I’ve been reading poetry for as long as I’ve been reading. Blame my mother—who else would read her kids Tagore and Shelley as a bedtime story? But I didn’t really fall in love with poetry until I was 10. In fifth grade the words, their pictures, their cadence rose up and overwhelmed me. Mrs. Siebold knew how to read poetry, and she read us Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”. The words start at a trot, then work up to a canter, and by the last verse they come at a pounding gallop. Read correctly, the words of the poem ring in rhythm with the hooves of Revere’s horse. So, in both singing and dancing, poetry became part of my love for music. And then it was music. And then it wasn’t, because music was poetry. And then everything—sun and sine and stars and spin and silk—was poetry. We read ee cummings in the seventh grade. The Dominican nuns who ran the school were certainly not going to teach us his erotic poetry; we read “Buffalo Bill’s” and “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, and even in these relatively tame works I was fascinated by the twinned passion and parsimony of cumming’s words, the shocking frameshifts of adjectives and nouns, the processes of heart and mind rendered into bodily sensation by this man who parsed his reality into words so precisely that he refused to capitalize any word that wasn’t of supreme importance. I didn’t know why I loved it so at the time, of course. But I looked for his poetry in the library and realized that for this man, too, everything was poetry: sun moon stars rain. All of cumming’s poetry is worth reading, but his special gift was for lovers’ talk. He didn’t just write love poems; he wrote monologues from, conversations between, lovers. Whether erotic or plaintive or fierce, his love poems have the feel of a tender, brushing touch, of words meant to be spoken against skin. Only a few poets have ever accomplished that, and among them ee cummings is the best. The poem below is—as you may have guessed—one of his love poems. And in spite of my attempts to explain my delight in his poetry, that latter denomination is the only true praise I can give it. In the end, any words of mine are inadequate to capture his.
if i have made, my lady, intricate
if i have made, my lady, intricate imperfect various things chiefly which wrong your eyes (frailer than most deep dreams are frail) songs less firm than your body's whitest song upon my mind - if i have failed to snare the glance too shy - if through my singing slips the very skillful strangeness of your smile the keen primeval silence of your hair
—let the world say "his most wise music stole nothing from death"— you will only create (who are so perfectly alive) my shame: lady through whose profound and fragile lips the sweet small clumsy feet of April came
I’ve just come to an understanding of why I’m so contemptuous of the use of fashion models as patterns for attractiveness.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually have a great deal of respect for models themselves. I’ve known people who model part-time, and even as a part-time occupation it requires, in addition to good genetics, enormous discipline and hard work. Professional models work even harder—like professional actors, harder and longer and with more precision than the average person can imagine. The top models in the world, by the time they’ve reached the top slots, earn, if not every penny of their exorbitant salaries, then every bit of the aesthetic admiration and awed appreciation that they get.
But as far as attractiveness goes—sheer oh-my-god-would-you-look-at-thatness— I’ve literally never, since the time I was a toddler and even before I had Barbie dolls on which to operate, thought that fashion models were where ideal physical attractiveness lay. Why?
Because I grew up watching the Olympics—and ballet.
And when I say “grew up”, I mean that, at age two, during a childhood in which I was permitted one hour of television a day (which usually consisted of Sesame Street and/or The Electric Company), my mother had the sense to make some very important exceptions to the one-hour rule.
So the first athlete I remember seeing is Nadia Comăneci.
Comăneci, who moved with the kind of grace and power and balance and calculated perfection one expects from a climbing leopard or a stooping hawk, not a human being. Comăneci, who at 14 became the first gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect 10 for Olympic gymnastics. It was a score so unexpected that the boards displayed a 1.00 because they were not set up to display a 10. The roar after her uneven-bar routine finish was so loud that I remember thinking, in my two-year-old head, that it sounded like fireworks.
Then she got on the balance beam and did it again—but better.
