Twirling and leaping across the floor, I almost laughed out loud with the joy of doing what I love. I am a ballerina. Now, to be clear, I’m no professional—I gave up those aspirations long ago. I stopped doing pointe work after high school. I’ve only seen a few ballets in person. But ever since my first class as a toddler, ballet has been one of my greatest passions, an activity I pursue simply because I love doing it. For me, ballet will always be an art form in which I feel at home.
The past year had held many changes for me, and I faced the daunting but exciting task of starting a new chapter in my life. I graduated from college, said goodbye to my closest friends, left home, began life as a graduate student, moved to a new city, and started a new job. With so many aspects of my life suddenly unfamiliar, I was craving the comfort of a space where I felt at home. And so, upon arriving in Jacksonville last August I almost immediately began the search for a ballet studio with a good adult class. After a bit of studio shopping, I found the perfect class, largely due to my new ballet teacher, Mr. Morgan.
Mr. Morgan is one of the best ballet instructors I have encountered. He’s fun, he gives personalized feedback to each student, and he knows how to be both demanding and encouraging. I didn’t fully realize how much his coaching helped me to improve my dancing until one day in mid-March when I landed a perfect triple pirouette (I’m usually lucky if I scrape out a decent double). Some of my classmates were surprised, the best dancer in the class complimented me, but Mr. Morgan simply looked over with a subtle smile as if to say, “I knew you could do that.”
Just as I developed an immense respect for Mr. Morgan, he developed a great respect for me, too. He admired my commitment to attending ballet class each week while also juggling online classes and a full-time job. He appreciated how comfortable I was in my own skin despite my short physique being far from the “ideal” ballerina body. He loved that I share a genuine passion for this art form that is both so athletic and so beautiful.
Mr. Morgan and I never became friends; our relationship remained at the level of a teacher and student. All the same, ours was one of the most consistent relationships of my first year in a new city. We chatted before and after class each week and came to know things about each others’ lives. I learned what type of music he liked to use in class, and he learned where I preferred to stand at the barre. When one of us missed class, the other noticed. When one of us was tired or in a bad mood, the other noticed. And at the end of the year when we were both experiencing the bittersweet nature of saying goodbye, we both noticed.
On a Tuesday in May, I entered the studio for my last class with Mr. Morgan, myself about to return to Notre Dame for summer classes and him preparing to start a new journey as the Associate Artistic Director of a dance company in Atlanta. Throughout that last class, I couldn’t help but feel that Mr. Morgan designed every combination with me in mind. I had never told him which steps I liked or disliked, but as a skilled teacher he had figured this out over the course of the year. That night he included all my favorites—a complex dégagé at the barre, a playful balancé combination in the center, and a marvelously long grande allegro. At the end of class, we even did a full reverence, a graceful curtsy combination set to swelling music. This was a change from our normal conclusion, a half-bow with no music and sweat dripping down our faces, everyone still out of breath from our last jump combination.
This final class, this final reverence, was Mr. Morgan’s gift to me. And what a gift it was. I tried to return it by dancing my absolute best that night. I stretched my limbs as far as they would go, held my head high, and curtsied with the utmost intentionality. Our words of farewell after class—“thank you” and “best of luck” and “safe travels”—were sincere, but they were so insufficient. In a relationship that had existed mostly through dance and movement, our best goodbye occurred in that studio.
Taking class from Mr. Morgan was a time each week when I could decompress, a space where I felt surprisingly comfortable even when all the changes of the past year made me feel otherwise. At several points that year, I was not sure if I would ever begin to feel at home in Jacksonville. There were many times when I felt isolated, frustrated, and confused. I often felt extremely lonely, living so far away from family and close friends and not having many friends in my new city. It was as if I had given a piece of my heart to each person I loved, and now that I was so distant from all those people, my heart was broken and scattered with them, from Los Angeles to Michigan, Wisconsin to Texas, Virginia to Egypt. I didn’t know if my heart would ever be whole again. At my lowest point I finally opened up to a dear friend, too exhausted even for tears, saying, “I’ve never experienced this type of brokenness before.”
This statement, while angsty and dramatic, was completely true. I had never experienced this type of brokenness before. I had never had to navigate a new life stage and a new city and a new job on my own. My heart had never been scattered across the globe like this. But as a Christian, I believe that God makes all things new. Christ meets us in our brokenness. And with this new brokenness, I also became open to receiving a healing that I had never experienced before.
In that last ballet class with Mr. Morgan I felt the beginnings of healing. I did not magically feel that I completely belonged in Jacksonville. I didn’t come out of that class with a group of local best friends. In fact, I was losing someone whom I had grown to respect and admire. But in Mr. Morgan’s gift of this last class and this final bow, he acted as Christ to me in the midst of the brokenness. He had given me the gift I most needed that night and in each ballet class that year: offering me a space where I felt 100% at home during a year when I often felt quite the opposite. He reminded me of the people in my new city who care about me even though I haven’t known them long, and the God who cares so deeply about me even amidst the messiness.
These are the relationships that begin to turn a city into a home—the librarian who gushes about your choices every time you check out books, the eighth grader at Mass who greets you with a giant bear hug, the Guatemalan friend who always tells you she is doing well gracias a Dios, the ballet instructor who teaches you week after week.
I don’t know if I will ever feel completely at home in Jacksonville, but I do know that Christ is walking this journey with me day after day through people like Mr. Morgan. I’ll return to Jacksonville at the end of the summer, ballet shoes in hand, praying that I might do for others what Mr. Morgan did for me. And as a young minister in the Church, I hope that in some crazy, mysterious, wonderful way God might work through me to make others feel just a bit more welcome, just a bit more comfortable, just a bit more at home in God’s love.