With Unveiled Face

The 2014 Olympics are nearly upon us, and the upcoming Winter games have me wandering back into old half-forgotten memories and the lasting impacts they have left on me.

The most memorable of these was Alexei Yagudin.

Despite the love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with dance that I had developed by the age of 15, my long-standing fascination with figure skating never wavered. After 6 years of rigid ballet training, I no longer loved dance. I was too tall, too gangly, too big, and cursed with legs too long to achieve the glorious lines of the other girls in my class. Telling me not to compare myself with other girls was useless. All I had to do was look over at the girl next to me with perfect technique and her foot up by her ear, while I wobbled and struggled to hold my leg up at barely 90 degrees, and I knew that I would never be a ballerina. I would never be the best, so what was the point?

I was ever increasingly resentful of all the people who loved my “church presentations”, oozed over how “anointed” I was, encouraged me always to “glorify God with the dance”, and assumed I would grow up to be a “dancer” because I “had this God-given gift” and if I didn’t use my “talent” of dance, etc. etc…. That alone probably ruined ballet for me. That and the nightmare church-approved dance outfits from hell. This was pre-liturgical dancewear era before “worship dance” was really even a “thing”. Floor length skirts, wrist length sleeves, chokingly high almost-Victorian necklines, generous billows of fabric everywhere. Back then I had to wear three separate layers of heavy modesty clothing under these outfits, and I felt about as graceful as a fluffy pillow. But enough of that because it’s not like I’m bitter or ranting or anything… (insert awkward pause here)

Anyway. Resentful as I might have been, I couldn’t stop moving either. My mind made irresistable demands of my body far beyond my physical abilities. Leaps, pirouettes, attitudes, and arabesques danced before my eyes, while my feet flopped and clomped at the end of my wooden legs pitifully like a marrionette’s. And so I spiraled into a downward cycle of self-judgement and depression. By the time I was 15, I was miserable. I hated dance. And I hated myself for hating it and even more so for being unable to stop.

And then this happened:

Tall, blond, and oh! that Russian accent! I was done for. But height and good-looks were nothing compared to the way he skated. He wasn’t just skating a piece called “Winter”; he was Winter with every gesture, with every breath. I never knew he was about to jump until he was already in the air. Night after night I stayed up long after my parents had gone to bed, replaying the VHS recording of Alexei Yagudin’s programs, searching desperately for words to describe the indescribable. What was it that had me spellbound and made me watch again and again and again? 

In those days, I didn’t feel a thing. I was almost entirely devoid of emotion, never happy or sad, angry or nervous. I never got stage fright. I described myself earlier as miserable, but at the time I didn’t know that I was. I was empty and numb. Alexei Yagudin had something that I lacked, and I didn’t know what it was.

But I wanted it like I had never wanted anything before.

All I could conclude was that he loved what he did. And I didn’t. He had passion. And I didn’t.

I wanted to be like him. I wanted that passion and inner fire with which he skated. I hungered for it from the bottom of my empty, frozen soul. My shell of a heart recognized instinctively what it lacked, and craved it insatiably thereafter. 

It didn’t escape my notice when the commentator said emphatically, “He [Yagudin] changed the way he ate. He changed the way he trained. He changed the way he thinks. He said, ‘I had to be doing something wrong’.” And I wondered just how much Alexei Yagudin had given up to achieve this kind of result. How much pain did a person have to endure to burn with this kind of fire? And was I willing to go through it myself to get there? No way. I had too much pain as it was. What person in their right mind would be such a glutton for punishment? The thought of enduring any at all was unbearable. 

But I wanted that drive, that motivation.

I used to recite to myself over and over:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties…..

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise…..
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”

–exerpts from “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I understood that, all right! It described my existence perfectly. My only defense was to wear a mask, or try my best. Sometimes I think I succeeded too well. Oh, it’s not like I didn’t crack sometimes, but the very few people I confided in or went to for help seemed confused. Why would such a good Christian girl from such a good Christian home have such overdeveloped feeling of guilt and anger? Simple. My parents wore masks too. And I was the only one who knew, because when good Christian people have problems at home, it’s not okay to tell the truth. So we lied and played a holy masquerade.

And yet…

He was the Man in the Iron Mask. He was a prisoner who throws off the mask and overcomes. Could such a thing even be possible? The only thing holding me together was the mask I wore, and I didn’t even realize I had one. But this introduced me to a new idea: the idea of living my life “with unveiled face”.

To this day the gesture of throwing off the mask conjures a sob too thick to be uttered through my throat. It sticks in my chest and makes my eyes water. Perhaps because I understand now that it requires a lot of courage not to hide behind a mask. You become vulnerable, and, beautiful as that might be, vulnerability has never been high on my life’s shopping list.

Alexei was the very last to skate in the final competition. I was wound tight as a drum, every muscle tense as though I could keep him from any wobble, any fall, any mistake through sheer willpower. But there was no need. He was perfect. No one else had artistry like he did. I believed he was a dancer, not an athlete. He took a sport and made it art. When those four 6.0′s came up and it was clear he had won gold, Mom and I shrieked and cheered enthusiastically — much to Dad’s bewilderment — and ate our celebratory 3 Musketeers Bars in an event of completely unplanned solidarity.

