March 28, 2017 // Perspective
Mariana is a beautiful woman in her sixties, a former professional ballerina trained in the Russian classical style. She performed as a principal dancer in the Israeli Ballet and is now an esteemed instructor here in America. I’ve caught glances of her coming and going in my daughters’ dance studio, there to help her former student, my girls’ current American Ballet Theater instructor and artistic director, teach summer intensive master classes. When I saw Mariana on a day in the summer, her hair was upswept into a tight bun, with a few stray wisps of grey and black strands falling softly around her face, subtly accentuating her delicate, elegant features. She wore a simple, form-fitting, blue leotard and long, flowing black skirt with leggings on her slender form.
Mariana moves gracefully. She walks with poise and gentleness, with straight but not rigid posture. Her gait is natural and flowing as though life itself is her ballet and she is simply dancing through each moment that she moves through time. She exudes the most exquisite loveliness. She shows the way we would all hope to, but dare not dream to age.
Of all the striking features about Mariana, however, her legs stand out as the best. Even through her dance attire a casual observer can notice her legs’ feminine shapeliness and strength; the envy, no doubt, of many women half her age. Those legs for many years executed nearly perfectly timed fouttes, grand allegros and held lengthy arabesques for crowds over and over again. Through practice those legs became what they are — strong and lean, graceful and beautiful.
As Mariana disappeared up the stairs of the old brick building which houses the dance studio, a thought popped into my mind: What if?
What if we were to use the same principles of self-discipline and training that a ballet dancer uses, and focused on strengthening our hearts in love? What if we really practiced the corporal works of mercy and pushed through to show kindness and love even we didn’t feel it, and what if we prayed contemplatively every single day, and frequented the sacraments with the dedication of an athlete?
Would we, in our golden years of life, having practiced discipline and mastery over self, become effortlessly strong in compassion and love? Would our form, ourselves, bring beauty in the shape of goodness to others simply because we had practiced so much and acquired good habits that reaped a great reward? Could we form beautiful souls by practicing good habits every day? And how much more worthy an endeavor would this be than simply training as an athlete!? Physical beauty lasts at most as long as our bodies do. Beauty in goodness, however, lasts eternity.
Mariana dedicated her life to her art. She got up early, as ballerinas do, and repeated dance exercises and steps for long hours. Her feet became calloused, as most dancers’ are, from practice, practice, practice. She sacrificed her appetite, giving up rich sugary sweet meals and treats for healthy ones, all for her art form. She fell, no doubt as all dancers do, and rose. And she fell, and rose again. She danced, no doubt, through blisters and pain, with toes wrapped and sometimes bleeding.
What does a ballerina do when she makes a mistake, but get right back up and keep trying? I’ve watched shoes fly from the dancing feet of my nonprofessional daughters, costume seams pop on stage and props break. And the dancers keep dancing. They become mentally and physically strong. They pursue and carry on. No doubt this is never more true than for a professional, one who makes her dance her life.
What if we applied similar discipline to developing goodness in our children? What if we applied that discipline to develop goodness and love in ourselves? Maybe we too could develop beautiful strength, not strength of body but of heart and soul.
As Mariana disappeared like a sleek gazelle up the stairs of the old brick building that houses the dance studio, I was inspired by her to try harder, to press on. By forming good habits of discipline and self-mastery, we can all develop beautiful strength, of body, soul and character, which will last not just for a performance, or even a lifetime — but for all of eternity.
Theresa Thomas is the wife of David and mother of nine children.
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