I was, of course, incapable of rendering such logic at two. I only knew that I had never seen a person move like that and that it fascinated me. Why would I want to look at people who just stood on a page or wandered around in TV commercials when there were people around who could do that?
My definition of that was then refined further by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The next year—1977—I watched as Baryshnikov and Kirkland rewrote The Nutcracker… and ballet history. Primed by Comăneci’s performance, I was far more fascinated by Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker Prince—the same explosive power as a gymnast, but with even more grace and control—than by Kirkland’s dreamlike fragility, her ineffably fluid Clara. He moved like nothing my three-year-old eyes had ever seen.
That performance of The Nutcracker remains the most famous of all time, not least because by the time Baryshnikov rewrote the main characters he was already a legend in the world of ballet. In that world there are “technical” dancers—dancers with the power to perform movements that push the limits of the human body, and to do so with consistent perfection—and “artistic” dancers, dancers whose movements are so effortless, so exquisitely expressive that they pull at one’s emotions as well as one’s mind. Baryshnikov is one of the first dancers in history to completely combine those two aspects of ballet.
He is 5 foot 7, which was—until Baryshnikov—considered too short for a classical danseur. He was from Riga, Latvia, and when at 16 he joined the VaganovaSchool in St. Petersburghe was considered something of a hick by his more sophisticated urbanite classmates. His mother committed suicide while he was a teenager, and his Stalinist father forced him to dance the day after her funeral. He debuted at the Kirov at 19, late for a dancer.
And he is, with Nureyev, Nijinsky, Plisetskaya and Fonteyn, considered to be one of the five greatest ballet dancers of all time (and “all time”, in this case, goes back more than 500 years).
We moved in the summer of 1980, and I missed the Olympics that year. By the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around I was ten, and had been studying ballet, tap, jazz, and gymnastics for more than four years. Partly because of those studies, my aesthetics were by then firmly in place; when clips of Comăneci rolled as a prelude to the gymnastics telecasts, I fully understood for the first time what I was seeing. Understood, and was dumbfounded.
But still unprepared for Mary Lou Retton.
I knew who she was, of course. Anyone who took gymnastics knew. But I had never, in the days when YouTube was just a glint in Nostradamus’ eye, seen her compete. By the time she was done, Baryshnikov had a new rival for the word “power” in my mind.
Retton scored two perfect tens that year- for floor exercises, and for vault. I don’t even remember her floor exercises (I was jaded because of my love for dance), but I remember- will always remember- her vault.
Retton is tiny. At 4 foot 9, she was smaller than the other gymnasts—in a sport in which the average sizes of competitors shrank every year until 1992, she was the same height as Strug, who followed her by more than a decade. But I remember not breathing from the second she started her vault run. It was like watching a stick of dynamite: small and innocuous, pretty and sparkling—and then sudden, explosive strength followed by a soaring perfection of form that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
My father had thrown a party that night: adults standing around in dressy clothes looking over each others’ shoulders, pretending to eat expensive hors d’oeuvres, protectively clutching their alcohol—languid and self-important and unspeakably boring. I thought my brother and I were the only ones watching the TV. But at the end of Retton’s vault I couldn’t even hear the TV, though everyone on it was screaming. The living room and den were in an uproar, and only the fact that I could crawl through the legs of the adults (much to my mother’s chagrin) kept me in view of the screen.
The station replayed it over and over and over, and I watched it over and over and over, till long past my bedtime.
These are the humans I grew up seeing as the pinnacle of physical perfection. These are the bodies I grew up admiring, studying, attempting to imitate. Nothing in my later experience changed that—Comăneci, Baryshnikov and Retton were the first in a long line of artists from whose bodies, whose movement, I could not tear my eyes.
Maya Plisetskaya, the red-haired enchantress whose mythical, inhuman grace and immaculate form overcame at last even the Russians’ anti-Semitism to power four decades of French, Russian, and American ballet.
Greg Louganis, who made me believe that humans could, if only for a short moment, match the joyous, supple perfection of a dolphin’s leap.
