The Road Not Taken
Have you ever finished reading something and end up thinking about it for days? It happened to me after reading the NYT article “Storybook Ballerina’s True-Life Adventure” by Helene Stapinski (20 Nov 2011). I knew I would eventually write about it.
In 1976, Jill Krementz documented the daily schedule of a 10-year-old School of American Ballet student, Stephanie. Krementz created an instant best-seller and classic in A Very Young Dancer. It was a behind-the-scenes look at the most highly-regarded ballet school in the United States through the eyes of a child. Stephanie became an instant hero and role model for every young girl who wanted to strap on toe shoes and enter the magical world of ballet.
Stapinski points out that adolescent dancers leave ballet school for many reasons and “move on to other interests.” However, because of the celebrity status brought on by the book, Stephanie’s withdrawal at 13 “ filled [her] with shame and secrecy.” Since then, readers have been caught up in the mystery of her decision.
When people asked her why, Stephanie would say that she quit because she eventually wanted go to college and a commitment to dance would limit her options. For Stapinski’s article, Stephanie finally admitted that she had been asked to leave. Her excessive absences and her having to repeat some classes were cited by the school’s current director as reasons for her dismissal.
Stephanie was one of countless dancers who left the difficult, but artistically ideal world of ballet, but hers was a path fraught with depression. Her brother said that she “went through a couple of hard years and realized what’s important to her and what makes her happy.“ Today, she lives on a ranch in Wyoming with her husband and works in a flower shop.
Why did this article haunt me? First of all, it shows the power of a book. Stapinski interviewed dancers and each spoke of how they revered the book that changed their lives and it showed them “there was a path.”
What is another reason the article had a hold on me? It made me think about the BIG question: What is the meaning of life? For Stephanie, the success of A Very Young Dancer defined who she was: a very lucky, talented girl. Her future seemed clear: she would be a dancer. She could not allow herself to take a different road without feeling as if she were letting people down.
Perhaps it’s my age. As I approach seventy, I look back on roads not taken and the
ones I took. Some roads I eventually took, but years after my first plans were made. People ask me if I have always been an artist and a writer. I have to say yes.
However, my career was chosen by my mother, who strongly advised me to become a classroom teacher or a secretary. There were fewer options for girls in the fifties. To be fair, she had picked up lots of clues from my behavior. I wonder how many other future teachers asked for chalkboards when they were children. I could read before I started school and had requested a typewriter. She never knew my disappointment when I saw that she bought me a toy. Didn’t she understand that I was serious about being a writer? I spent a lot of time at the library, borrowing the maximum number of books every week.
I eagerly waited for my mother to come home from grocery shopping. After asking, “Did you get anything good (meaning sweet)?” I used the bags for my drawings and tempera paintings. “Art teachers are the first ones to get laid off,” she said. I hesitated to tell her that I wanted to be an artist, not an art teacher. I was fortunate to take four years of studio art in high school, where we worked in every medium, even that relatively new one, acrylic paint. But I also took the required curriculum. During my undergraduate years at Buffalo State, countless hours were spent across the street at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It has one of the finest collections of 20 th century art in the world, and in those days, it was free!
The seeds for art and writing had been planted in childhood and took hold, growing and dormant, like a perennial plant. Exactly: my creative life is a perennial flower! (Thank you, Donald M. Murray, for teaching me to use writing to uncover what I already knew, but never expressed in this way. I just discovered the meaning of my life by writing this paragraph. Whew!)
Don’t get me wrong: I have no regrets and was VERY happy being a teacher. I wrote poetry, articles and books about education. During the years I taught, I visited art museums and galleries EVERYWHERE! Seeing art and reading about it continued my education. In 1998, I returned to making art.
Stephanie, your struggle was different from mine, but it seems as if we continue to work at finding what makes us happy.