From ballet to B&D and S/M?

Evan Zimroth's elegiac memoir raises disturbing questions about girlhood femininity and brutal domination

Published April 1, 1999 11:49AM (EST)

She is expecting to be struck, knowing that she deserves it and will allow it. Her
body is rigid, not with fear but with premonition and a kind of longing for whatever will happen to
her. Instead of rising to punish her, however, he tells her to take off her practice clothes.

If you had to make a guess as to the origins
of this little vignette, several Web sites protected by Adult Check and charging subscription fees
might come to mind. But the "she" in this story is a 13-year-old girl, and her "practice clothes"
are not a cheerleading outfit or any other staple of erotica, but a black leotard and pink tights.
The tale is drawn from "Collusion," Evan Zimroth's unsettling memoir about her childhood
relationship with her domineering ballet master.

Pointe shoes and tutus have a special place among our icons of femininity. Even my otherwise
feminist female friends who scorned fashion magazines, nail polish and "Melrose Place" would become
gooey with excitement when I brought mine out of retirement in college. Everyone wanted a turn to
try them on, and rise in awkward agony onto the tips of their toes, for just a moment to enact their
childhood fantasies. But rarely did such fantasies include domination by a Svengali-type teacher
with a Russian accent and a cane.

Ballet is inextricably bound up with fantasies of eternal girlhood. Dreams of being a dew-drop
fairy remain firmly planted in childhood, along with selling Thin Mints and wearing green polyester.
Yet aside from a few lessons in a local Dolly Dinkle studio, and a few performances in our parents'
living rooms, few of us actually enter ballet's cloistered world of pristine glamour, grace and
femininity. The "adult" ballerinas we see onstage do little to dispel this connection between ballet
and girlhood. Flat-chested, skinny enough to make Ally McBeal seem pudgy and always adorned with
long hair, slicked into a bun and often topped with a tiara, many adult ballerinas look like the
10-year-olds we were when we gave the fantasy up.

Ballet, of course, can be sexy: What is a pas de deux other than an extended metaphor for sex?
But the sex depicted by ballet often more closely resembles pedophilia than mature sexuality. The ideal women, after all, are forever children.

But what happens when ballerina fantasies are not confined to girlhood, but usher a girl into
adolescence? Zimroth's "Collusion" offers one answer. This isn't simply another attempt to shatter
our cotton-candy illusions about the dance world (that's been done before). Nor is it your typical
coming-of-age memoir of tortured adolescence. (Though there is plenty of torture.) Rather, she
describes how the deep convergence of scripted, exaggerated femininity with underlying pain that we
see performed onstage (the smiling, fluttering fairy whose feet are actually bleeding) infiltrated
the offstage psyche of at least one young girl:

When F first so unexpectedly hit me, he taught me more than to pay attention to the
small things, like battement tendu. He also showed me beyond words what it felt like to be a woman
with a woman's submission and a woman's power over a man. I see now that I did not in any ordinary
sense "grow up." I was a child, and then one stunning moment later I was a woman. I moved beyond
childhood in the instant of discovering something I could not have possibly known before -- that I could submit to the violence of love, recognize it as love, and be complicit in it.

Zimroth, a National Jewish Book Award winner and poet, writes of that time in a young dancer's life when careers are made or broken. Subtitled "Memoir of a Young Girl and Her Ballet Master," the book begins with a disturbing vignette. Zimroth, in her adult life, was raped by a boyfriend (her first sexual experience). But a few pages later she changes course. It wasn't rape after all. "Did it hurt?" the boyfriend asked afterwards. "Yes," she answered. "Do you want it again?" he persisted. "Yes," she answered again. And apparently she remains convinced that she did want it, and that the experience was an allegory for her ballet training. If that's not enough to get your attention: She's not complaining. In fact, she considers the memoir an "elegy" to her ballet teacher, the man she refers to only as "F."

Zimroth is on to something -- sensational yet obvious. The training of a serious dancer involves ceding control, being touched whether you like it or not, being seen whether you like it or not. "Junk off," our teachers would say, and that meant "strip, now." We would remove the plastic shorts and ripped T-shirts and leg warmers that served more as a protective shield than a way of getting warm and be exposed. Down to regulation pink and black, unforgiving, and after age 13 unflattering for most. I'd play with the skin on my neck between combinations because there was nothing else to fidget with. The only saving grace was not being a student at the studio across town, where weights went up on a chart on the wall each week, and you didn't perform the role if you didn't fit in the costume.