Carl Lewis, whose choppy prerun pacing morphed at the starting pistol to a fierce, elegant power that changed, over and over and forever, what human beings think of as a perfect run.
Fu Minxia, the river-trained sylph whose flower-fair face and quiet containment belied the relentlessly hard, knifelike precision of her diving form.
Kieren Perkins, whose lithe, effortless stroke pushed him so far ahead of his competition that the poolside shots of his races show only him.
Oksana Baiul, whose pliant, willowy frame combined with an unmatched purity of movement to produce a prima ballerina in guise of a figure skater, a black swan and flamenco dancer of stunning beauty.
Haile Gebrselassie, he of tiny body and unhurried pace, who 100m from the finish line of a marathon invariably shifted into a blazing, predatory lope that left both spectators and competition breathless with shock.
And Florence Griffith-Joyner, Flo-Jo, winsome and tragic, whose lovely face and long, unbound hair melted in her run into a shining thoroughbred gallop, mane bannering, each foot striking further apart until she nearly flew, imprinting in my mind the most glorious image of a sprint I have ever seen.
These were my models.
I studied dance till I was 15, and was a dancer long past that. I hit my stride as far as pulchritude goes around 16, but I never measured it by weight. By size, yes—by how I looked in a leotard, or in the clothes I liked. But most of all, I measured my own attractiveness by what I could do—on the dance floor, in a swimming pool, climbing trees or rocks or mountains. By how I could move. By how well my body did what I asked it to do, what I loved to do.
I’ve been thinking about human aesthetics a lot in the last year, and attempting to figure out why mine don’t match those of the majority of the people around me. In grade school, I didn’t think about it much. In high school, I thought it was because my body was different than most of the girls around me. (It isn’t; my body is an hourglass, rarer than some other types, but on a larger scale than high school it’s by no means the exception.) In college, I thought it was because I’m a feminist. (It isn’t; traditional ideas of female attractiveness don’t trouble me. They’re based on proportions, not measurements—proportions springing from evolutionary biology and unvarying through fashion trends, Monroes and waifs alike.)
No, it’s because I grew up with the aesthetics of movement. I love what the body can do, and so basing my assessment on what it looks like captures less than half of the equation. Your photograph may be pretty, may even be beautiful (though for me the latter assessment is rare). The way you wear your clothes may be very pleasing to the eye. But the question of attractiveness won’t enter the picture until I’ve seen how you move.
I love the human body. I admire fashion models both in terms of how they look—I consider haute couture an art form, and love the perfection with which models display it—and for their drive and work ethic. But my ideal, my model in the literal sense—in the sense of being a pattern of perfection one attempts to imitate—has always been functional. And the current ideas of beauty distress me not because I can’t match them—the only ones I could ever have matched died with Marilyn Monroe—but because they’re based on immobility.
Ballet dancers and gymnasts are tiny, it’s true, but there is a sense of power in their frames, even while at rest. Their hipbones jut, but their thighs are heavily muscled; their ribs show, but you can see their triceps and lats; they’re underweight, but they can move fast and hard and fluidly. They look good in clothes, but they can also do something, something more than standard cardio or weight exercises.
The most attractive people to me aren’t the ones who fit a size. They’re the ones who use their bodies for something more than how they look, and do it well. My models.
[I have included only videos in which the salient performances are front-loaded.]
Comăneci’s 1976 Olympic Uneven Bars Final:
Comăneci’s 1976 Olympic Balance Beam Final:
Baryshnikov dances Le Corsaire and “The Turning Point” of Don Quixote:
Retton’s 1984 Olympic Vault Final:
Plisetskaya dances Death of the Rose:
Louganis’ 1984 Olympic 10-Meter Final:
Baiul’s 1994 Olympic Short Program:
Minxia’s 2000 Olympic 3-Meter Springboard Final (1992-96 Finals not available):