Masochism, But Make It Pretty
I scratched at the number adhered to my hip, a white sticker branding my black leotard. I don’t remember what the number was, but I’m sure I had it burned in my brain at the time; dancers, trained to quickly and religiously commit to memory information they’d soon discard, were used to being known for a few short hours as simply the number assigned to them at any given audition.
I thought of how proud everyone would be if I got the part. I thought of how pretty my costume would be, all silver and white, how it would catch the lighting onstage just so, and how delicate the term “snowflake” sounded. I thought of the packed house and the orchestra and the Christmas decorations and all of the new friends I’d maybe make. But those were peripheral to the thoughts of twelve hour rehearsals, screaming Russians, and having less of a life than I already did. I thought of the stuff I’d miss at school, and times I’d have to eat drive-thru dinners (once a childhood treat, now an almost-every-day norm), and the long trek to downtown Detroit in the Michigan winter. I thought of how I would keep my energy up and my weight down at the same time. I thought of the Russian director and his measuring tape. I thought of crying in bathroom stalls.
I remember thinking: I hope I don’t get this.
I didn’t wish for it so much that I tried to do poorly—that’s not who I am. I cannot purposely fail at something, especially if other people are watching. And if anything, I did want to get the part for no other reason than it would validate me. Every round of an audition and every role reassured me that I was amazing and talented and belonged in this world of perfection and grace and beauty. Even if I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be in that world.
At one time, I loved ballet. It didn’t bother me that one summer, while moving me from the Intermediate to Advanced level in our dance company, my director made me take both levels of our annual summer Ballet Intensive, a two week boot camp that involved roughly 4-6 daily hours of ballet per level – double that if you were me and had to participate in both levels. Nevermind that I was also the apprentice (demonstrator) for the Beginner level. I was 12, maybe 13 years-old, and the idea of spending 14+ hours a day in ballet class didn’t seem to faze me. At least, I didn’t yet let it show.
I felt semi-confident I would go on to be a real ballerina, ignoring the fact that my feet were flat and would therefore prevent me from ever making it beyond the Corps, if even I got that far. My technique was up to par, but no one wants to watch a ballerina who can’t point her foot.
In the audition, I quickly found that my thoughts of self-sabotage were irrelevant. The last twelve girls didn’t dance; we simply stood in a line in front of the casting directors, tallest to shortest. The portly director leaned back in his chair and eyed each of us one by one while resting his hands atop his bulging belly. One of the women walked down the line and when she got to me, she had me switch places with the girl to my left, eyeing the tops of our heads to make sure she aligned us in the correct order. I was perhaps a centimeter shorter than the other girl. Then the women continued walking down the line until she got to the shortest girl. She walked back across the line, counting four girls and using her arm to separate the fourth and fifth girl. Then she counted another four and did the same thing, drawing a line between me and the girl with whom I’d switched places.
In an uncharacteristic move, they chose the four shortest and four tallest girls. They asked the four middle girls, including me, to step forward, and then they thanked us and said goodbye. And just like that, it was over. I felt relieved.
Despite my true feelings, I feigned mild disappointment when I walked down the long hall to my mother and studio director at the other end. My director hugged me, seeming genuinely proud, the way a mother would, and I remember feeling guilty. I felt for the first time like I was an imposter; she was so rarely warm, and I felt I was undeserving of her affection because I didn’t want to be there. There was something missing in me, something that was in all the other girls and I didn’t have it. I did, at one time. But it died. And now I didn’t know what to do.
I can watch ballet now. I can appreciate the tremendous amount of work and ability that is required. I can appreciate what these people have sacrificed for what they love, because even though I am unable to share that love, I understand it. I understand having something you know you’re good at and know you’re meant to do and know you can succeed at if you’re just given a chance to be seen. Even if I sometimes watch and feel a tremendous sadness that cannot be articulated or reasoned, I still get it.
The audience doesn’t. The audience at a ballet is blinded by the beauty and grace and ease and sheer lightness of what they see on stage, which is precisely the point. The literal blood, sweat, and tears are better left for behind the curtain.
Sometimes I get the urge to take a ballet class and I contemplate getting my hands on some cheap ballet slippers. I look up classes in my area and hope they’re not pretentious, that they’re instead full of young and middle-aged mothers looking for something different from yoga. I find myself actually craving the barre.
But then I sit and wait a little while and the feeling passes.