Dancers in a Mirror
Last night was no different than any other. By midnight, I had once again become a dark placid lake reflecting nothing, not even the myriad lamp-lit cubes suspended in the grey shadows of the city outside. Nor dream figments–glimmering white swans gliding through a moonlit forest, nor any other such visions conjured by the Romantic imagination. Only half an hour ago, I was yet completely still, quiet, pitch black. With the onset of dawn, everything began to change. The first grey light of late spring, arrives a little earlier each day, sifts through the large square windows running the parameter of the ceiling along two sides of the room. Second by second, I watch the light grow soft yellow, shade upon shade, and myriad dust particles floating in the light. I dutifully reflect the slowly emerging triple line of barres along the walls, the ebony grand piano at my side, its heavy wood case shut above the leather cushioned bench.
As the sun rises beyond the windows, I gradually harden into a glass eye, a blank stare: the theater’s servant in waiting.
Sometime later, I hear the door handle click. Julia enters. At the sight of her, I shimmer into water again. Hello, Julia. I’m glad to see you, my young friend, my young woman, my beautiful dancer! Hello to you and your friendly, inquiring look!
I give you the once-over. The new navy spaghetti-strap leotard looks as good as you thought it would. Contrasts perfectly with your dark auburn hair, especially as it hangs now in strips about those lovely angular, milk-white shoulders. The dark hue nicely sets off your pale, heart-shaped face, your warm, expressive brows, your dark blue eyes, the color of blueberries with a light frost.
My gaze trails along as you pad across the floor in white canvas slippers, your bag slung over one shoulder, the lean muscles of your long legs pronounced in mesh, salmon-pink tights with a pale seam running down the back. You plop down on the floor near the barre, rummage through your bag, fish out a pair of grey wool leg warmers. You pull one up to mid-thigh, then the other, flex and point your right foot, then the left, testing your Achilles’. Except for a little stiffness, they feel good. You take up your brush, smooth your hair back into a ponytail.
You don’t mind getting up a little earlier to get this time alone with me. It gives you time to do your physical therapy exercises without getting distracted, it centers you, calms you.
You missed me terribly while you were away. Two months is an eternity for a dancer. This time it was Achilles tendonitis. You ignored the pain until it became difficult to walk. At that point, physical therapy and anti-inflammatories not being enough, you had to accept the doctor’s most dreaded remedy: rest. Diligently, for two months, you held to a damage-control plan consisting of a daily morning swim at the Y, Pilates in the afternoon, and a rigorous diet. Even so, it took two additional months after you returned to get back into shape.
You’re grateful to have all that behind you now. To be back with me, where you belong. You can’t help looking to me every few seconds as you coil your hair into a high bun, sliding the long pins into your coppery strands. Yes, dearest, I answer, I’m still here. Yes, you are real, real enough to touch–young, vibrant, beautiful. You can’t get enough of my filmy portraits. Tantalizingly ephemeral, each lasts only a second before dissolving into another. Depending on the evanescent light, or a change of angle, the most gorgeous, captivating likeness can be shattered into something unflattering, embarrassing, or even hideous. You hold fast to the beautiful images, make articles of faith out of them, discard and forget the others. Either way, you can’t stop looking. Nor can anyone else around here.
For some it takes a while, but for you the addiction took hold a full decade ago in your very first class. I remember it was a cold but sunny January morning. There was a large arched window at one end of the studio where the sun poured through the city grime clinging to the glass. You were all of eight years old, a sweet little thing, your miniature rib-cage swelling earnestly each time you heard from the piano. It was the first time you’d ever heard live music, and it seemed wondrous to you, the way it reverberated all through your body, through muscles, bone, blood. You did not like it when the teacher barked commands over it. At the end of the class, you stood center floor among the other students, like them (but already, not like them), wearing a black long-sleeve leotard. After a series of jumps in place, your face flushed and sweaty, you were still catching your breath when, to your relief, the petite but fearfully strict teacher finally removed her piercing eyes from the class to face forward so that all could follow her slow port de bras. With your feet planted awkwardly in first position, you tried to trace the gentle curves of her arms. You could see her eyes, reflected now, scanning every child’s image, but the piano’s plaintive melody eventually washed her away, as you became enchanted by the sight of your own arms which took on the form of dark winter branches. You saw yourself transformed into a tall tree magically come to life in my cold, gleaming forest.
