I hadn’t known that Center Stage was such a cultural touchstone until about a week ago, when everyone started talking about the cult film on its 20th anniversary. The media maelstrom was such that a small-screen adaptation has just been announced, and the Daily Beast is calling it the dance film of our generation. I am delighted to find that I’m not the only weirdo who has been obsessed with it for twenty years. In fact, I would even say that the movie changed my life.
Like other fateful encounters, my love affair with Center Stage started by complete chance. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I was flipping through channels one sultry night when I chanced upon a scene of young ballerinas dancing in a studio. I watched the rest of the movie completely mesmerized—although I started ballet classes at age nine in Portland, Oregon, I had never, ever seen professional ballet dancers perform.
This was long before dancers uploaded clips to YouTube and had hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. If you wanted to see a pro performance, you had to buy tickets or at least rent a DVD, none of which had occurred to either me or my parents. All through ballet and pointe classes, I had never had the opportunity to see what I was working toward. So dancing afforded me a little pleasure and a lot of anguish, especially when it came time to register and pay for classes (you did not improve your technique, nor move up a level, nor get good parts at spring recital if you didn’t take multiple classes).
Watching Center Stage alone that steamy night, I realized what all the pain—physical, mental, financial—could achieve. It was the sublime beauty of Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. It was the confidence and sex appeal of Amanda Schull (Jody Sawyer) fouettéing away the boys in red-satin pointe shoes. In short, I discovered the life-affirming power of dance. (I won’t get into how the camisole tops and Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You” soundtrack give me *all the feels* right now. Stylistically the movie is a slice of early-naughts perfection.)
I immediately set off to throw myself into this newfound passion. At the time I was visiting my father in Seoul and teaching my cousins English. I invested $400—all of my summer earnings—into registering for a summer intensive at Universal Ballet, a well-regarded company. If there had been any audition process like similar programs at American companies, I would never have gotten in. Once I started, I realized that all the others were pre-professionals who were dancing at least 6 hours a day at arts high schools. There were a couple of unbelievably willowy, pretty girls who could easily have been high-fashion models if they didn’t also have a spectacular talent for dance. Long-limbed or not, everyone could whip out multiple pirouettes on pointe and 32 fouettés without batting an eyelash. I remember the deep humiliation when the French ballet master looked at me with contempt and told me to go to the back of the line, and the boy who was assigned as my partner grimaced as he tried to hoist me around. (Actually, the boy was probably being as kind as possible—I was about 30 lbs heavier than all the other girls in class.)
In short, I had never felt so incompetent at anything in my entire life. What is amazing is that despite bloody blisters every single day, and being the worst person in every class, I finished the two weeks. Before smartphones and “I did it” selfies, there was nothing to show for this except a free t-shirt. All the reward I felt had to be internal—and the main point of it was that miraculously, despite so much scorn, humiliation, and self-criticism, I improved.
I continued to dance as much as possible during rest of high school. Dance is a hard hobby to keep up if you don’t come from money—and if you’re not incandescently talented like Misty Copeland. My college offered free ballet classes for any students who were interested, so that was the first time in my life I could dance as much as I wanted. I still wasn’t really good, but I improved based on my own standards. My favorite academic memory of college is still my final performance for a modern dance and choreography course, just before graduation. After that, I moved to New York and stopped dancing almost entirely—instead fulfilling my balletomania with season tickets to the American Ballet Theatre. The first tickets I bought were Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet starring Julie Kent.
During the lockdown, I picked up dancing in my living room again. Strangely, this is the first time in my life I’m able to dance without any hangups. At 33, I can afford to buy as many classes, shoes, or leotards as I want—and that feels like a balm to my wounded soul. I don’t compare myself to thinner, more naturally gifted girls—there’s no one else in class, and even if there were, other people would probably just think kindly of the fact that I showed up. I’ve become old enough to bypass judgment. It makes me so happy to move and express myself as only ballet can. And because of a lack of fear, I’ve improved much in the past one month dancing to recorded classes in my living room. Yesterday I realized I’ve met my quarantine goal of nailing a double pirouette to the left and a triple pirouette to the right at will. Easy for some, but it requires 100% of my concentration to get the separate parts of my body all working in tandem.
But sometimes I do still think, why is this so hard for me? Why do I love something that I’m not really good at? And that’s where I look back to Center Stage, which is a story of a girl who finds her power from rejecting both the good boy and the bad boy… but is really also about a girl who passionately loves something that she isn’t the best at. It’s about her finding a way to do what she likes, regardless of what others think. It’s about her owning her authenticity, “bad feet” and all. My authentic self is a writer who really is a dancer at heart. And this makes me feel sheepish, but no one thinks Haruki Murakami should be ashamed of himself for being a non-professional, avid runner. Instead of competing in the Olympics, he wrote a book about running. Writer Karen Rinaldi—whose The End of Men became a hit movie starring Julianne Moore—says she’s a “preacher of suckitude” who revels in being a terrible surfer. Oh, she wrote a book about surfing, too. Maybe it’s not so crazy I’m obsessed with ballet, after all.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, your age, your physique, or your natural abilities—you are what you continuously do out of your own volition. The best, of course, is when what you’re good at and what you love are the same thing. But if there’s a choice between something you’re good at that you dislike, and something you love you’re not great at, choose the latter. It will make life interesting and keep you “on your toes” (in my case, literally). You’ll keep taking chances and growing as a human being. And this is how you know you’re not just playing a minor role in your own life. By owning your truth, you make your present condition your center stage.
Photo: Peaceful Dumpling