When I was in high school I studied ballet at the Minneapolis Ballet Center with a master teacher named Hy Somers. While I took many, many ballet classes from this teacher, and all were more than 35 years ago, there are few moments that stand out crystal clearly in my memory.
One such memory involved a brutally long sequence of an exercise called rond de jambe en l’air. Which loosely translates as “circling the leg in the air.” To do this exercise, you stand on one leg and have your other leg extended out to the side at 90 degrees. You hold the thigh of the extended leg very still, and, moving only your lower leg, circumscribe a circle with your toes (Okay it is more complicated than that but this gives you the idea.) Mr. Somers asked us to do eight rond de jambe en dehors (clockwise) followed by eight rond de jambe en dedans (counter clockwise) followed by eight doubles en dehors (making two quick circles in place of one slow) followed by eight doubles en dedans (the two quick version going the opposite direction) then, without lowering that leg press up in to relevé on your standing leg (rise up on to the ball of your foot) and repeat the whole thing. He was a demanding teacher, but this seemed way over the top even for him. I hoped he was joking. He wasn’t. Sixty-four rond de jambe en’lair without ever putting my leg down? I knew I would never make it.
The pianist played the introduction to the music began and I did the appropriate preparation and extended my right leg out to the side to begin. Surprisingly the first two sets of eight were a piece of cake. By the doubles I was feeling the burn in my quadricep muscles, by the time we pressed into relevé I am sure I was putting a death grip on the ballet barre, and the last two sets of eight – well, let’s just say they were not pretty. As I lowered my leg and started to envision the amount of pain I would be in the next morning, Mr. Somers said I what I knew he would say. “Okay, other side.” So we all dutifully turned toward the barre, placed our right hands on the barre and repeated the entire sequence with our left legs now participating in the rond de jambe marathon. After both sides had been completed Mr. Somers said, “I asked you to do more than you expected you could do. And the first 24 were quite good. Had I only given you 24 you most likely would have looked tired after 12. You can do more than you think you can. “ I knew he was right and, in that moment, learned a valuable lesson about perception and pacing.
I have thought a lot about that lesson and often tell this story to my students. However, the lessons I learned in that ballet class have not always translated to my everyday life. There are many times when I do not set my goals intentionally out of reach just to challenge myself but instead place them at a safe, manageable distance that I know I can accomplish.
The past few days I have been feeling extremely anxious about the year ahead. I have been questioning myself as to why oh why did I choose my sabbatical year to take on a hugely ambitious schedule of travel and uncertainty. I have questioned if there will be any sense of Sabbath in this sabbatical. Yesterday morning, while sitting in Shabbat services, I tried to find that sense of centering and calm that is so key to the concept and practice of Sabbath. And somehow my mind wandered to the memory of the ballet class and the 64 rond de jambe en l’air. I started thinking about pacing, perspective and persistence.I know that I will have to find the rhythm of rest and renewal while on the road for so long. Perception informs pacing. I can go farther and longer than I think I can when faced with an ambitious undertaking. And persistence does pay off. I know there will be melt down days where I am going to be ready to pack it in and head home. But I also know that if I can just stick it out there are lessons to be learned and, in the end, a story to tell.