That was a long time ago, but we’ve had an unspoken pact, you and I, since that day.
After warming up your ankles, you ease into splits. By now the others have begun to trickle in to begin their own warm-up routines, splintering my gaze. You say hello to Rachel and a few others who throw down their bags near you. Everyone’s more cheerful than usual because it’s Friday, the day Jonathan, a beloved teacher from the school, teaches. To your left, Rachel lies back, propped up by her elbows, tracing large circles with her right leg, while Joe, on your other side, shimmies up to the wall in a side split. As more people arrive, barres are carried out to center floor, and the room quickly fills up with bodies bending, flexing, stretching. When Amber arrives, you nod to her, glad she always does barre on the other side of the room. As the only girls offered apprenticeships this year, everyone constantly compares you. You cannot understand why Amber, with her lovely delicate frame, has never been injured, while this latest bout of tendonitis has been your third injury since you hit puberty. She has high extensions, superb body placement and impeccable footwork; you have soaring jumps and a pleasing sense of aplomb while she struggles yet to find a style. She always looks enviably thin, even in the lavender full body warmer she wears every day, but lately she’s begun to get dangerously close to the too-thin line. Despite the competition, you like her because she’s kind, if a loner, but you’re relieved she isn’t passing this trial year with flying colors either. The pressure is obviously getting to her. Her blonde hair has begun to look frizzy, she often appears distracted and she makes too many mistakes in rehearsal.
Now that your body is radiating warmth, you get up from the floor, dust yourself off, and extend your right leg to the front along the barre. Slowly, you bend forward, resting your forehead on your shin for a moment. You then lift your torso, flex and point your foot back and forth, looking absentmindedly out at the room now full, everyone making ready to start the day. Some chat while limbering up, or making last minute stitches to shoe elastics or ribbons, or hastily pinning up hair. At the center barre nearest you, Renee is massaging her thighs while talking to Stephen and Beth who’ve been dating now for a few months. They’re all laughing about some movie they saw. Beth crunches her toes into the floor and bends forward just enough to crack one hip, then the other, while Stephen does slow head rolls to loosen up his neck. Daniel, on the floor next to them, attacks his stomach exercises with a vengeance, his ear buds most likely playing his heavy metal favorites. Whether they talk and look to one another or not, all maintain private conversations with me. They dart their eyes my way in between making eye contact with one another.
But their eyes, so many of them!
Pining, bathing in my watery visions. No one heeds Narcissus here! Today Anna is convinced I no longer love her. She’s been casting spiteful looks my way ever since she arrived this morning. She stands at one of the center barres looking herself up and down, mournful of the damage a few extra pounds have done. She’s been binging on sweets ever since her break up with Sam who, thankfully, being out with a knee injury, cannot bear further witness to her expanding flesh. Every day I suggest new lovers for her, but she never sees them. All she sees is her body encased in fat. She grabs an oversized white t-shirt from her bag, throws it on and turns away from me in guilt and disgust. No matter, I can always find serenity in John’s look. His light green eyes, with their blonde fringe, gold at the roots and colorless at the tip, caress me lovingly every day without fail. Even now, as he extends his muscular arched foot to tendu front, his look ripples my surface like a soft, erotic breeze. As he inclines his neck the better to admire his sculpted legs, I return his caress.
