The Mouse King (or how ballet saved my life)

Originally appeared at Dirt and Seeds, January 27, 2010

You wouldn't have recognized me.

My face was covered in full mouse.
I had flashing red eyes and a gold crown. 

My body was covered in grey fur, with a military coat and sash. My tail was 4 feet long.

And although, as 50 year old warriors go, I was mighty, battle-hardened, and attacked with purpose, I lost every time.

I was the second oldest mouse king in the history of the Chattanooga Ballet.

Hefting the wooden sword through three months of rehearsals and performances finally finished off my rotator cuff.

I'll have surgery soon.

Ballet is a young man's game.

The sword fight scene lasted 90 seconds.

Ballet is hard.

But now I have something in common with Baryshnikov, Martins, and Nuryev.

And with so many who have made grace out of incredibly hard work.

I have performed the Nutcracker with a professional ballet company.

Ballet is hard.

A little over a year ago September, in the midst of a frustrating year without a steady paycheck, and  after a second-life music career filled with one step forward, six miles back, my daughter (who has danced seriously since she could barely walk) told me that the Chattanooga Ballet needed fathers for the "party scene." She told me it was easy, and, to paraphrase, said, "you don't have to know how to dance and you'll get to be in the show with ME, please, oh please." 
I would have to put on a tuxedo and walk around the stage for about 20 minutes. I think of myself as a pretty good dad.

I said, "no."

I took her to her first rehearsal for the party scene. I walked past all of the parents to the door of the studio on my way to whatever it is I was going to do.

I changed my mind. I walked back into the rehearsal studio and saw that my daughter had been hiding a broken heart.

I thought I was a good dad.

I didn't know it at the time but my whole life had just changed. 

Despite a long career in performing as a musician I had never acted or been involved in anything to do with the theater.

I love to watch my daughter dance but I had never cared for the Nutcracker.

To make a long story a little shorter, I grew to love the rehearsals and my time spent at the studio. 

I learned to love the Nutcracker. 

I learned to understand the "why" of the Nutcracker. 

Right after the closing performance of the 2008 Nutcracker I was talking to the woman who taught my daughter's class and was one of the professionals at the company. I was telling her about how moved I'd been by the performances and how I'd never cared for the Nutcracker before but had been so taken with the performance of the dancers in the role of the harlequin during the party scene that I'd had to remind myself to finish the part I was cast to play.

 I casually mentioned that I'd like to try a ballet class if only...

By mid-January, I, a 49 year old, solid, square, physically inflexible, MAN, was taking ballet class at least once a week.

Before you say, "there are many male dancers", there are not many here.

 I was the first man to enroll in the adult class.

I suspect they would have preferred a trailblazer whose long term goals didn't end at trying not to pull a hamstring but everybody was surprisingly kind.

And brutal.

Ballet is hard.

Dancers are completely unromantic about what it takes to float through the air.

If you don't believe me, stand on both tiptoes (demi-pointe), now pick-up your left leg and place your toes on your knee, and stay there, imagining yourself lighter then helium.

You can pick yourself up off of the floor now.

Dancers are completely romantic about what it means to float through the air.

Your second test is to run in place as hard as you can for 90 seconds while breathing only through your nose. 

 Wait, first put on a corset.

Can't breath?


Now do the test.

I'll wait while you dial 911. 

I've lifted weights for hours on end, played 4 games of soccer in one 90 degree summer day (multiple times), been hit in the face, wrestled to the ground, run  a marathon, ridden a three mountain century on a road bike (with the flu), hiked all day, lifted and loaded heavy shit for 12 hours a day, and done interval training with world class athletes.

Ballet is harder.

And it saved my life.

Because as my unemployment became an accepted part of every day.

As the music business vanished and there were fewer places for songs to go before they died.

As I started sleeping less, and caring less, and knowing less.

As I started a new, unfamiliar type of job and for the first time in my life floundered badly.

As I found myself  thinking thoughts not of living but of disappearing.

As I scorned myself for such thoughts when I had so much in my life.

It was ballet class that brought me back.

I'm not very good, even now. In the beginning I was worse but I kept showing up.

For the first two months of class my hips felt broken.

When my hips began to feel better my ankles and feet started to ache.

When my feet stopped aching they started cramping.

I needed something unlikely. 

Damn, it was fun.

I got a little better.

All of sudden, I was the Mouse King.

Maybe they couldn't find anybody else.

It really didn't matter.

I've seen the DVD of one of the performances.

The dancers look like dancers.

The Mouse King looks like a giant rat with a wooden sword.

Everybody cheers when he dies.

If you look carefully on on the DVD you can see the dead mouse king breathing. 

I wrote this song for my friend who is a real dancer. She floats.

I have class tonight. I won't be any good but I'll be there.

Sometimes when everybody thinks you're dead you're just waiting for next year.

Because next year I'll have a new shoulder and I'll be floating, I know it.

And the Mouse King will finally win. 
 Wheels and Wings
 I am carbon, I am steel
I am metal turning round and round
No mortal man knows the way I feel
As the road goes up and the road goes down
I’m cutting through the wind before the wave
I’m a line running right down the middle of the highway
Not looking back for those I couldn’t save
That’s the price of doing things my way
I am wheels
I am wings
I am rising from the ashes
And I know
Everything passes
Because I am wheels
I might be the question that you can’t answer
I’m the opposite of what you want me to be
Sometimes I’m in shackles, sometimes I’m a dancer
Moving too fast for you to see
I am wheels
I am wings
I am rising from the ashes
And I know
Everything passes
Because I am wheels
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2009
From the unreleased album, The Big Old American Dream

This song was used in the short film, "El Camino"  by Sami Khan that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, 2009.

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