December 20, 2014

Living Right

On point: Author Jennifer Reed returned to her first love—dance—as a way to regain her passion.Free Your Creativity

It is a wednesday night after work, and I am wearing a turquoise tutu.

The “hot spots” on my toes are taped and subsequently jammed into pointe shoes, which I am now fiddling with, sprawled out on the studio floor, waiting for rehearsal to resume.

I took my first dance lesson 30-something years ago, a pre-ballet class at the local conservatory where the term ended with “dress-up day.” The teacher presented a rack of sparkling costumes, and our mothers helped us wriggle out of leotards and into perky netted skirts.

Mentally, I guess I never took mine off.

Like so many little girls, I went through the “I want to be a ballerina when I grow up” phase. I lived for dance, hurrying through homework to get to class, sacrificing social time, blowing my babysitting cash on pointe shoes.

Eventually, I realized that professional dance was not in my future. But I knew it never would disappear from my life.

A college degree, a husband, two kids and a couple of jobs later, my after-hours life has changed surprisingly little. Dance is my energy, my renewal, my creativity, my peace. Amid a career in writing and teaching, I manage a second life as dancer, choreographer and founding member of a small dance company at the Lee County Alliance for the Arts.

I am hardly alone in living out my childhood pursuits long after most people pack away their instruments and athletic equipment and, yes, tutus.

Peek into a bar room during a local band’s performance, visit an ice rink, drop by a theater, stop at a ball park, and you are bound to see doctors and teachers and law enforcement officers and small business owners doubling as their childhood selves.

We do it for the joy, the companionship, the rewards of knowing, “Hey, I can still do that!” in spite of careers, raising kids and the inevitable strains of aging.

“Your skates hit the ice, and you hear the swish, swish, swish, and your body is coordinated … you feel like you’re flying. It’s just magical,” says Deborah Simon of Bonita Springs.

Never mind that she is 62 years old and teaches fourth-graders all day; Simon discovers a younger version of herself every time she laces her skates.

Simon skated hard as a girl in upstate New York, gave up competitive skating in high school for academic pursuits and then had been content to skate recreationally when opportunity allowed. But in her 40s, Simon moved to Ithaca, N.Y., and decided the best way to find new friends was to return to the activity she loved. She returned to more formalized training.

“When I get into a skating arena and I smell the smells—the sweaty socks and the hockey players and the rubber mats and the gas from the Zamboni—I don’t know, it smells like home,” she says wistfully.

She did the same when she moved to Lee County several years ago and ended up becoming part of a newly formed adult figure skating team at Germain Arena, the Sunsations.

That camaraderie resonates for many people and keeps them returning to the stage, the rink or, in Tom Giffen’s case, the ballfield.

“We just love this game. We just love the dugout. It’s a special place for people. The rest of the world just goes away,” says Giffen, who splits his time between south Fort Myers and Ohio.

Ballerina LegsThe “we” he refers to is the 9,000-or-so men and women who play Roy Hobbs baseball, one of three adult baseball leagues in the United States. Giffen, a former reporter, editor and publisher, took over the league in 2003, turning his boyhood passion into a sunset career. The league holds its major tournament at Hammond Stadium every year, bringing together thousands of people who bond over their love for the game.

“Winning is gravy,” he says. “Being able to compete. Being able to be on the field. Being a kid again. That’s what this is all about.”

For some of us, childhood pursuits represent an essential part of who we are. To separate from them would be to separate from some part of ourselves.

“Your kids grow up and leave. You have to have your own thing,” says Laura Needle of Naples.

She is an at-home mother raising and educating three boys, ages six, eight and 11. In the evenings, though, she hands off household duties to her husband, Scott, and escapes to her world—the stage.

“(Parenting full time) makes the theater necessary,” says Needle, a member of The Naples Players. “That’s the break. If I didn’t have that, there wouldn’t be much left of me.”

As a child, Needle performed regularly in a children’s theater company in her native Maryland and toured internationally with a Soviet-American collaboration. As a young adult, she toured with the show Evita and worked in several dinner theaters.

But a full-time theater career wasn’t for her.

“How can you do it and have three kids, two dogs, a rabbit and two guinea pigs? You can’t,” she says.

Nor could she give it up. Community theater offers a nice niche.

“It’s a way to be someone I would never be or someone I might be but don’t have a chance to be,” she says of her many and varied on-stage roles.

Not everyone, of course, clings to a childhood passion. Some discover new pursuits later in life. Mike Kiniry of Fort Myers was 27 when an acquaintance gave him an old 35-millimeter camera. Kiniry started shooting. He loved it.

Kiniry is best known as the host of WGCU radio’s “Gulf Coast Live” talk show. Now 39, he has left the station to pursue his love of photography and art.

“All those years I was in radio, I was chipping away at ideas in the visual arts,” he says. “What this is about is me trying to be who I am and say how I feel.”

To succeed in adulthood offers a fulfillment quite unlike that we experienced during childhood. When we’re young, we’re expected to strive to become the next hot artist, the wunderkind actor, the star athlete. When we’re older, we can surprise ourselves and others by our feats.

“There’s this good feeling that comes to you in that you are still able to do this and you can still win at it, and you can still do it well,” says Simon, the figure skater. “I’m doing things that people two-thirds my age are doing.”

“Celebrate the fact that you can still play,” Giffen says. “That’s what this is
all about.”

It’s not always easy. My dance “career” at times is as demanding as my real job, and I watch various parts of my life unravel as I prepare for performances.

But I can’t leave. I can’t even bring myself to scale back. There’s too much joy in a grande jeté, too much of a bond between myself and my fellow dancers, too much of a thrill in the audience’s applause. So here I am, dancing. Just like I did when I was a little kid. For that I am grateful.