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Getting the Pointe

As a child I had to choose between two loves: Violin or Ballet? Many years, a career and family later I realize it's never too late to travel down the path I left behind and give my second priority dream a second chance.

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio

My sagging sock feet slip on the waxy buffed linoleum as I awkwardly shuffle my way past a gaggle of giggling girls in baby pink tutus.  I'm wearing my yoga clothes, which have sadly not seen a yoga mat in two years, and my long mane of hair is reluctantly tied back in a goofy ponytail.

I feel ridiculous. I'm a thirty-year-old woman enrolled in a ballet class with teenage girls.

The seven-year-olds clear out and any moment now I'll be greeted by perfectly straight white smiles perched on top of perfectly young, toned bodies in lulu lemon spandex.  Slouching in my slouch socks I catch my nervous reflection in the enormous wall of mirrors glaring back at me. Socks are not the only things that are sagging in this gal; my body has seen nine long months of pregnancy, two years of nursing and a several years skipping the morning make-up routine to chase after an active son.

I came here today to begin something I yearned to do almost twenty years ago.

I grew up the oldest child of a single mother who struggled to put food on the table.  My best friend's family had more money than mine and their children participated in all sorts of fun activities and hobbies. Horse camp, piano lessons, flute ensemble, painting class; all so desirable for young girls. Meghan excelled in ballet and violin, both of which were most desired by me.

Meghan played beginning Suzuki "Twinkle Twinkle" variations and tears of yearning welled up in my eyes.  She performed simple dance routines on the glossy hardwood floor of her living room set to orchestral music on the hi-fi and I applauded her every move. 

Sometimes Meghan allowed me to wear her old ballet slippers and a flowing black skirt as I mimicked her clumsily.

A passionate fan of classical music since birth I became enamored with both violin and ballet and begged my mother to send me to classes.  Sadly our finances forbade it completely and I was relegated to the audience to watch and admire Meghan.

At one point we rented a cheap Suzuki violin for a short-term band music program at my school, but the instructor has no knowledge in strings and I came out of the class more frustrated than before. The clunky instrument felt awkward and impossible without guidance and the fine music I imagined was even more out of reach.

When I was twelve my mother was seriously injured at the shipyard where she painted oil tankers.  She received a very modest cash settlement to take care of the doctor's bills and time off work.  In her first position to pay for a class, she said I could take up one activity: ballet classes for a year or the purchase of a very nice violin I could use in middle school in the orchestra program.

Ballet or violin? 

My maturity and insight in the decision must have taken my mother by surprise: I chose violin knowing I could play violin for a lifetime as opposed to the very short careers of performing ballerinas.  One thousand dollars of my mother's pain money funded my first violin, a Karl Knilling German factory fiddle made in 1989.

We certainly couldn't afford private lessons but that didn't stop me living and breathing violin.  I took the city bus downtown and brought home as many sheet music scores and audio tapes as the public library would allow.  Practicing three to five hours a day, I quickly advanced to the concertmaster position and soon started student ensembles with other friends and players.

Music college and several orchestras later I find myself married with a child and the owner of a violin business.  Life had zoomed past and I never again looked back on my desire to dance ballet.

It was New Year's Eve at Grandma's house and my six-year-old son was doing his usual dance after supper routine, this time heightened by the vast quantities of Christmas candy he had consumed.  On a whim I put on the John Travolta film "Staying Alive," thinking my son would appreciate the modern dance sequences and I'd enjoy a jaunt down memory lane with the classic flick.

The movie rocked Ryan's world.  He was copying the moves with amazing accuracy, the spins and leaps and beaming ear to ear.  The dancing he saw on the screen illuminated a whole new level of appreciation for dance and confirmed a fervent desire in his heart to dance.

My mother watched with adoration and I felt a deep pride: I'd helped him find something he loved.  Heck, anyone could enroll their kids in a hundred activities, but it's far more meaningful when it's something their heart aches for.  I'd even go as far to say that when you get something too easily it's not as sacred.  I'd been waiting for this moment to come and was more than willing to support him in it.

A week later Ryan was enrolled in the winter semester of ballet for 6 year olds.  He was the only boy in the class, but that didn't phase him.  Surrounded by pink flowing fairies my child was a ninja in his black sweats and Spiderman T-shirt.  He started late in the school year but was keeping up with the others and particularly enjoying the theatrics of the class.

For four weeks I peeked through the doors of the waiting room and watched Ryan's class alone while other parents ran errands with the spare 45 minutes.  One session I was, as usual, copying the class' movements from behind the door when another parent asked, "you're a dancer too?"

It hit me like a truck load of ballet shoes.  "Me, a dancer?" I thought.  It had never occurred to me to take up dance as an adult.  "Why the heck not," I told myself.  "I just turned thirty years old, dammit, and I can take ballet classes if I want to!"

