Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Beach Bum Ballet


A memory from early teen years. I was in Los Angeles, and it was the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school. During the academic months, I was attending North Carolina School of the Arts, boarding there, chasing the passion—the obsession—of professional dance; of ballet. It was a profession with strong skin-color barriers, preaching an aesthetic, for women more than men, that did not embrace dark skin. Who could imagine a bronzed Odette? At that time, no one it seemed. In Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, even the Black Swan with her thirty-two fouettés was always white. Insulting (and I suspect largely unchanged, with mostly segregated dance companies)—and yet I didn't overthink it at the time. Now, remembering all the things it seemed permissible for the ballet teachers to say to us students, I am surprised that no one mentioned explicitly that we should stay out of the sun. That particular summer, though, it wouldn't have mattered. I remember going to the beach near the Santa Monica Pier more often than in any other year. A friend from the Bay Area came to visit, and the two of us would spray Sun-In on our hair, squeeze lemon juice on our long tresses, and bake in the midday heat, scorching our feet on the sand to get to the water's edge. I wore a one-piece suit with a plaid pattern of white, black, and two shades of gray. If we put anything on our bodies, it was baby oil, which would supposedly accelerate and deepen the sun exposure. We tanned—the darker the better—hiking up the hip edge of our suits to check the demarcation lines. We tanned smooth, even, and it seemed we never burned, ever. I wonder now how that was even possible. How I went out without sunscreen, and it all seemed fine. No one chased me down with a bottle of lotion. We laughed at the Coppertone ads, but didn't buy the product. Now? SPF 40, thank you very much. I'm a couple decades and the opposite coast away from that girl. Now, my legs are so white (even in July!), I would be the perfect model of a ghostly tulle-draped sylph en pointe, if only for the loss of motherhood's added pounds. Back then, though? Pointes traded for flip-flops, we were California beach bums through and through.

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