Your eyes gloss over Sandra as if she were one of the chairs stacked in the corner at the head of the room. She squares her shoulders to her leg extended on the barre behind her, lifts her face to the ceiling and bends pliantly backward, limbering up her miraculous arabesque. She’s only eighteen, the same as you and Amber, but light years ahead of both of you. A prodigy, she was two classes above you at the school and got into the company at age fifteen. All the top choreographers are in line to try her as their muse. Having already been cast in numerous ballerina roles, she was promoted to soloist last year, and will no doubt soon be promoted to principal. It’s not just her dazzling technique at such a young age that sets her apart. She’s also exceptionally beautiful, with chestnut hair, prominent cheekbones and doe-like brown eyes. She’s as thin as she needs to be, yet her feminine curves softly refuse to be erased. The generous width of her hips accentuates the tapered line of her long legs and beautifully arched feet. You’ve never even tried to compete with her. Unlike some other people, you’re not that much of a masochist. Either way, the rest of you take comfort that not every dancer who manages to get out of the corps does it at lightning speed. More often, it takes five years, or still more reassuring, a slow and steady climb of seven. This gives you and others hope, and hope has brought you a long way, even more than hard work. It helped you rise above the fierce competition at the school, so, you reason, even if the competition is a hundred times more intimidating here, why shouldn’t it still work if you increase your hope by a hundred times?
You’re beginning to feel restless. You glance at the clock. Just then Jonathan arrives, followed a minute later by Brad, the pianist. They stand at the piano talking, Brad placing his stainless-steel thermos on the piano, shedding his jean jacket and the magazine he had rolled up under his arm. Some of the older dancers go over to say hello. You feel like going over too but still feel too much the student. The familiar sight of Jonathan’s clean, elegant appearance though is pleasing enough. He’s somewhere in his late fifties, yet still dancer-thin enough to tuck in his white button down into neatly pressed khaki trousers. He has silvery-hair and dark expressive brows. His large, light blue eyes, unearthly bright, suggest a kind of crystal meth ecstasy of intellect. Usually, the director or one of the ballet masters gives class, but the recent scheduling of Jonathan on Fridays has been great for morale. You’ve had plenty of competent teachers, all of them giving you something valuable, but he is one of the rare, great ones. Once a soloist with the Royal Danish Ballet, he’s been training advanced students at the school now for over a decade. His weekly class is both welcome break from company politics and a chance to remember his high standards, to purify your body of lazy habits that inevitably seep in as the season goes on. His teaching has become essential to how you dance, to how everyone dances here.
Brad takes his seat at the piano, flips open the case and pours some coffee from his thermos. The only pianist who responds to the nuances of Jonathan’s intense musicality, he’s another welcome sight. He’s wearing his standard uniform: jeans, a t-shirt, and a faded baseball cap to cover his encroaching baldness. Somewhere in his late thirties, he’s short and a little chubby, an endearing trait among so many hyper-athletic bodies. His small green eyes frequently wink involuntarily behind his gold wire-rim glasses.
Jonathan glances at the clock. The dancers congregating at the piano return to their places. You shake out your legs, getting them ready. Aimless chatter gives way to attentive silence and last-minute adjustments of leg warmers and leotards. Jonathan gives some brief instructions. His Danish accent softens the rough edges of your English language. Already, class feels sacred again, like at the school. You breathe in deeply, place your left hand on the barre, and your feet in first position. Brad sounds a few simple preparation chords. Your muscles respond. The whole room eases into plies.
I revel in these awakening beings. Myriads of bodies, separate before, move in unison inside me and across from me. Bodies breathing music, bending in pliés, rising in relevés, sweeping forward, back and around. I explode into kaleidoscopes. My gaze goes symphonic.
So many eyes checking, analyzing, hoping to see something better today. Jonathan walks the narrow paths between the barres, his chest lifted with a dancer’s carriage and with the rare satisfaction of one who finds teaching more rewarding than dancing. He walks down the lanes lined with legs and arms, making corrections. He taps Rachel’s shoulder blades and they instantly melt away; he motions to Tara to relax her neck, reminds David to get the weight out of his heels. Like most of the men here, Jonathan is gay, but he doesn’t flirt, maybe because he’s been with the same partner for a long time, or because his eyes see lines moving through space more than they see bodies. All of you, male or female, gay or not, compete to lure his crystal blue eyes. You feel a jealous pang for a moment when he stops between exercises to correct Amber, but you remember to stay focused. You’re rewarded only a few minutes later when, explaining the next exercise, his eye meets yours.
