Be the Star of Your Own Story
by Mila Madison
The ballerina always fascinated me. Her poise, grace and elegance. The Pointe shoes, pink tights, leotard, tutu and her hair up in a bun. To me there was nothing more beautiful. Also for me, however, there was nothing more unattainable to achieve. Nothing further out of reach.
I grew up in an environment where stereotypical gender roles were enforced, whether it was in school, family or anywhere else. Some of my earliest memories are of people telling me what boys and girls were supposed to do. I learned to bottle my femininity the best I could for fear of being yelled at or made fun of. Though I would later learn that boys could do ballet, as a kid there was nothing more feminine to me than the beautiful ballerina. I could never get the courage to express my desire to learn how to dance. Even if I did, I was also so uncomfortable with my body that using it to express myself was out of the question. It was something that I would just put away, on top of the pile of other things that I accepted that I would not experience.
“WHEN I WAS 15 YEARS OLD, I WOULD MEET A BEAUTIFUL BALLERINA WHO WOULD ONE DAY BECOME MY WIFE.”
When I was 15 years old I would meet a beautiful ballerina who would one day become my wife. To this day there is nothing I love more than watching her dance. I could only live out my childhood dream of being a dancer through her eyes and experiences. I would go to as many of her performances as I could and I would go to her classes just to watch her. She studied with a ballet master we all knew as Mr. Christopher. His resume included dancing with the American Ballet Theater, the Stuttgart Ballet and being a Master Teacher at Alvin Ailey. He is a master of his craft. Over the years I would watch, as my wife would go from being his student to teaching beside him. He would become a member of our family and I always looked forward to seeing him, as I would usually walk away with something profound to think about.
I remember one day when I confessed to him my secret wish to take a ballet class. We were discussing my journey and he always had a positive perspective on it all. He has this way of getting you to look at all things with the negativity stripped away. He told me one day he would find a way to make that happen for me and eventually he did.
Mr. Christopher invited my wife and I to a special class he was teaching to honor Shannon Romanchuk Saturno, one of his former students from the Long Island Ballet Theater’s first company. Shannon sadly had lost her battle with breast cancer and the girls from LIBT wanted to honor her life in the very place where they all first came together. They would donate the money raised from the class to First Company Pink, a fittingly named charity, which raises funds for breast cancer research. Some of the girls haven’t danced in years while some where still at it. Some were now teachers themselves like my wife. One girl even brought her young son who was already studying ballet and seems poised to have a great future in dance if he chooses to do so. Last you had me, a transgender woman who had never taken a dance class before. We were an interesting mix to say the least.
“HE TALKED ABOUT HOW INDIVIDUALLY WE ARE ALL UNIQUE AND HOW WE ARE EACH THE STARS IN OUR OWN STORY.”
The class began with Mr. Christopher providing us with some words of wisdom and inspiration. My wife would often tell me stories about such moments with him and I was ecstatic to be a part of it. He talked about how individually we are all unique and how we are each the stars in our own story. All that is left for us to do is write it. He spoke about how there is no such thing as failure, only lessons to be learned. Little did I know at that moment how being there would affect my own story, nor was I aware of the great lesson I was about to learn.
Mr. Christopher would call us to the barre where we would warm up. He was calling out positions I must have heard a million times while watching my wife dance without ever thinking I would need to execute them myself one day. We were doing “piles” and “tendeus”. I did my best to keep up. I was mimicking every movement while my legs and body were doing things I had never done before. Mr. Christopher watched us intently with a stick in his hand. It reminded me of the image of Ballet Master Jules Perrot in a Degas painting.
Next we moved on to combinations as he split us up into small groups. It was all moving lightning fast to me in that moment as I battled against a lifetime of being raised in the wrong gender and the lack of grace that comes with it. The emotions began to get a hold of me as I watched these other women do these steps like it was second nature to them. Even for the girls who had not danced in a while, it was like riding a bike. I was trying to remember each step, as my mind was simultaneously thinking about all the things I missed out on in life because I never experienced being a little girl.
“I WOULD DO MY FIRST PIROUETTE AND SUDDENLY I STARTED TO FEEL LIKE THAT LITTLE GIRL I NEVER GOT TO BE.”
The 1st combination was a Pas de Basque to 4th position pirouette. My internal pity party quickly subsided as I began to get some of the steps. I would do my first pirouette and suddenly I started to feel like that little girl I never got to be. I would glance over my shoulder to see my wife dancing beside me. Something I only dreamed about, but never thought possible. My thoughts were going a million miles an hour at this point. Trying to keep up with the steps, with the thoughts of my childhood, Mr. Christopher’s words and my emotions as they had me spinning, but it didn’t matter. For the first time I felt free of all the things that held me back in life.
Mr. Christopher would round us all up for one last talk before we called it a day. He spoke about Shannon and how we need to honor her by living to the fullest and celebrating her life instead of mourning it. The whole group was so positive. No one judged anyone. We were all together in this experience. I learned that indeed there was no failure. Though by the end of the class some of the routines got a little beyond me, I realized that it was about pushing ourselves as far as we could go at that moment. It was about the experience we were all having together.
“I REALIZED THAT IN MY LIFE, THE STORY WAS JUST BEGINNING.”
I never knew Shannon, nor had I met her before, but here I was celebrating her life. What I can tell you about her is that she had to be someone really special for all of these people to come together and celebrate her life in this way. After the class I thought about Mr. Christopher’s words about how we were the stars of our own story. I realized that in my life, the story was just beginning. I learned that is never too late to write that story and experience all the things you may have missed. Most importantly I learned that though I never met Shannon, she now lives on in my story, as I will always think of her every time I think about my first ballet class.
No matter where you are in your journey, you get to choose where your story goes. No one else gets to choose it for you. Life is precious and it can all go by so quickly. Make sure you live it to the fullest and write the best possible story that you can. After all, you are the star of your story. All that is left is to write it.
If you would like to make a donation for breast cancer research in honor of Shannon, you can do so at First Company Pink.
Stay safe and keep fighting for all of us!
Love and peace,