawn, I slid out of bed and squatted in the dark. I let my knees, my hips, my pelvic floor give way to gravity and the inevitable, literal widening and loosening of my joints. Years of dance training had taught me much about my body, and movement, and how a body learns to move. But it prepared me not at all for the absolute and startling newness of quickening, that moment when the pregnant woman first feels the baby move inside her. The term comes from the Old English cwic, living, live, alive. And in modern terms, it is an archaic notion, since modern technology can perceive life and movement long before the woman experiences it. But still, there is something extraordinary about the sensation of something living, moving inside you, and there is something metaphorically startling in the conjoinment of those ideas: movement, life.
I couldn’t have been more than five or six. It was summer and I was lying on my parents’ bed, my feet dangling over the edge. My mother was hanging something in her closet, my father changing his clothes. Blue paisley wallpaper danced up the walls, and I lay still in the childhood calm of merely waiting and being. In this quiet, unassuming moment, with her back turned to me, my mother asked a simple question.
“Would you like to go to Garden State next year?”
Perhaps we had been talking about dancing, or perhaps I had been humming and kicking my feet with that incessant motion that courses through young bodies. The question, like so many others that issued from the far away world of adults, was as unexpected as a snow day and even more welcome.
Garden State School of Ballet was a serious ballet school. Run by Mr. Danielli, a Russian émigré, its main studio was some miles west, in the once vibrant but now derelict city of Newark. By some stroke of serendipity that I understood even as a child, there was a satellite school in my town. Even as a child, I knew that professional dancers began their careers there.
But I had never been inside the studio, which lay behind a glass door next to the town’s renowned delicatessen. Sometimes, shopping downtown with my mother, I saw older girls, their hair coiled into important buns, their pale cardigans revealing a window of simple black leotard, their legs long and pink in back-seamed tights. Bags stuffed with slippers, extra stockings, hairpins, even toe shoes, they slipped silently through the glass door. It was an ordinary enough door, but it might as well have been the entrance to Ali Baba’s Cave. I knew what transformations occurred within. At the top of those narrow stairs was a studio, a world where girls were taught to do complicated things with their feet. I longed to join them, but it seemed impossible that I would ever be old enough to attend.
In the silence that followed my mother’s query I wondered: how did they know? I thought: how could they not know? I thought the world had been dropped at my feet.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “I would love to go.”
That fall, I entered the studio. I clutched the hem of my circle skirt, my stomach aflutter. But then I stood in the bright, narrow studio, opposite a bank of mirrors, leaning shyly, as the other girls leaned shyly, against the triple rail of bars. The first thing we learned was never to lean against the bar. The second thing we learned was never to wear skirts. We were sent out to our mothers, skirts hanging like wilted flowers from our arms.
And then, the positions. Feet. Arms. Feet and arms together. Port de bras. The deep bend of the knees: plié, to fold. The extension and point of the foot: tendu, to stretch. There were always two things: the dance and the language of the dance. We learned French, but the words themselves were not nearly so foreign as what they signified for our bodies. A small kick of the foot was paltry and weak compared to the staccato burst of a dégagé, disengaged, to strike. If we understood grand plié, the great fold¸ our bodies could sink magisterially, until we hovered just above the floor. It was as far from a squat as a puddle from the sea.