You’re put through a variety of footwork drills: tendus and dégagés front, side, back, side; repeat; reverse, repeat left side. Then the slower, usually tedious ronds de jambes, but Jonathan’s phrasing gives the circles an urgent pulsing quality as your working leg draws tight, accented circles on the floor that ebb into larger circles in the air radiating outward from your body, followed by more returning inward back to you. Then come port de bras that swoop down and roll up through the vertebrae so quickly you feel giddy, especially as you relevé for the finish in passe. Letting go of the barre, holding the balance, you feel a sense of lightheaded clarity as the music trails away, replaced by concentrated silence. You feel like a beam of light.
After the heavy lifting of fondus and développés, a series of staccato frappés and petit battements, come grand battements. Fully limbered up, you kick the air with satisfaction in all directions. Finally, Jonathan directs everyone to do their own stretch. Barre is officially over. Brad launches into a rambling adagio. Some of you drop to roll and twist on the floor while others keep to the barre, bending, sliding, arching. Using the barre for leverage, you grip the heel of your foot in your palm, unfold your leg alongside your ear, and rock your hips back and forth. It feels as if someone has just released you from chains.
When you were a girl, barre was your favorite part of class. The stark austerity of it brought order to your world. You relished how each step was singled out for mastery of its particular quality of movement, your body learning through daily practice how to pronounce each word of its new language. The barre was your friend then. You couldn’t even begin to mold your body into the unnatural turned out positions without clutching it. Gradually you gained the strength to grasp it lightly, to wean yourself from it.
Now barre is a daily chore you must perform to be able to dance, yet every time you’ve been out, you missed it even more than performing. You didn’t know how much you missed it until your first day back. Each time you returned, you felt a bit of an outsider. But with the start of pliés, the familiar feel of the smooth-grained wood in the hollow of your palm and fingers, the slight dull pressure under your garnet ring was immediately comforting. As your knees began to bend slowly to the music, you felt the muscles in your legs blindly taking the path they’d been trained to follow. Like they were remembering how to pray. You felt like a prodigal returning to the fold, gratefully bowing your neck to a parent’s chastening hand.
With a long flourish of notes, Brad signals the end of the stretch. He refills his coffee, chatting with Jonathan and David, a male principal. Center barres are carried off the floor. Men wrap towels around their necks; women sit on the floor swapping canvas slippers for pointe shoes. Some chug water, others rub muscles or adjust leg warmers. You wrap a paper towel around your toes and ease them into the snug satin box. You cross and tie the ribbons, tuck in their ends at the inside of the leg, just above the ankle bone. The room smells of damp tights, sweat and perfume.
You stretch your calves and Achilles before walking onto center floor. Some peer at themselves as they smooth back hair, examine an arched foot, check the lines of their calves, thighs, buttocks. You look too, rolling through your feet, breaking in your shoes. You notice my reflection of Amber, at the other end of the room. She absentmindedly scratches a pinkish spot on her neck, another sign she’s cracking under the pressure. You feel satisfied, then guilty. You don’t wish for her to fail exactly, but you want there to be no doubt that you’re the one everyone’s betting on to go places, or at the very least, to remain here. Right now, it’s the opposite. You have the stain of recent injury on your record, all that precious time thrown out the window. Finally, caught up to her again, you’re determined to pull ahead.
Everyone looks my way with an air of expectation. Minds focused, bodies limbered, people are ready to move. Jonathan steps onto the floor. A young male dancer carries a chair for him to the head of the room just in front of me. Brad resumes his bench and looks out into the room, his eyes winking with absentminded benevolence. Jonathan sets a crisp tendu combination. The groups alternate quickly. After one round he gives some general corrections. The exercise is repeated. Next, he sets an adagio calling for sustained extensions à la seconde and flowing promenades in arabesque.
The first group takes the floor to begin the adagio. Brad plays the stately but lyrical theme of Dvorak’s ninth. I look on, in contemplation at these classic positions handed down from dancer to dancer through the centuries. Their slowly pivoting promenades mark the room’s geometry as they offer themselves to eight checkpoints: the four corners, and the four points equidistant between them. They are living, breathing sculptures to be appreciated in the round. As you begin to pivot, Julia, one leg half extended in attitude back, your standing heel gently lifting an inch at a time, I kiss, delicately, your long, milky white neck, and again, your auburn hair just where it catches the light at the crown of your head.
