A few months ago, a reader asked about my dance background in reference to another post, specifically why I would have started taking point classes at the age of 21. I’ve decided to write this post for Thanksgiving. When you read it, you will understand.

College. That one word brings back a swirl of emotions, not the least of which is nostalgia for a time in my life when I was simultaneously a genius and an idiot (for those of you who knew me then, I appreciate your silence regarding that latter part). It was my time to discover what I was good at (analyzing, writing, getting by on very little sleep) and what I was not good at (all things math, making it to 8 a.m. classes, staying awake in 8 a.m. classes). I was thrilled to find that I could take a ballet class to satisfy some of my credit requirements. I hadn’t danced in years, having long since found horses more appealing than barre work, but I didn’t let this deter me. I was nervous my first day, not sure what to expect of a college dance professor (Serious? Tall? French accent?). Susan was none of the three. She was a petite blonde pixie with a wicked sense of humor and an uncanny ability to not laugh at her students, no matter how horrible their performance. I saw her eyes laugh, but her face never broke form (I ought to know – most of that laughter was definitely directed at me). Still, I loved dancing in Susan’s class. She knew I couldn’t pick up choreography at all, and she mercifully let me hide in the back for four straight years. That fourth year, however, something changed about her. Her once thick blonde hair looked thinner, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She started wearing a sweater tied around her waist, and only one time did I glimpse the chemotherapy pouch that lurked underneath. She never missed a class.

The winter of my senior year, I decided I wanted to try a pointe class. Susan didn’t teach pointe classes at the college, but she did have a Friday night class with the local dance company. For ten year-olds. I asked her permission, and I was in.

I stopped going out on Friday nights, and instead spent hours sweating and bleeding through my new shiny satin shoes. If anyone has any questions about how brutal pointe work is on the feet, let me assure you it’s much like having your toes caught in a bear trap, if not worse. On full pointe, I was at least a foot taller than all the willowy little girls in that class, but again, Susan never laughed. Smiled, but not laughed. She taught me it was perfectly acceptable to be the ostrich in a room full of little swans.

I went to her house shortly before my graduation when she kindly agreed to sit for a portrait with her daughters for a final exam I was completing. I met her husband, played with her dogs, fell in love with her two little pixie blonde girls who climbed all over their mother and gave me some of the most breathtaking images I’ve ever shot. I aced the final.

Susan died of breast cancer two years after I graduated. She left behind two beautiful little girls and a world that was a little less sunny without her. I’m thankful every day for her influence. She was funny, but never laughed at us. She was beautiful, but never made us feel awkward in her presence. She was fighting a battle, but she never let it harden her. Thank you Susan, for showing me that grace and beauty are not reflected in a mirror, but in my actions.