During the pandemic, when I was doing some introspection, I began investigating my past to figure out how I had become who I am today. Who was this person sitting at the computer? How had I gotten here? What came next? I wandered around my house, picking up familiar objects and holding them in my hands. A hand beaded eagle feather I got from an Indian medicine man. A small bottle of “holy oil,” blessed by a Philippine faith healer. A stuffed animal that I bought for my mother when she was recovering from cataract surgery.

When I opened the door of my linen closet, there were two pairs of pink pointe shoes with shiny satin ribbons, sitting on a narrow shelf. I hadn’t looked at them for a while. I picked up a pair, I inhaled the scent of cardboard, satin and glue and a host of memories encircled me. The scent of Jean Nate cologne coming from the women’s dressing room. The musk of sweat that poured off of us when we
trained. The wild makeup. The excitement of being backstage in the wings, dripping in sequins, jeweled tiaras, and tutus while we waited to “enter, stage left.”

A few days ago, I was lying on the floor of my living room on my back on a blue yoga mat, wearing gray sweat pants and a white t-shirt, doing a workout with my online trainer. My hands were clasped around my right leg as I lifted it over my head and my shoulder and stretched it backwards, flexing and pointing my toes. I raised the other leg – when I stopped in the middle of the stretch. I saw
myself when I was sixteen, lying on the ground in a dance studio in the exact same posture, this time in a pink leotard, tights, black leg warmers and pink ballet shoes. There was a fireman’s pole to my left (this will make sense later), I could smell the scent of the sea and I recalled both the gnawing loneliness of missing my family and the magic that was all around me.

“Andrea,” my trainer called out. I snapped back into my body. “Yes,” I said. “I’m here.” I went back to flexing and pointing my foot, stunned that I had time traveled.

Being in the past gets a bad rap. It can make us feel stuck at times, but it can also spark our memory to show us what we did to end up where we are. It can show us what we want to repeat and what we want to abandon.

These memories come unexpectedly. They get triggered by a smell, a taste, an object, an article of clothing or a familiar feeling. In my case, the day before my ballet memory jolt, I read that Taylor Swift had purchased an estate in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, on the Atlantic Coast, for 17 million dollars. It was previously owned by Rebekah Harkness, the creator and owner of the Harkness Ballet Company of
which I was a member from 1965 to 1969. Mrs. Harkness who died on June 17th, 1982, was a wealthy eccentric heiress who, in her youth, hung out with a sub-culture of debutantes who called themselves “The Bitch Pack.” They enjoyed disrupting society events by lacing punchbowls with mineral oil and performing strip teases on banquet tables.

In 1966, soon after I joined the company, she took us out of the heat of a Manhattan summer and transported us to Watch Hill to train and rehearse from June to August. She had bought the old firehouse in the center of town and turned it into a rehearsal studio with the firepole intact. That was where we showed up every day to train and where visiting choreographers staged ballets for us that we would be taking on tour.

I recalled weekends when the other dancers and I climbed on the back of a firetruck in front of the firehouse. We sipped champagne and rode up the hill to the estate where we had a lavish lunch and hung out at Rebekah’s swimming pool. I also recalled being in a phone booth, (remember them?), talking to my parents, when a good-looking young man, a teenager like me with long unruly hair, slowly loped toward me and knocked on the glass. The area was home to old wealth, dotted with massive estates and when I saw the jaguar parked close by, I realized that this guy was clearly a member of an extremely wealthy family. I finished my call and opened the door with a questioning look on my face. He spoke slowly. “Are you a ballet dancer?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Great,” he said. “My name is Perky.” (He was anything but.) “You’re an item on my scavenger hunt list.” He showed me a piece of paper that said, “One ballet dancer.”

“I found a gull feather,” he went on, “but I need a ballet dancer. Will you come with me? 

“Okay. But I have to bring my girlfriend.” In a few minutes, the three of us climbed into Perky’s car and he drove us up the hill to meet his friends. Needless to say, he was the only person who had gotten a real live ballet dancer, actually he got two, and he won the hunt hands down.

events live in my memory like silent movies, playing over and over as I start remembering details. How I felt. How I looked. What I was wearing. When we get triggered by a memory, it’s a piece of the puzzle of how we got from there to here – the victories and the losses, the things that we regret and the things that we celebrate, the mistakes we made that put us in harm’s way, and the lessons we learned that remind us to pay closer attention.

Now, in 2024, I find that I’ve become a mentor. I’m not talking about being an arrogant know-it-all and telling people what to do. Life is too challenging to think I have all the answers, but I’m someone who has been through a lot, who has endured some hard lessons and who wants to pass on the knowledge. My memories have helped me understand myself and how to heal my wounds. They have reminded me not to criticize or judge but to have compassion for people who are making the same mistakes that I made. My memories have made me feel useful when I offer suggestions that might save other people some suffering. And it all makes me wonder, what am I doing right now that will become my memories in the future?