Slowly turning away to offer yourself to the back of the room, I give you the sight of yourself swimming in a gleaming sea full of beautiful bathers. As you slowly come back around to attitude croisé, your look penetrates beyond my glimmering surface, seeing, as trained, the theater’s black cavernous space, the small blinding halos of the footlights at its edge. In the darkness, where an amalgamation of souls is gathered, a single breathing eye holds you in its prismatic gaze. You offer yourself up to it, your greatest wish being for it to devour you in fascinated ecstasy.
My silver waters suddenly close over again as, extending your leg in allongé, you notice your neck betraying unsightly strain. You make a mental note to tighten your core and relax your shoulders. After completing the exercise, you move to the sides. You look on, one elbow resting on the barre while the last group takes its turn, allowing yourself to think about nothing. Your mind adrift, you half-consciously take in Dierdre’s wonderfully supple plié, Sandra’s always marvelous arabesque, John’s falling out of his balance on the right side, Anna’s top heaviness now that she’s gained weight in her breasts.
After a while your eyes come to linger over David’s pleasingly large thighs and bulbous rear end, like smooth slab of rock, accentuated by his grey tights and tapered waist. He gracefully descends along with the others into a deep lunge. David is famous in the dance world and is married to Dierdre, a soloist whom he cheats on quite a lot with men and women. He’s thirty-eight and near retirement, requiring constant physical therapy for his back to keep performing. He does a few less pirouettes now and his arabesques have the slightly crooked bent knee that hits everyone in their mid-thirties. He’s begun teaching at the school, but doesn’t seem very interested in it. His face is still beautiful, though his skin has taken on a slightly wan, flaccid quality. You still feel something of the crush you had on him when you were thirteen. As he rises slowly to pose in tendu back, your gaze floats over his living body to his watery reflection where it mingles with his gaze and others looking on as he checks his form. Your eye ripples, aroused by the line of his regal neck as he turns his head in the direction of his standing leg. A flood of memories clouds his reflection: glossy photographs of him in his prime in rehearsal and performance that everyone has seen in countless books, posters, theater programs, films, videos. Most treasured though are your private memories, images stolen of him performing as you sat in the theater, spellbound in the dark.
As the group begins the left side of the adagio with grand plie, David’s black t-shirt and grey tights bring to mind his comeliness and prowess as Albrecht in Giselle, one of his best roles. You see him entering stage right, at the beginning of the second act, when he visits Giselle’s grave in the forest late after midnight. He looks too beautiful in his raven-black velvet tunic, a grey cape draped over his broad shoulders. The ghostly bouquet of white lilies he carries highlights his lovely statuesque neck. His dark brown hair, swept back from his pale face, adorns his chiseled features. His deep-set brown eyes are Albrecht’s, haunted by sorrow and remorse for his betrayal of Giselle, remorse he doesn’t seem to have in betraying Dierdre.
The adagio ending, David finishes in fifth along with the others. Time seems to have ground to a halt. Everyone feels the itch to pick up the pace. Jonathan sets a pirouette combination for the women. It emphasizes fast, intricate pointe work: sharp pas de bourrées that see-saw diagonally back and forth, followed by an inward turning pas de bourrée, a quick passé preparation, and a flash single pirouette that lands only long enough to spring back for two more double-timed pirouettes. All this must be squeezed into eight counts and repeated three more times.
Some of you smile, exchange looks. Even the men can tell it’s one of Jonathan’s wildcard combinations. Jonathan gives many predictable combinations, as all teachers must, but sometimes he takes a few simple steps and gives them a wholly unexpected arrangement or tempo, in this case both. Ingeniously, he’s taken a polite, dainty pas de bourrée and revved it up, modernized it. Your footwork will have to be dreadfully precise, your upper body tightly controlled to reign in the pirouettes every eight counts.
