1. to weary by dullness, tedious repetition, unwelcome attentions, etc.;
2. To move forward slowly and persistently, as a hole-boring tool does;
3. To carry or support (past tense);
4. To be called by (past tense).
Tao (noun): (in Chinese philosophy) the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behavior, that is in harmony with the natural order.
My left foot is several millimeters longer than my right foot. For fifteen years I lived without this knowledge, treating my feet with equal neutrality, until the day I sat before an enviably thin French woman in Princeton, New Jersey. She took one look at my feet and shook her head with terse disapproval. “Slender, your feet, but so long. We will have to try and see what can be done.”
Twenty minutes later, surrounded by a fury of tissue paper and protective drawstring plastic bags, I had, ugly-stepsister style, wedged my right foot into a pointe shoe, its sickly pink satin skin belying the tortuous wooden vice within in. The process involved an expected and acceptable amount of pain. Foot number two, however, would not have it. Though I managed to wedge my metatarsals into the toe box, stretching the elasticized heel over my own was like grafting a baby’s taut skin onto an eighty-year-old’s flab; had I actually been an ugly stepsister, Hans Christian Anderson would have delivered a swift amputation to my pointe-shoe fairy tale. Still, I persisted, and once both feet were shod I looked down at them with a prideful grimace. My long appendages had been stripped of their identifying curves, the arches I would one day learn as a yogi tell a long and interesting story about my body and how it feels. On the outside, right was indistinguishable from left, but inside the message couldn’t have been clearer: I had a structural asymmetry that made me, or at least half of me, unfit for ballet.
I walked out of the Capezio store that day with my first and only pair of pointe shoes, determined to prove my own body wrong and master the art I had loved since I could walk. I was a dancer before I knew what that was—entranced by the yearly showing of The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, and torturing my parents with twenty-minute-long improv routines to the soundtrack of Mariah Carey’s Dream Lover on the shabby gray carpet I turned into a stage in our basement.
My formal dance lessons started when I was eight, but I didn’t take up ballet thirteen, practically retirement age in the dance world. Realistic to a fault even then, I had no real aspirations of working en pointe. I was a big girl—a gargantuan 5’8”, encased in enough of the remnants of my childhood pudge that my thighs touched, and my tights pinched my torso into unflattering lumps. My devotion to the craft overrode my poor body image, which hadn’t yet reached its lowest point, and I decided to add ballet to my schedule of extra-curricular dance classes—as if I had time for another hour and a half a week away from my school books. After just two short years, my discipline paid off, and I was given the blessing by my teacher, another enviably thin French woman, to get fitted for the shoes whose notorious masochism I so coveted.
Knowing I was already at a disadvantage physically, I hoped that my brain could make for the shortcomings of my body. Having studied French for several years, I knew what the guttural names of the steps meant, which gave me a leg-up in their execution: Pas de chat, I proudly explained to my class, meant “step of the cat”; foutée turns were named after their whip-like extension of the leg en l’air (in the air), and could be mastered once with a basic understanding of torque (the only thing I took away from high school physics). And bourrées, ah bourrées, those were, of course, the drills. The tight chain of twinkle-toe steps en relevé mimicked a drill’s penetration into the ground, slow and deliberate and perfect. The test of a skilled ballet dancer is how effortless the bourrées can look and sound. Bourrées don’t lie. You stay on your toes for the length of the whole stage or more, the whole of your body weight resting on no more than six square inches, inches that are wrapped in the slipperiest fabric man can make. To the audience’s eye, nothing moves, except perhaps the arms in a graceful sway. To the dancer, the feeling is one of a duck (or swan) swimming—furious effort hidden under a smooth veneer of near-floating movement.
And so bourrées became the step that we ran like a military drill across the floor, right to left and left to right, then again, then again, then again, until our ankles gave way and our arches cramped. We bouréed with the belief that the more we did this asinine step, revered for its complete poverty of flair, the more beautiful we’d become. The tiny groove we carved into the floor was our path to beauty.
My mother was not happy when a similar track showed up on her parquet floors. The strip of hallway between my bedroom and the kitchen was the perfect place for me to bourrée for hours—on weekends, before class as a warmup, after class as a punishment.
“What the hell are you doing to my floors?” she’d call out whenever she heard the ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti of my shoes down the hall. “Aren’t you done with that already?” She never complained about me murmuring the definitions of SAT vocabulary or calculus equations, huddled like a crazy person in the corner of the basement where I did my homework, the carpet-stage having been abandoned long ago; she never complained about the piano scales I played over and over, fulfilling her dream of having a house that echoed with classical music like a hotel lobby. But dance, that to her was an unnecessary distraction. A financial hardship and waste of time. And, as she saw me bouréeing day in and day out, something that didn’t even seem fun.
A few months after my classmates and I started our pointe work, several of them had had enough. Our feet had blistered until they calloused, our toes had been stained purple with broken blood vessels, our nails dangled precariously by treads of delicate skin that I didn’t care to know existed. The bourées had gotten the best of them; their never-ending repetition not yielding the expected payoff. But not for me. I never expected to be so called to boredom, that it could arouse such pain—and joy. And like the addict of precision, and of the empty hole on the other side of boring, I’d eventually become when that need to conquer my body consumed me shortly afterward, I loved every minute of it.
I taped up, laced up, and bore down. I told myself that the weaknesses of my body were a sign I was on the right path. That the deeper, and more blood-filled, that groove across the floor became, the better I’d be. I bouréed because I had to.
Though my ballet days did not continue past high school, boredom has remained a steady, unrelenting companion. I’ve tried to kill it with to-do lists that, in the end, fostered their own kind of boredom known as “work.” I’ve tried to transform it into a practice of forgiveness and compassion, executing sun salutations and vinyasas on my yoga mat to the metronome of my breath as I carved new pathways into my tissues. I’ve tried to witness it without judgment through meditation, watching my boredom riding the wave of my breath, inviting it to thought-parties in my mind, giving it a shape and a color and a story that is not mine, letting it dissipate into nothingness that is not destructive but liberating.
The more I get to know my boredom, its style and smell and warning signs, the more I see it not as a ruthless drill sergeant but as a motivating friend. When I bore not to make a hole within myself, but to challenge its party-date, anxiety, I no longer feel the need to wedge myself into the boxes I (or my toes) have assumed I belong in. Unchecked, the boredom of my bourées told a story of my brokenness, unworthiness, and impossible perfection. The ending of that story was broken toenails and permanent callouses, breath that was trapped in my chest, and a body that nearly faded away in the grip of anorexia.
The boredom of my mindfulness practices tells another story. My tao is still to go down, to drill deeper, but is not limited to a single, straight line across a stage or a costumed display of held-breath effortlessness. Instead, my boredom lets me dance on the whole stage, full-bodied and with both feet, long and uneven and beautiful.