So here I am in the Shuswap Dance ballet studio waiting to make an ass of myself.  My inner twelve-year-old got me here, but the sensible 30-year-old thinks I'm nuts.  "Should I run now and spare myself the embarrassment?"

My classmates enter the room.  Normal looking teenage girls in sweats and T-shirts, no makeup, no perfect figures.  Not the prima pink ballerinas I expected.  Just some young ladies who want to learn to dance. (Phew, I won't need to buy anything pink!)

Our instructor, Carolyn Wonacott, starts us out skipping around the room... backwards.  I'm tripping on myself and getting in everyone's way: making a complete ass of myself as expected.  But I' laughing and having the time of my life.  Carolyn blasts Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" as we practice twirling around the room, dizzy and giddy.

My muscles are protesting from the sudden activity as if to say, "what did we do to you to deserve this sudden onslaught of torture?" The pliés (I'm sure which literally translates to "pain in le ass") are killer, but they make me feel like a graceful dancer so I forge on.  I know I'll feel this tomorrow but continue to bend deeper into the stretch.

"I'm a dancer," I snicker.

I learn that my class performs more than just ballet.  We work on a jazzy swing number and next break into a chirpy hip-hop number by, er, Britney who?  I'm an old matron who listens to dry news radio; completely out of touch with 21st Century pop culture.  The girls fill me in on the singer's recent head shaving and drug rehab and we move on.  I try my best to copy their moves and fail miserably to keep up but know I'll get it eventually.

The class ends and I head upstairs to buy my first set of dancing shoes.  I'm tired, far more tired than I'd expected I'd be, but I feel a warm glow in my bones as I slip on various slippers and shoes.  I settle on a cozy pair of jazz shoes and receive encouragement from Carolyn.  We both know I'll never dance with the Royal Ballet and may not make it on to pointe shoes. I don't mind.  I'm just fulfilling a promise to myself and it feels great.

I wear the shoes all the time, eagerly awaiting the next class.  I lace up my adorable little black shoes and stretch my toes into the lovely pointe shape I've admired for so many years.  A feeling of pride and accomplishment washes over me.

I have learned that I can do anything I set my mind to, even if it has to take the back seat for a couple decades.  This was a gift that my mother passed on to me: the gift of learning to really want something and having the desire and tenacity to make it happen.

And this time around I'll have my handsome son as a dance partner.


Rhiannon Nachbaur is professional musician and owner of award-winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio in Kamloops, BC.  Incidentally, she discovered her first grey hair the day after her first ballet class.

Comments for "Getting the Pointe"

What a lovely write up of your ballet experience. So true that you can try anything and fulfill your dreams, keeping sight of your dreams when you’re busy managing a business, family and home is tricky but happy you’re doing it.

On Sunday I’m taking to the ski slopes for the first time! A few weeks ago we went to the slopes to get measured for ski stuff (me and kids) and then went tubing. Standing at the ski lodge and at the base of the slope I felt like a kid that had never been to the beach – so strange a sight. However I must confess I’m slightly concerned about the physical dangers of skiing given I’ve got a bad back, hip flexor problems, weak wrists and knees… but I keep saying well if other people can learn later in life I should be able to as well, may be I exaggerate my ailments and that’s what holds me back (my back twinges every time I think that though!). I’ll let you know how it goes. …

I am now trying to remember my dreams that didn’t require so much physical activity, there must be some that will not lead to aches and pains the next day. Before kids I did a tree climbing course – that was amazing, for a whole day leaping through the air, reaching for ropes, rolling in scramble nets felt like a 10 year old, but not so much 10 year old the next day.

Thanks for sharing your dream achievement.

- Gayna, Issaquah Washington

I read the ballet article. As usual it was very well written (but I am no expert on such things) and very moving in many ways. Not as funny [as others you have written] but not meant to be.

I had to admire your mom's strength and your focus, drive determination and talent. I think you may be someone that simply won't take no for an answer once your mind is made up. A very handy trait!!

I think back 35 years ago and I wanted to be a very good mandolin player. In the end I got frustrated with not being able to play as fast and cleanly as I wanted to. So I put it aside for many years. I always thought that not being fluent in the theory end of things and being self-taught hindered me but then I have come to realize that there there are many that simply are more talented/gifted.

Although not overly talented I stopped comparing myself to the greats and simply play for the fun of it now. Setting aside those lofty goals has in a sense allowed me to slow down and try to play cleanly and with good tone and with as as much taste as my slightly deaf and somewhat untalented ears will allow.

I certainly can appreciate the great talents of others like yourself who have managed to persevere and climb that slippery slope to the top.

- Tom, Penticton, BC


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