I AM A FAILED DANCER. I WRITE THAT sentence while still out of breath from a session in front of the mirror, where I performed a spirited imitation of the dance solo that introduces Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," wearing my son's old bike shorts. I'm able to tell myself it was actually a quite creditable imitation. But that's because I'm alone in the house, and because Martha Graham, rest her angular and uncompromising soul, is dead.
The most influential of all 20th century dancers, Martha Graham died April 1, 1991, at the age of 96. The death of my dancing dreams still wears her stark face.
My failure began just as success would have: I was born with dance fever. I could show you the incredibly tiny ballet slippers I ,, got the first Christmas my dance-mania became apparent to my intensely art-orient- ed parents. The slippers are less than 3 inches long, coated with cracked and peeling gold paint my mother had applied because my Christmas wish (I'm told) was not merely for ballet shoes but for golden ballet shoes. I wanted to be a Star. I was 2.
Neighbors from the Charles Village of my infancy remember me cavorting up and down the sidewalks, performing for the DeSotos and Studebakers and trolleys that poured along St. Paul Street's gritty corridor. I understood from the start that even an appalled audience was better than no audience at all.
Dance fever gives many a youngster pink cheeks and sweaty hair. In me, however, this fever was fanned to a dangerous and hectic flame by destiny. Frederick Huber, the longtime manager of the Lyric Theatre, happened to be a close personal friend of the family. It was his benign custom to invite the children of friends to witness dance performances from his personal, reserved Lyric box. I spent literally dozens of Saturday afternoons -- surely the most inspiring afternoons of my young life -- in the gilded, red-velvet-lined cradle of Box D.
Thanks to Fred Huber and Box D, I had, before I was half through Public School 53, seen "Gisele," "Swan Lake," "Coppelia," "Scheherezade," "The Firebird" -- all the classics, in fact -- performed at least once each by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York Ballet Company, then the two most prestigious and artistically influential companies that performed regularly in the United States. I had actually seen "Les Sylphides" often enough to have grown slightly bored with it. I didn't much like the Sylphs' soft, flowing dresses. Short stiff tutus, the kind the Stars wore to show off their incredible length of leg, were what I wanted to see. And wear.
Getting to wear a real tutu seemed to be a nearing reality when my mother enrolled me in ballet class. First there was Miss Schopenhauer at the Peabody. Gray-chignoned, gray-gauze-garbed, she was a taskmaster who was probably the closest thing to a 19th century dance mistress a 20th century child could have encountered. Today, I think I would have seen her as elegant, rigorous, weirdly sexy; then, she seemed merely gray. My mother agreed and transferred me to Estelle Dennis' deliciously bohemian studio, where half a dozen years of classes made ballet as exciting for me as I'd hoped, and somehow very romantic.
Later, while still taking classes at the Dennis Studio, I witnessed a remarkably professional recital -- at the sacred Lyric, from Box D! -- put on by students of a gorgeous Swedish dancer stage-named Carla Lee. By this time I was a dance-feverish preteen. I phoned the Carla Lee Studio myself. "How long have you studied?" somebody asked on the other end of the line.
"Oh, eight years at least," I replied.
I entered Carla Lee's advanced class a week later. And there I made a hideous discovery.
I was lousy.
I was worse than anybody in the class. I was worse than anybody in the intermediate class. I was worse than half the kids in the beginners class.
Classical ballet, Miss Carla herself told me gently after a year or so of intense suffering on both our parts, was not for me. She didn't know why, exactly. The top half of me performed with considerable grace. But the bottom half of me couldn't do the most elementary things. My thighs simply refused to swivel in opposite directions to give me the "turn-out" basic to every classical dance position. Carla Lee's studio was for soon-to-be-professional ballet dancers. I was a never-to-be-professional ballet dancer.
At about this time, however, Box D provided me with two experiences that greatly tempered the ax-blow of this discovery. One of those experiences was horrifying. Fred Huber smuggled me onto the Lyric backstage to meet Alica Markova, the famous premiere danseuse of the Ballet Russe. I penetrated the wings still blue in the face from holding my breath during the whole of Markova's fabulous "Swan Lake" solo. And there among the cardboard and gauze I came face to terrifying face with the most gaunt, sweaty and emaciated person I'd ever seen in a double set of inch-long fake eyelashes. She smiled; she took my trembling hand; we both curtsied. And I gave up my classical ballet longings on the spot. What I saw in Alica Markova's haggard expression was not what the baby with the golden shoes had in mind at all.
The other was really a whole set of experiences, marvelous ones: from Box D, I began to fall under the spell of another kind of dance. "Modern dance," it was called then. Martha Graham's kind of dance. I watched spellbound as long, lean bodies performed a ritual magic, seductive and strange. Ms. Graham's famous, big-eyed triangular countenance -- a little like the "alien" face staring at us from certain sci-fi books today -- was also a little like Ms. Markova's, but I managed not to notice that.
You have to understand that I was almost an adolescent. You have to understand that Martha Graham-style modern dance was something my ballet-loving mother -- she of the golden baby shoes -- regarded as dangerous and alien: Thus it enjoyed the heady glow of parental disapproval. Most of all, you have to understand that Martha Graham-style dance, which boldly proclaimed that its movements were absolutely unlike those of classical ballet, seemed to be something I could actually do.
And thus it was that Martha Graham's elegant features, pictured in magazines from Life to Vogue to the most esoteric dance magazines, superimposed themselves on all my dance-fevered
dreams. Three times a week, in a leotard that somehow seemed to cover less and less of me, I practiced Martha Graham-style Contractions and Expansions and Extensions.
"The kid's pretty good," I heard my middle school instructors murmur. "Maybe the June recital . . ."
I didn't tell them that whatever good I was was left over from Miss Schopenhauer, Estelle Dennis and Carla Lee.
I didn't have to tell them that I was no good at all when it came time for my upper legs to do anything serious.
The faces that finally mouthed, "We're sorry, but no . . . you don't quite fit in with the ensemble . . . perhaps you didn't start dancing soon enough . . . perhaps you've been poorly trained . . . perhaps you aren't trying hard enough! . . . " all wore, in my mind, the exquisitely stretched face of Martha Graham. In my disappointed imagination, she became the wicked stepmother, the coach who made the final cut.
Last year, I took on a new family doctor. He examined me routinely but carefully, pronouncing me in fine shape. However, as he applied the icy stethoscope to my back, he matter-of-factly dictated to his tape recorder, "Pronounced curvature of the spine."
"What do you mean?" I protested. "I took ballet all my life. I have wonderful posture." Too wonderful, I thought to myself. I remembered high school years when my high-chested walk brought me dangerously close to Getting A Reputation.
"Not that you slump," he hastened. "It's like this: A person's spine, viewed from the back, normally is curved in a very slight, very gentle S. The top of your S is fine. But the bottom veers sharply to the right. It's a congenital deformity."
"I wonder," I breathed, "if that's why I could never do a lot of the things I was supposed to do in dance classes. Like a simple split. Like turning my thighs out while keeping my legs straight. I never could."
"Of course you couldn't," he said. "With your spine, those positions are physically impossible."
When Martha Graham's taut face and tautly turned-out arabesques taunted me from the newspapers of early April, 1991, I wanted to cry out, "I did try! And it wasn't my fault I couldn't!" But it was too late.
CLARINDA HARRISS RAYMOND last wrote on prom-night memories for the magazine.