It also meant wanting to be hurt. Misshapen and untalented dancers are simply ignored. So 13-year-old girls learn to take it as a compliment when the teacher, often male, grabs her leg and pushes it up to her ear, makes her repeat the combination until her muscles shake with exhaustion, pinches her arm so she remembers to hold it up, smacks the bottom of her heels so that they stay elevated. While we were corrected, we were to be passive, stare straight ahead and finish the combination, and allow our bodies to be "placed." At the basis of it all -- trust, devotion and passion, or so we were told. Sound familiar?

Zimroth is brave in telling this story -- of how a value system that is stigmatized and labeled perverse in the outside world when enacted between two consenting adults is not only treated as normal but celebrated in the dance studio when the relationship occurs between a 13-year-old and a teacher who is three times her age. For Zimroth, there is a natural climax to the secret pact between teacher and student, the story that began this piece.

But this vignette, F's order to strip naked and the deflowering that ensues, is actually the beginning of a three-page fantasy, events that would have taken place "if this were fiction." The imaginary encounter in her teacher's "secret" room is the closest we get to a physical consummation of her "collusion."

Zimroth must resort to such fantasies, because her love affair is never really with F but with the ballet itself, and that's where the difference between her love and those in S/M relationships begins. In fact, F does not exist for Zimroth outside of his power to make her a dancer: "It never occurred to me to endow him with a life outside the studio and his secret room -- that is, a life away from me."

It is ballet -- not F himself -- that transmits the values of domination and submission. She observes, "Ballet is a world in which 'normal' values are reversed: brutality is seen as a gift, fear as devotion, sadism as love." Zimroth acknowledges that her story is not unique. And while she qualifies her claims in her introduction by pleading with her children to understand that she writes only of the hothouse world of ballet, "not a paradigm for living," she simultaneously emphasizes that any female dancer "would immediately comprehend the nature of my relationship to F and could substitute her own F." In the end, she endorses balletic B&D-S/M with the admission of her own complicity: "Children can collude. I colluded. I loved him."

Those who defend S/M relationships outside the dance world do so by appealing to the value of sexual freedom: They argue that consensual expressions of sexuality should not be limited to vanilla heterosexuality. But a necessary precondition for such exploration is the existence of options -- the option to submit or to dominate, the option to trade in an abusive or simply unhappy relationship for something better. In this context, the possibility for collusion exists (though whether or not it can exist for a 9- or 13-year-old is another issue entirely).

In the dance world as Zimroth describes it, the choices are to love according to the rules or not to love at all. In such circumstances one must question whether collusion is possible, if the idea of collusion is more than a rationalization for mistreatment.

Even Zimroth's portrayal of her own consent falters sometimes. F at one point punishes her for taking up smoking by ritualistically and deliberately striking her three times with a cane. Fair enough, argues Zimroth. "Daring begets pain; that was the deal. It was worth it." She relished that the ordeal was "private and forbidden, more secret and taboo than my childish attempt to smoke." But when F unexpectedly and ferociously strikes her a fourth time on her way out the door she feels betrayed. "THAT was not part of the bargain, not part of the deal, not part of the reciprocity of elegance and pain we had so perfectly enacted. It was entirely unfair, uncalled for and very, very painful."

In this one moment in the book, Zimroth acknowledges the blurry line between collusion and abuse, and her lack of power to negotiate that line. But without such power to negotiate, does a line separating collusion from abuse ever exist?

In the end, like a lover who mourns a lost relationship, Zimroth exults that she would "live her connection to F all over again," and does not see her memoir as an attempt to "save some other little girl from a sadistic ballet master." Unable to envision an alternative value system, she concludes from her experience that "perhaps the rigor and discipline, the self-mortification and rhapsodic ambition that I experienced are exactly what a girl needs to become a 'great dancer,' Perhaps F was right all along, and it was I who failed in my vocation and not F who betrayed me." But she sells herself short. Rigor and discipline are possible without abuse and powerlessness, ambition is possible without self-mortification. There are other ways to love.

For most of us, the "femininity" that ballet exalts is hardly a model for anything, let alone our sex lives. Despite Zimroth's commendable message that it's OK for women to wear tutus or leather onstage (and in bed), we'd be wise to also think hard about the conditions and rules under which we choose these costumes (or, for that matter, choose them for our children). One thing is certain, after reading Zimroth's memoir, watching the "Nutcracker" will never be the same.

By Tara Zahra

Tara Zahra is a writer living in Germany.

MORE FROM Tara Zahra

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