I was 31 before it hit me that I was never going to grow up to be a ballerina. Performing center stage was a dream I set my heart on as a little girl, but unlike many other kids’ dreams — to be a rock star, president or astronaut — mine had endured to the present day, wholly undiminished by the fact that I hadn’t actually donned a tutu for more than 20 years.

Growing up, most of my treasured memories revolved around ballet: the grand rehearsals, the dazzling recitals, and the excitement of getting gussied up with Mom to attend professional productions. As I got older, I visited ballet companies everywhere I went in the Western Hemisphere. And when I moved to New York after college—on the odd occasion that I had a spare $20—I’d unfold the bill and slide it through the golden Lincoln Center ticket window in exchange for a standing-room ticket in the last row of the New York City Ballet. The cascading curtains, bejeweled lights and the soft blur of the company floating in step with the orchestra were exhilarating. On the slog home, I would sink into a slump. Could that have been me? Better still, could that be me?

That was the dream I somehow held on to for more than two decades, though one I never acted upon — until I watched a raucous, ineffably stirring performance of Swan Lake by the all male, all diva, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. In the third act, Paul Ghiselin, “Ida Nevasayneva,” chassé-d across the stage as the Dying Swan. Feathers fell from his tutu like a midnight snow, and he swooped down, scooped up handfuls of those melting feathers and stuffed them back in his costume’s bodice, tail and armpits. I felt his desperate, futile wish for the dance to never end.

The performance inspired my New Year’s resolution to attempt a return to a life en pointe. So there I was, 31 years old, tiptoeing into the gym studio one Saturday afternoon for a beginners ballet class, certain it was my first step back into the dancing life I’d left behind in 1988, when my family moved to Wisconsin, and I quit out of protest at having to part ways with my beloved teacher, Richard. Every praise from Richard Powell in his all-black wardrobe and year-round Versace tan seemed to promise that I was destined for greatness.

Now in the aerobics class surrounded by other past their prima ballerinas, I slipped out of my running shoes and heavy athletic socks, relieved to discover that my pedicure was still a glossy pastel pink. A few women were already front-and-center twirling about on craggy feet, holey ballet company T-shirts swirling around their slim hips; others sauntered in wearing electric-hued leotards with accompanying headscarves. One donned a chiffon tutu and pink slippers, exactly like the ones I wore as a girl.

As I pulled my hair back into a bun, the instructor breezed in past the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, clapping. She had sleek bobbed hair, beautiful skin and the most refined bodylines I had ever seen up close. On cue, classical piano music pounded from the speakers, rattling the glass. The others began swirling around, hopping in eager anticipation. I stood still, unsure of what to do with myself.

Bonjour, I’m Winter,” the instructor said to me. “What brings you here today?”

“I used to take ballet, and I miss it,” I told her.

Très bien. You’ve had some training!” But before I could address the matter of my two-decade intermission, Winter turned on her heel and commanded, “Aaaand first position!” with a clap. “Second position! Effacé!” Winter motioned that I face her. “Third!”

I was barely in first before they were in third, and we still had 45 minutes to go. As the class stretched on, I was always a full glissade behind. My arms were never where they were supposed to be. My toes were never pointed; au contraire, they were splayed out in 10 directions, clawlike, as if clinging to the floor for dear life.

That was just the warm-up. The worst was yet to come.

Winter lined us up parallel to the mirror with our left hands on the glass as a makeshift barre. “Up! Up! Up!” she said, timing our leaps. “Don’t thud! You’ll know you’re doing your sissonne correctly if you land silently!” She said this precisely as the soles of my feet slapped against the shellacked wooden floor, sending ripples up my thighs. I flushed red. I began to sweat. My palm print smeared down the mirror. I panted at myself in my own streaked reflection. Nothing could have distanced me further from the child I remembered leaping effortlessly like a cartoon than the sight of the lumpy, overtaxed adult heaving before me now.

What was I thinking? For years, I’d tormented myself for failing to live up to my childhood expectations. But then again, I imagined growing up to be a ballerina back when I took my career cues from Barbie. Thud. Back when I didn’t know how hard it was to grow up to become anything, much less a world-class artist. Thud. Back when I looked forward to recitals so I could wear gobs of makeup and sequins and eat cinnamon rolls with Mom and Dad at The Country Kitchen. Perhaps if I had kept going I could’ve been something. People did grow up to be dancers, after all. Clearly some of my graceful classmates had. Paul/Ida was. But after watching myself hulk about the studio, still the tallest in class and, as they say in the Midwest, stockier too, I was ready to let the dreams of ballet grandeur go. I leaped and landed a little more quietly.

“Yes, yes. C’est magnifique!” Winter praised, giving me a sympathetic look. She caught my eye, dropped the French, and muttered, “We’ll get ya outta here in five.”

I laughed, smoothed a flyaway hair back into my bun and landed even more lightly. Almost sprightly. As the symphony drums gave way to filtering flutes on Winter’s iPod play list, the years of heavy regret dwindled. It was time to start enjoying ballet solely as a spectator — from afar.

I would usher in this second act of my life at the New York City Ballet’s opening gala, to which I could afford tickets that actually came with seats, thanks to a successful career that kept me on my toes in other ways. As the class wrapped up, I found myself looking forward to that night.

My final sissonne was silent.

Holler here or at Hemispheres

What did you want to be when you grew up?