On the secret of balance

Life’s all about balance, right?

Maria Tallchief was a celebrated ballerina and a muse of the famed choreographer George Balanchine. She passed away almost exactly two years ago; her obituary in the NYT is a great overview of her fascinating life journey and accomplishments. But when I read it two Aprils back, what struck me most was one of the online comments from a reader:

…I taught dance for 30 years and would often tell my classes of her brilliance, and especially of her secret of balance. In various pas de deux she would hold a pose for what seemed an impossible time. Was she totally still en pointe? Not at all. Her standing ankle was constantly adjusting in small motions. This constant adjustment I have taken as a example for life.

Balance: it’s all in the ankles.

I’m into hot yoga lately, so yesterday morning I made an attempt to get to the early class before work. I hit traffic on the 101, realized I would be too late, and turned around and came home. I prepped for a hike instead—but free time before I needed to buckle down to the workday was fading fast, so at the last minute I decided to go on a short trail run. It’s always a series of small decisions, the ones we don’t think twice about, that hold the biggest punch.

The morning was hot and bright, and I was making great time on my run. Home was a quarter mile away. In the dusty green oak grove, I sprinted for a stretch, then jogged around a corner. A second later, I was on my hands and knees in the dirt: runner down. Ankle down. I blame the hidden tree root stretching across the path. I blame my blithe forward momentum. I blame an off-kilter balance.

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Eleven months ago, I sprained my ankle—the other ankle—while traipsing giddily down a sidewalk in Williamsburg, headed back to my first NYC apartment on a balmy spring evening. The ankle swelled to twice its size, turned black, blue, purple, and yellow, and generally sucked. I wore a walking boot for a month, falling asleep each night with an ice pack wrapped tightly around my foot. But I managed: I moved to a new apartment, figured out how to negotiate stairs, and developed an appreciation for the low-key comfort of summer sneakers.

And here I am again, ice pack strapped to my ankle, immobile on the couch. I had plans to go to LA this weekend, to fly back to NYC next week, to run errands and just plain run. Now: another challenge to work around. Another adjustment to make. Small motions, to find balance. Small decisions, to figure out the next step life will take.

Because stillness is never an option, and ankles are weak. Because setbacks happen. They sneak up on you when you’re relaxed and pummel you when you’re down. I’ve generally been a “roll with the punches” kind of girl, but lately that wisdom seems less applicable: standing tall might make you a target—but Maria Tallchief figured out a way to stay up en pointe. It is how we deal, the movements we make (defensive, offensive, emotional) that determine our ability to maintain the balance, to bring it back, to tap into a place where we look serene on the surface, even as we fight for composure beneath.

Or maybe the secret is that it’s never been about balance. The process is where we live; it’s where we might find something of truth. A pirouette can look like effortless spinning, but it’s work: you’re engaging your core, your back, your arms, your eyes, the standing leg and the one held in a triangle against your thigh. You’re not balancing on top of the cardboard box of a pointe shoe with ease: you’re reaching for a sweet spot that eludes you and fighting to get there and stay there. Or at least, that’s how it always was in ballet for me.

I cried twice yesterday—once out of pain, once out of frustration. I got two more pieces of unwelcome news, punched a pillow, banged some keys on the piano to let off steam. The setback is never fun. The adjustment is never easy.

But the ankle will heal. This morning is sunny. And I’ll make it to yoga, and I’ll try to balance on it, and with small motions I’ll—maybe—get close.


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