October 29, 2017
Riding Solo: A Turning Pointe
It is honestly an addiction. The thrill of being the sole focus of an audience, every eye following each miniscule move you make. In a documentary I once watched about the English Royals and their servants, they talked about the thrill of being in the spotlight. Especially when it came to serving their employers at formal events, there is a rush to being seen. That’s what I was addicted too, being seen. Ballet was the best way of getting my fill of this. My two-year-old self decided that nothing could compare to the tutus and the music. Then my seven-year-old self became entranced by the challenge. From then on I was hooked. I loved the challenge, the vanity of it, the feeling of pushing your body to the limit and reaching that breaking point- all the while creating something beautiful.
Sophomore year of high school was when I realized this addiction I loved was toxic. Having pushed myself to the top tiers of my age division class, I was invited to join the pre-professional level. A feat not easily accomplished by a fourteen-year-old, stuck in a program where progress was stagnant based on age, not talent.
It was one of those cold fall Saturdays that made you want to curl up and read a book. Instead, I got into my best fitting leotard and walked to my ballet school. An old stone and brick building with four floors, a dumbwaiter and drop down attic door, it fit the aesthetic of historical Lexington, Massachusetts. To top it off, there was a cemetery only two hundred yards away. Its quirks were made up for by the homey studios; floor to ceiling mirrors, old fashioned thick glass windows with wooden panes, complete with a green chalk board, and barres circling the perimeter. I grew up here, taking lessons from the age of five.
Today was the day that I would be joining the pre-professional class. A group that consisted of girls that were two years-plus older than myself. I was not terrified in the least… That was my first mistake. Walking into the class, I was one of the first girls to arrive. I headed to the barre next to the windows. I liked to look at the outside world from this little corner, warped from the glass, a mix of browns, reds, and greens. Fall colors. Stretching and warming up before the class began I scoped out the competition. All girls were more mature looking than me. They were all developed, yet had a slight air of uncomfortableness with their bodies that comes with the tail end of puberty. Wearing makeup and adjusting their movements to hide their own discomfort.
The teacher walked in, her scarf and perfume trailing her as she set her things down and opened her roster for roll call. Here was my moment, to make myself known to the others, to show that I was able to bypass the system, I got here cause of talent not because of age.
“Evie; Present; Erin; Present; Eleftheria, welcome to the class; Present, and thank you”
Already I saw the eyes move my way, cheeks flushing I stood straighter and sucked in my stomach. I was determined to make an impression. All throughout barre my muscles were taut, my legs kicked higher than ever before, and my arms moved through the music like through water. Walking to the water cooler during the five minute break I was exhilarated, this performance was going well. Back in the classroom, our teacher once again had out her roster.
“Girls, we have decided to release the cast list of the Nutcracker earlier this year so as to allow for more rehearsal time. Please put on your pointe shoes and stretch while I read out the cast.”
Grabbing my bag, I sat down in the corner, the Nutcracker was what made Christmas feel magical. The diversity of the dances, Tchaikovsky’s score, the feeling of nostalgia that came at the end of each performance began and ended. I was caught up in the feeling of the performance and past memories. Yet, questions ran through my head. ‘Would I get a part? Is this the reason I was told to join this class today of all days?’
“Eh hem, Jennifer you are the Dew Drop, Isha you are her understudy. Hanako, you are Sugar Plum, Jennifer you are her understudy. Sarah you are Russian Trepak along with Evie, understudies to be later determined. Eleftheria you are Spanish Chocolate, Erin you are her understudy. Gina you are Arabian Coffee, and Eleftheria, you will also understudy that solo as well…”
I was floored. For all my confidence, I did not expect the day to take this turn. Not only had I gotten a solo over one of the other girls, but I was also understudying a role. As soon as the shock wore off I noticed the looks, particularly the nasty one that Erin was shooting me. I finished tucking my ribbons into my shoes, I didn’t care. I was deemed better than her - she could deal with it. I was younger, but this was not a political sport. This was competition. I thrived from it, and this was proof of my hard work.
The teacher finished reading the cast list, and ushered us all on the floor for a quick center, afterwards we were to start learning the individual pieces.
“…can you believe that little bitch got the solo I wanted, I am actually Spanish, I’m older, I deserve that role…”
I knew Erin would not be happy with what just happened, but come on. It was not personal, it was based off of ability. Waiting my turn to start learning my choreography, I put headphones in and stretched. Closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of rosin, and the smell of dry heat coming from the old fashioned radiators.