Jonathan then adjusts the combination for the men, throwing out half the steps, shifting the focus to sustained multiple pirouettes rather than speedy footwork. He gives a few directions to Brad and resumes his chair. The first group takes the floor and begins to cut into it, cheered on by Brad’s syncopated rhythm. A few women fall out of their pirouettes, even come close to totally wiping out, but instead of being embarrassed or frustrated they chuckle, exchange glances with those standing by. When your turn comes, you manage the rhythmic footwork, the tight pirouettes, but you fall behind a fraction of a count each round. The final pirouettes send you careening off pointe, but you don’t care, it was so fun to spiral out of control for a change. You rush off the floor to get out of the way, dazzled, giddy, your face warm, like you were just ejected from a ride at an amusement park. Who knew that prissy pas de bourrées could feel like that? You smile at Donna, an older corps member you barely know. She smiles back. You feel your first sense of comradery as a company member.
After all the groups have gone, Jonathan stands to offer advice to Sandra. It’s clear from the energy in his eyes that she was closest to pulling it off. To get it right, he says, expecting all to use her as a model, she’s got to extend a line of energy from the top of the inner thigh muscles, down through the inside of the legs and feet, all the way to the tip of the big toe. She must hold on to this connection all the way through the pirouettes. Sandra nods and gives it a go with everyone observing, but she whips the turning pas de bourrée too hard on the second round, throwing off her pirouettes. Jonathan directs the class to repeat the exercise. As the first group takes the floor and the music starts up again, Sandra takes her teacher’s words, like a precious parcel, to the back of the room where she carefully marks the steps in slow motion.
Her group’s turn up, the young ballerina takes her usual spot front and center. Brad’s preparation chords sound. Instantly she’s awhirl among the others, her pointes sharp, meticulous on the attack, slicing, dicing, accenting the rhythm. As she twirls, the dark pupils of her eyes widen. She stares through me like a sleepwalker, her lips faithfully whispering her teacher’s instructions. Turning still more fiercely, she whips my gaze into a hypnotic blur–It’s too much. Julia, forgive me. I must drop you–My eyes lock onto Sandra. Sandra. Beautiful, twirling dancer! I want to seize you! Keep you for my very own! Mine, all mine, forever! She keeps going, unaware the music has stopped, that everyone is watching her in silence. Even Brad looks on, his hands resting quietly in his lap, his eyes winking simultaneously. Sandra’s feet obey whatever music she hears in her head. Jonathan watches, his dark brows raised. Sandra keeps going, oblivious, wild, possessed. She spins with such terrible fury, I begin to think she may crash right through me. Yes, she is about to shatter me, shatter herself, shatter us all into a million pieces. Joyously, I await impact. Joyously, the obliterating embrace!
But the crash does not come. Somehow, she does not fly out of control. Somehow, the tip of her pointe keeps the floor. Her right knee lifts high in passe, and with it, her whole being takes one last, light breath. Suddenly, she flashes the single, springs onto a marvelous quadruple pirouette finish–turning one, two, three, four– about to land the thing, she unravels, miraculously, a fifth pirouette-–supernaturally slow, suspended, sailing around one last time. Finally, she lands with preternatural quiet. Like she fell out of the sky, a gift from God.
For a moment, everyone is silent. Jonathan clasps his hands. Yes, he says, that’s it! This is what you all must do! People nod, smile. Sandra beams.
You are a little bewildered. (Yes, Julia, sorry, I’m here.) You don’t know whether you feel inspired or discouraged. Out of habit, you look over at Amber. You see her eyes, clouded by ambiguity, mirroring your own. Thankfully, Jonathan brings everyone back around to practicalities, to repeat the combination in a mindful way. Everyone ups their game, there are some brilliant sequences, but no one, not even Sandra herself, is able to reproduce her sixteen counts of mastery. Afterward, the class quickly progresses through the usual petit and grand allegroexercises.
