Tales of the Trails – Mt. Whitney Edition Pt. 1

I know I shared this story in my previous series, so forgive me if you have already read this. Since this is a new series, I feel the need to share it again because it ties in so well with this tale from Mt. Whitney.

When I was in my late teens, I was an active figure skater and even competed in a local championship in Houston, where I placed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in three categories. After the championship, I wanted to embark on a new quest, so I decided to take up ballet.

I had just graduated from high school and got a part-time job at a local department store. I worked two evenings out of the week, so I wanted to find a beginning adult ballet class that would fit around that schedule.  I discovered Act One Conservatory of Dance and, although they offered a beginning class, it wasn’t on the nights that I could attend.  The only class available was the advanced Company Ballet class, a class designed for professional-level ballet dancers.

The owner of the company, Mary Niles Warren, a retired principal dancer of the world-renowned Houston Ballet, said that she’d only had two beginners start in that class and they both quit.  She allowed me to come to class one evening and observe.  When asked if I was up for the challenge, I said yes.

So I started attending this class twice a week.  Though much smaller than I am now, I was the largest dancer in the class, plus, I was top-heavy, which made the training slightly more difficult.  Initially, I had no idea what any of the five basic positions were, let alone a simple plie.  But I listened and took notes on everything Mrs. Warren taught.  Eventually, I became stronger, and soon I was able to dance in the lead position at the bar during rehearsals.  I was also cast as a Swan Maiden in the Company’s production of Swan Lake.

It didn’t faze me that I was attempting something that could potentially defeat me.  Actually, the thought of failure didn’t even cross my mind.  I embraced every day, one step at a time.  Each time at the bar in front of the mirror was a new opportunity to shine.  I didn’t see myself as inferior to the other dancers, even though many of them could lift their legs high above their heads, do the splits, and extend their limbs further than I could even imagine. I knew I had a place in that class and in that company.

In a rehearsal for Swan Lake, one of the principal dancers was absent.  When it came time to rehearse the Pas De Quartre, there were only three dancers present for the number when there should have been four.  Because I had watched the routine so many times–even practiced it at home when my parents weren’t around–I knew the number and offered to stand in for the missing dancer.  Surprised that I even asked, Mrs. Warren allowed it.

At the end of the number, Mrs. Warren jumped up and shouted, “Wow, Joyce!”  She was amazed and excited, as were the other dancers.  The beauty of Act One was that there was never a spirit of competition amongst the dancers.  We were all very supportive and encouraging of one another.  That I came in with no ballet experience, whatsoever, and then stepped up to the plate for this crucial dance routine was an encouragement to the other dancers to push themselves and work harder.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be performing the Pas De Quartre in the production of Swan Lake, no matter how well I did during the rehearsal.  The part had already been cast and I was just filling in during an apparent emergency.  However, I still approached the work with precision and grace and I owned that moment in the spotlight as if the role were mine.

My first trip to Mt. Whitney on August 21, 2011 turned out to be one such “rehearsal.”  My intent, of course, was to reach the summit that day.  I had trained and conditioned myself for months, read books and performed Internet research on the hike and brought along everything I thought I needed for a successful climb.  I even began the hike two-and-a-half hours ahead of the group, so that I wouldn’t be so far behind.  However, I didn’t reach the summit that day because of several factors, which turned out to be a good thing, because if I had tried to push for the summit on that particular day, I quite possibly could have died.

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