“…I am not letting her get away with this, they will be hearing from me. Hopefully she slips up during the individual choreography sessions. That will show the teachers that she is too young…”
She did not even try to keep her voice down. Breathe in and out, Eleftheria, it's not worth it. I am competitive too, I am human, I would probably feel the same way. But come on, to berate someone for their talent…that just seemed wrong. Our teacher called me and Erin into the studio.
“Eleftheria, Erin, this solo is danced with a fan for a prop. The actual one is a heavy black and red one, but for practice we will use these lighter red ones. Please pick one and I'll show you five counts of eight for today then we will finish the choreography next time.”
I watched as our teacher demonstrated with her hands each step, speaking out the formal name of each move. I stood in front facing the mirrors, dancing each step as if it where the freaking last time I would ever be able to do so. Erin had gotten into my head, and I needed to show her that I was better - that I deserved this. Standing right behind me she mimicked my moves, trying to make life difficult by altering her spacing to conflict with mine. This pushed me harder, making me dance till I felt my feet bleeding in my shoes.
The four-hour class ended with a reverence, a formal bow, and all of us being exhausted and sweaty. My brain was working twenty miles a minute, going over choreography and replaying what Erin had said. Overall, I was anxious for Sunday to pass and to go to class again on Monday.
Showing up Monday night I was a half hour early, I carefully wrapped my feet with hockey tape and band aids. Taking care to make sure everything was in order before putting my pointe shoes on, I decided to take some extra time to stretch. Headphones in, blasting classical piano music, I stretched each muscle carefully. Turning my head, I noticed something odd. Erin and her mom were walking out of the program director’s office. I thought nothing of it. None of my business what they do or do not do. They were most likely paying the semester tuition.
Class started out normally, I had proven my place in this level last time so today's class did not get me inquisitive stares. I had found a rhythm of sorts. Then rehearsal came. I performed my role of understudy for Arabian without a hitch. Learning the choreography easily and having fun with the different movements. Then came my choreography session, or should I say Erin’s. While going over what we had learned last time individually, my teacher pulled me aside.
“Listen Eleftheria, I do not agree with this decision, but I was told that you are to be the understudy and Erin is to be the primary soloist. The program director made a mistake and thought it was better to correct it now rather than later.”
My jaw dropped, a mistake? Huh? Like in one of those comedy movies I turned by head to look over at Erin who was waiting off to the side. Her face had one of those stupid smirks on them. God, I’ve never wanted to slap someone silly before, but Lord knows I could have right at this moment. She did this, that’s why she was walking out of the office earlier. It wasn’t tuition- it was arguing for the role. She brought her mom. Her mom…. to argue for a role… to take it away from a fourteen-year-old…wooooow. I honestly could not believe this was happening. What happened to talent and working for a role? For putting your all into something, loving dance so much that it showed every time you performed?
Turning around I took my new spot behind Erin, learning the rest of the dance. It’s all political, I thought, nobody cares about talent anymore. I realized that my job now was to make sure I worked just as hard as before.
Rehearsal was painstakingly long. Having to watch Erin smirk and look at me from under her nose for half an hour straight was slowly crumbling whatever resolve I had. I was barely holding all my emotions together when, as I walked out of the studio, she caught up to me.
“Okay ya little anorexic freak, don’t you try anything to mess up my solo. If you so much as tell the teachers anything that makes me look bad I will make sure you regret it.”
As she walked away shock, anger, confusion, and a tidal wave of other emotions were attacking me all at once. I came to later realize she felt threatened by me, something I later learned to take as a compliment, but at that moment I wasn’t thinking clearly. I made it as far as the end of the block before I felt the itchy sensation of tears behind my eyes. I bee-lined for the entrance of the cemetery. Ducking and taking cover behind the stone arch entryway, I started sobbing.
I cried like someone had died, those big ugly heaving sobs that leave you breathless, gulping for air until you choke. Once I initially got over all that, I looked up ironically thinking this location where I hid in was grotesquely poetic. Something I loved had turned ugly. Like an unhealthy romantic relationship, it had turned abusive. Looking in from the outside one questions the victim in that situation, asking why they don’t leave, how they can stand to be hurt over and over again. Sometimes, you even criticize them because you know they are in a bad situation and willingly choose to stay. I was too scared to confront this abuse, to confront her.
Well, I couldn’t walk away from this relationship, that’s why I was crying. Costumes and makeup covered it all up. They made it all better on the outside for a time being, hiding the ugliest parts; the verbal abuse, the bloody feet, and warped self perceptions. I cried because I would not leave. Like I said, it is an addiction.