Finally, Jonathan calls everyone onto the floor for reverence. Your body begins to relax as it glides softly through the slow gracious bows taken by principals in front of the heavy, gold-fringed curtain at the end of a performance. Your arms float, your eyes dream again of the dark auditorium, the layered tiers extending up to the barely discernible vaulted ceiling, Then, finishing the exercise, closing from tendu front to fifth in unison with the others, the theater melts away and your reflection reemerges: the hopeful apprentice, the new company member. Politely, you hold fifth until hearing Jonathan say thank you, after which bodies immediately disperse. People file out of the studio behind Brad and Jonathan, making pit stops at the dressing rooms and vending machines before heading down to the stage for a full company lighting rehearsal. You’ve only recently been added back into the schedule, so you’ve got two hours to kill before your rehearsal later this afternoon. You’re looking forward to resting for a while, but getting a studio to yourself is too good an opportunity to pass up, so you stay behind to practice.
After everyone has gone, you stand center floor. You give me a purposeful, concentrated look. Some of your most important breakthroughs have come while practicing alone. The door having clicked shut, the room is noticeably silent now. The only sound is the quiet ticking of the metal wall clock marking time indifferently in tiny, impassive increments. Usually you practice fouetté turns or parts of the ballets you’re learning, but today, with Sandra’s brilliant turns foremost in your mind, you take up Jonathan’s pirouette combination again. You begin by slowly marking the steps, trying not to let your quads override the elusive inner thigh muscles. Then, you do one round full out at half speed. This is how you’ve learned to sneak up on your body to get it to obey new commands. It responds well. Your muscles go along with their new circuitry. So far, so good.
You take a minute or two to rest, allow your eyes to wander up to the large windows near the ceiling where a large cotton-white cloud seems peacefully standing by. You look at the cloud for a moment to think about nothing. When your brain has had enough, you drop the cloud and look at your reflection once again. I return your eager, pretty face. You take it, blink your satisfaction, resume tendu back preparation, quickly check your form, lift your upper body and set once more into the combination, this time at tempo. Your feet slice the rhythms, batting the floor away at syncopated intervals, Brad’s music echoing through the walls of your mind. You cling to new ribbons of energy extending down your inner thighs, maintain your tight grip against the powerful centrifugal force of your pirouettes. Power surges up through the floor into your legs. Your feet flutter up through your heart as you round the turning pas de bourrée. But somewhere in the back of your mind, as if your brain were conducting a mandatory sweep, you detect a faint pain in your left Achilles. The phantom vanishes almost as soon as it appeared. You swat the impression away, holding on to your concentration. You receive your reward. You soar through the pirouettes, but before you can land, your legs whip out of control. Your torso is thrown forward as if a huge gust of wind came at you from behind. You jog forward a few steps to break your fall. I blink, admiringly. You are triumphant. That was so close. One more time should do the trick.
You shake out your legs, look at me matter-of-factly, resting your hands on your hips, gathering your concentration. Suddenly, like the reappearance of an unwelcome guest, you recall the phantom twinge. It seems strange now you should have forgotten it. It could not have been real, you decide. Just fear finding its way into your body. That particular thread of pain was your constant companion for months, so naturally it refuses to be forgotten, it wants to play tricks with your mind. Still, you hold your breath as you plant your right heel into the floor, then the left, stretching the tendons fully to make sure. You take a deep breath. They’re fine. You look at me again, resume preparation and set into the combination once more. You begin well, but halfway through, your feet lose their edge, slightly throwing off your rhythm. Your brain and legs are growing tired of repetition. Your brain even has the audacity to flash an image of the wood bench in the locker room where you’ll soon be sitting, sipping from your water bottle, cooled by the crushed ice with the slice of lime you prepared this morning. You even begin against your will to smell the lime, but you press on, rally your wayward brain and tired legs. You pull it together. Your pirouettes come off beautifully, majestically. Time slows, the tip of your pointe your only contact with earth. I watch you sail around, girl, watch you thinning everything, even the very air between us–no walls, no clock, no glass eye–just gliding through light blue sky, and massive, cotton-white floating clouds.
You feel the inevitable itch in your quads–the signal to come down.
You resist only a sublime fraction of a second, when suddenly it’s clear the chance to land passed. The floor is letting go of you. It’s about to slam up through your face. Instinct takes over. Putting on the brakes, your turn-out releases, your quads grip, your heels shove themselves into the floor. The forced stop wrenches a pronounced twinge in your left Achilles, enough this time to make you wince as you’re thrown a huge step forward. What a coward, you think, to have obeyed instinct rather than surrender to the fall. Sandra would have taken the fall, but then she doesn’t have a piece of shit body to begin with. I can’t disagree, but I don’t like it, Julia, when you swear at your body.