Both of these programs still take my breath away. It’s hard to describe how I feel watching them now. I still have that same awe, that same wonder, that same thought of “I want what he’s got” as I did at 15. But I’m no longer an emotionally vacant troubled teen, desperate to feel anything, but as someone who has decided that there is no ecstasy without agony, no gain without loss, and that we would never be victorious if there were nothing to overcome. If hardship or sacrifice is the price of passion, I have come to believe it is worth it.  I am learning not to hide behind a mask.

It’s been 12 years and Alexei Yagudin is still my biggest inspiration.  For years I have traced The Beginning back to this point in February 2002. The year Alexei Yagudin won gold. The year I met Kabardinka. The year I started learning Russian. The year I first went to Ukraine and discovered my roots. The year my life began.

But I am no longer sure.

As a young child I would put on the slickest socks I could find and attempt to slide across our yellowed kitchen floor. My parents worried whenever they caught me, especially Mom. I think she was afraid I would fall and hit my head. But she needn’t have worried. It was just after my first Olympics, 1994. And in my mind I wasn’t sliding perilously across old, buckled linoleum. I was gliding beautifully across ice. Just  me, the movement, and the whistle of wind in my ears. I was lighter than air, graceful as a swan on a lake.

Oksana Bayul became a legend in our house, and the fact that she was Ukrainian was always mentioned. Not that we knew anything about Ukraine at that time. It was just so unusual that it had to be noted, a coincidence that we would later look back on with much more admiration and devotion. For unbeknownst to Mom and I in 1994, three generations of our ancestors had lived, labored, and loved on rich, black Ukrainian soil before their exodus to the New World in search of peace and farmland. Oksana Bayul from Ukraine – I was raised to revere her ethereal grace and beauty, so like a ballerina’s, and though the white swan is my mother’s favorite, this pink outfit is the one I remember best.

It is really strange to look back and realize that it has been 20 years since Oxana Bayul’s 1994 Olympic victory, that at the time Ukraine had only been independent for 3 years. That I was 7 and in my mind Ukraine existed only in connection with the young figure skater who I imitated every time I stepped onto my imaginary ice. (Even into my teenage years, it wasn’t just a kitchen floor; it was an ice rink, and I was lost in the movement.) I slipped and skidded across that bumpy kitchen floor, like a fledgling bird dreaming of great blue heavens. There was no good or bad, no concept of a right way, a wrong way, or technique. I was a little bird who flew.

Perhaps that was the true Beginning of my life.

For two years this fascination with movement continued, until at 9 years of age Mom finally enrolled me, not in ice skating classes, but in ballet. Thank God. I was not cut out to be a figure skater. Swollen, busted knees and ice packs were not worth skimming over ice. Give me a kitchen floor any day.

I have finally come to the conclusion that it was never specifically “dance” that I loved, but being in motion. I love to move. Play music and I am physically unable to sit still. And looking back, I can see that I never really stopped moving; I just stopped thinking of it as “dance”. And every new experience has helped me unlearn my bad associations with dance and made me a little less broken.

It has been a long and difficult road since I used to search for answers in Alexei’s Olympic programs. I have wandered from discouraging attempts at ballet (because it was the only language of movement I knew), to folk dance, to Taekwondo, to yoga, and finally to a “real Ukrainian wedding” (where I learned the true secret of the willowy Ukrainian physique — strong vodka and non-stop dancing).

From folk dance I learned that dance depends upon your perception of the steps. Taekwondo taught me focus and that “there’s a dragon in me somewhere”. Yoga taught me patience and persistence and showed me that not all movement is dance, giving me the space to rediscover the love on movement I had lost. And the real Ukrainian wedding taught me that the important thing is not how you move, but that you just do it. (Because apparently if you’re not dancing, you’re not having enough fun!)

And now here I am, back at the basics in a friend’s adult beginner ballet class. Only this time something has changed. Suddenly I realize my feet are moving of their own accord, neglecting to inform my mind before it can start judging every little imagined flaw. Yoga taught me the importance of a calm and quiet mind. And though sometimes my mind still wants more than my body can do, I just smile to myself and say, “Later.” This would never be possible if I had not spent time in yoga.

I bend my knees, I point my feet, I fight for every millimeter of height in a developpe because I choose to. Because I know I have a choice. Tomorrow I may do yoga or taekwondo or attempt a new style or go to folk dance, but today I do ballet. Today it is enough to be lost in the movement like I am once again 7 years old and the kitchen linoleum is my ice.

I feel like a bird who is relearning how to fly. 

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 2:18

Things I like:

Read a recent interview with Alexei Yagudin!

Watch gorgeous prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova.

Listen to one of my favorite songs “God is a Dancer” by Benjamin del Shreve.

For a list of some figure skaters to watch in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, go here!

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2 responses to “With Unveiled Face

  1. Oh, my dear daughter……you made me smile, made me laugh (I had forgotten about the Three Musketeers bar!), and made me weep….again. But it is the WAY that you tell it….you do have a gift. Thank you for loving me…with and without…..the mask. Thank you for having the courage to take yours off to share your heart and touch the hearts of others. I’ll always be your biggest fan and supporter. Love, Mom

  2. This was lovely to read, Sarah! I agree with your Mom, you do have a gift! So much there within to share with us for Him. Thank you!

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