Let Me Clarify #12: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum

Mentorship, Memories, a Decade of Reinvention

The chapters of my memoir-in-progress supply the material for essays published in literary journals, which is similar to performing on a theater stage, although the praise received is in no way comparable to that of an auditorium of balletomanes applauding a dancer’s interpretation of someone else’s choreography. The flowers at my first reading were presented by a loving relative, an exception, not a rule, because roses don’t rain down at literary events like they do at theater premieres.

In Canada, my stories and poems were often read aloud before fellow classmates, but no schoolteacher ever called me a writer, or suggested it as a vocation. My Ukrainian parents, with their imperfect English, couldn’t have judged the quality of my words and sentences, even if I’d shared anything with them. In any case, my father was a notorious braggart whose praise had to be discounted as hyperbole, and my mother’s old-fashioned modesty—especially obdurate in the face of her husband’s overstatements—prevented her from saying anything she believed might feed her child’s vanity.

My ballet teachers’ pedagogy was based mainly on criticism and exhortations to lose weight. My mother, a former ballerina, didn’t discourage my pursuit of a dance career, but she also didn’t push me into it. As survivors of World War II, she and my father equated happiness with stability and prosperity. They drew my attention to every young man in Winnipeg of Ukrainian heritage studying dentistry or medicine, in the hope I’d marry a doctor, settle down, lead a normal life—which wasn’t at all what I wanted.

I ran away from home and was caught; so, I tried again, marrying a dancer who dragged me onto a European theater stage. What followed was: drama, divorce, drugs, detoxification. When I met my second husband, I was no longer running away.

One decade ago, a poet friend insisted I had a “voice.” When we were young, my family had visited hers in rural Ohio, in a small town outside Cleveland that seemed very sophisticated to a child from Winnipeg, Manitoba—it boasted a McDonald’s drive-in at a time when Canada’s first Golden Arches were still light years away. My friend and I wrote letters to each other, but lost contact in our teens; I moved to Europe to dance, and she went on to become a poet.

The invention of the internet allowed us to find each other, and we began exchanging emails in which we reminisced about growing up in our similar, immigrant families. Our parents had taught us to speak in their mother tongue, to read and write in Cyrillic, and we’d both been to Ukrainian summer camp—she’d attended one in the Catskills, while I’d been to a grim scouting camp on the shores of Lake Winnipeg:

“Each morning was the same. Roused by a whistle, we tumbled, half-asleep, out of our bunks; splashed our faces with cold water at the pump, donned uniforms and brown berets; and marched, double-file, to the rustic St. Volodymyr Chapel where we were forced to sit, stand, and kneel through an interminable, incense-saturated Ukrainian Greek Catholic mass. Girls who fainted were carried out and propped up against trees; while those of us who remained inside became increasingly lightheaded—suffering on empty stomachs, because tea and stale cereal would only be served after the service had ended.”

Genia, you’re a writer!

I peeled off my tutu and began work on a memoir, encouraged by my poet friend, who was now my mentor.

The metamorphosis from ballet dancer to writer was expedited by my family’s relocation from the cramped ground floor of a crumbling villa to a large flat spread out across two renovated houses whose thick walls and labyrinthine layout allowed me to withdraw to various quiet, private spaces, escaping interruptions from my husband and our teenaged children.

After our son and daughter left for university, I decided to spend less time in my ballet school. My capable secretary would assume more tasks, a choreographer friend would replace me as artistic director and, in a spectacular move that solved several mysterious irregularities, a teacher I’d employed for ten years would be exposed and fired. With the ballet school running smoothly, I put my iPhone on silent, cut down on socializing, eliminated all unnecessary contact with bores, hypocrites, and other energy-sucking vampires—and began writing full-time.

Finally, after twenty-six years as founder and director, I retired from my ballet school, gifting it to a talented and deserving colleague.

Won’t you miss it?

I’d been asked the same question years ago, after my decision to stop performing onstage—as if loving one thing meant you couldn’t be happy without it, or that it was impossible to find something else you could love even more.

When our children were small, my husband and I attended parents’ meetings at their school, where discussions often revolved around the identification and encouragement of gifted students. The stay-at-home mothers—intelligent, energetic, eloquent women—were particularly vocal in demanding recognition of their children’s talents, the implementation of enrichment programs, mentorships. All I wanted to know was: Who nurtures the gifted mothers?

Everyone needs a mentor.

Thank you, Dzvinia Orlowsky, for being mine.

Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.

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