You bend over your legs to catch your breath and to avoid looking at me. The pain, of course, was no phantom. The despised injury, like a deadly virus, is back. When you finally have the courage, you rise to look at me, your eyes full of watery disgust. This can’t be happening, they say. Not after all the mind-numbing rest, the endless mechanical therapy sessions, the constant thoughts of Amber passing you up, the daily monotonous laps at the Y with its dank pool and public showers inhabited by unfriendly, unsightly elderly, and perhaps worse than anything else, the great hideous boredom of it all.
You look to me for an answer, but my waters remain stagnant, non-committal.
You look at me with hatred. You’re beginning to feel I’ve betrayed you, and perhaps I have. I’ve led you down this fairytale’s path since your childhood, only it would seem, after all these years, to bring you to a blind dead-end. I’m sorry, Julia. It’s true, deception is part of my nature, but then so is honesty. I give the cold hard truth like no other. But, really, you’ve been aware of my contradictions all along.
But you’re not ready for that. It takes only a moment for your silver-blue eyes to soften. Already you regret your faltering faith. You start praying to God, who you know watches beyond the clouds. You pray to yourself. You pray to me. You will find a way to fix this. You will double down on therapy and exercises. It was a sharp pain, sure, but not long lasting. You were just pushing yourself too hard. You will let up for a few days, play it safe, send the hideous thing back into hiding, kill it outright. You have to. You’re finished here if you can’t tamp it down, if you have to be out again so soon after being hired. You know full well you’re not special enough to be kept on if that happens. Sandra is, but you and Amber (who never gets injured) are not. They will simply pronounce you injury prone and not renew your contract. Once recovered, you’ll have to go on the audition circuit, try out at the cattle-calls for smaller, second-tier companies and then hope you don’t get injured again.
The day is approaching, Julia, much sooner than you know, when you will finally hear what I’ve been whispering to you for some time now. Then you will give me a hard look indeed and ask if it’s time to hang it up. You all do, at some point. Even Sandra will someday, though for her, probably at the dreaded end of a brilliant career. All of you at some point must be repatriated back to the sea of ordinary humanity.
Nobody gets to dance forever. You know that.
Yes, I know, that day wasn’t supposed to come now.
It was supposed to come much further down the line, at the end of a career, when you’re David’s age.
In other words, never.
So not today, Julia, but much sooner than you think, you will tell me it’s over. On that day you will bitterly tear our pact to pieces. A dark time will follow when you will find little pleasure in anything. Music, especially, will be unbearable. So will sitting passively in the theater watching others express their joy, while you are forced, like a resentful, punished child, to sit in the audience where you don’t belong.
You won’t know what to do with yourself for a long time, whether to fall back on teaching at an absurdly young age or to try something new. You will be fearful of ending up like so many dance teachers, cynical, bored, desperate, convinced the best part of their lives is behind them, many of them numbing themselves with drugs or alcohol.
You will be quite, quite lost.
Some think I can foresee the future; I cannot. What I can see, Julia, is that the friendly, inquisitive look you greet me with each morning will eventually show you the way. It will bring you, after much searching and wandering, back to my silvery waters where after a time you will discover the joy of finding your body dissolved, liberated instead of banished. Perhaps it will be as a teacher, like Jonathan. Perhaps it will be as another kind of artist, or a researcher, or a scientist–it doesn’t matter. Someday, Julia, I’m confident you’ll find your dancing life.
For now, though, you’re not listening. You’re tired of looking at me. You sling your bag over your shoulder, exit the studio and head for the locker room at the other end of the hall.
Gail Hammill is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai. For as long as she can remember, Gail has been interested in the expressive potential of the human body. She spent her formative years as a student at the School of American Ballet and taught dancers for many years at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School. Now, in addition to teaching English, Gail writes about the body, often in connection with her experience as a dancer, mother, and expat. Her essays have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Mothers Always Write, Cinematic Codes Review, and other publications.