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Patrizia Chen Headshot

Wishing For Limber Limbs

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When I was about five, we lived for less than one year in a Navy compound in Sicily. One day I found myself assembled, with many other little girls, in the immense Circolo Ufficiali, the Officer's Club. I was brought up in Tuscany by my grandparents in a tight-knit family environment, so community life was a first for me and my excitement for such a special event hard to contain.

Dressed in something fabulously gauzy, a young ballerina demonstrated plies and tendues, frappes and grands battements, rond de jambes and fondues. The piano accompanied her fairytale moves in the middle of the room and I sat on the edge of my seat, my entire body leaning toward the magic that was taking place. To this day that spring morning remains an indelible memory.

"I'm sorry, we can't afford it." My mother's eyes tear up when she remembers having to say no to her wide-eyed, eager daughter. "Mamma!" I pleaded in vain.

From that moment on I coveted all that reminded me of that Sicilian morning. Carillon boxes with their tiny ballerinas spinning around to the metallic sound of a Chopin waltz became instant objects of desire, and I dreamt of being center stage, executing the most elegant and complicated steps.
Thank God cooking came early into my life and made me forget about twirls and pirouettes. Instead of spotting and turning, lifting and pointing, I plucked chicken and scaled fish, baked numberless cakes and cheerfully witnessed octopuses beaten to death on some Tuscan beaches.

But more about food another time. Today the real question in my mind is this: would early ballet have improved my elasticity? Because I have to admit it, I'm a total disaster when it comes to my euphemistically called range of motion, a requisite for dancing.

"Open your legs wide and bend, touching the floor with your elbows..." Seated on the floor, I stare at the instructor. I hate her and all those women around me who, within seconds, align their breasts between their legs and rest them on the linoleum. Their sighs of contentment are like a knife plunging straight into my heart. I'm stuck there, hovering two and a half feet above my knees, looking like an insane stork while I try to do my best to stretch. If I had wings they'd be struggling too.

"Touch your toes with your left hand and, while bending, stretch the right arm up," she continues. Every one of her word feels like a personal insult: doesn't she understand that I can't?

In yoga classes -- another must if I ever want to move fluidly -- I don't need one block, I need three. Or more. Every time I'm asked to repeat the unbearable Utthita Parsvalonasana, I can only think of "Lego." Longingly. Wouldn't it be easier if I could build a mini Lego skyscraper ready to support my unlimber limbs? My most pined-for position in yoga is Shavasana, lying down covered with three blankets.
I must admit that I have come a long way since those early beginnings when I had to suffer for hours next to my friend Yana, whose Olympic body can contort like a pretzel. Yoga anyone? Halloo? Out-of-worldly peace of mind? You-can-do-it kind of spiritual stuff? With every new position frustration grew like a baobab tree inside my stomach.

Since I inherited my parents' good looks, and a face and a body that allowed me to model in my 20s, I can't certainly spit on my plate. Trust me, at the cost of being blasphemous, I have my own cross to bear, as I would have loved nothing more than conquer beautiful dancing in its entirety, but no fairy godmother endowed me at birth with limber limbs. What happened to her magic wand? Why didn't it quiver for me? My legs are a solid block of concrete when it comes to flexibility.

Later on in life I would end up closing the circle, coming back to the very first wishes of a five-year-old. What would I give today in order to be able, during a tango performance, to kick the scruff of my neck with my right foot, while gingerly pivoting on my left one? Or to swing my legs like Tarzan on a liana around my partner's waist?

At the tender age of 56, hoping to improve my skills, I began ballet training. Only days into my first class, Dan Michael, my teacher, brought me a book intended to cheer me up and show me -- as if I were a child -- that there was so much fun in the process. Unfortunately that little volume showed balletic steps performed by...toads in tutus. Now, whenever I'm exercising, I quickly erase those images from my brain, as they tend to blend too much with what I see in the mirror.

"Releve, passe, stretch your leg, up!" Yeah, sure. I have to bring both my hands down to my thigh, forgetting all about posture, in order to grab my leg and lurch it up to the bar. And that's nothing. My real problem arises when, once comfortably resting on the lowest rod, I'm instructed to bend -- gracefully, of course -- and touch my toes with my forehead. Why not my knees or even -- I'm so intrepid -- my shins?
And so I bravely continue to try...

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