In the beginning, I wanted to dance. Ballet. To hear beautiful French words float off my tongue and command my body. Arabesque. Glissade.Tondu. At recess, I wanted the others girls to learn the adagio I’d memorized in ballet class. I wanted to jete through the courtyard. For Christmas, I asked Santa for new leotards and books about the New York City Ballet. I wrote my fourth grade report on Maria Tallchief. I wanted to wear my pointe shoes around the house to build the calluses on my toes and strengthen my ankles.
Ballet was twice a week, and then three times, and later still, five days plus rehearsals. School and family time was filler. Anything other than ballet class was just Waiting For Ballet Class. I would skip birthday parties at the skating rink, trips to Six Flags, and outings to my grandma’s house.
I wanted ballet before I wanted friends or boys or good grades or approval from my parents. Ballet was there first with its pink satin shoes, puffy tulle skirts, and classical music filling the space between my ribs and my spine.
For my eleventh birthday, my friend Angie bought me two ballet records at the music store in Northpark Mall. Using my bedpost as a barre, I could do a whole class on the green carpet, around the full-sized bed, between my closet and the dresser. The music seeped into my confused fist of a heart. Each note carried me—mind and body—away from my stifled room in my sealed up house where everyone seemed to be holding their breath, careful to let nothing escape, especially the secrets that bound and nearly hobbled us. Each note was a universe that belonged to me. Each note was a breath I could step into and exhale.
The sweaty leotard and tights after rehearsal. The resin box in the corner of the studio. The hours and hours of rehearsal. The smell of the tincture I daubed on my swollen toes so I could wear my penny loafers to school without limping. The white tape we bought at Eckerd Drugs and the lamb’s wool jammed into the toe of my pointe shoes. The basin of salt water where I soaked my pulped toes three times a week. The thrill of being chosen for a solo. The heartbreak when I wasn’t singled out.
The sting of it, the joy of it, the secret lingering on the tips of my feet. My toes like busted piano keys. Like a leper’s fate. Like memory, like wings. Sweet pain, sweet relief. Without it, I would suffocate and die.
I could taste ballet steps on my tongue. I dreamed about my arms in a port de bras. I could mark the steps for a brise combination during math class.
Inside dance, the world was light-colored satin like the ribbons wrapped around my ankles. No family, no history, no heavy story I wasn’t allowed to tell like a weight around my neck. No one grasping at me with hungry hands, conscripting me to carry sorrows that scarred their hearts long before my birth.
My body. My toes. My music. My world. Mine.
Age thirteen. At an audition downtown in a studio with floor to ceiling windows I empty out my heart at the barre and during center exercises, hoping for a spot in Boston Ballet’s summer workshop. When my name isn’t called, I cry in a too-bright dressing room that smells of sweaty bodies and Diet Coke. I’m naked and still sobbing when a woman with a dancer’s bun and street shoes sticks her head in to offer those of us not selected a chance to speak to the director. It’s a chance to learn what we should work on. A chance to strengthen our audition for next year.
I dress quickly and wipe my face with a paper towel. In the studio, the director pulls out my audition card. It’s blank as an asylum wall. Not a single box is checked. Not a single note scribbled. There’s nothing written on it but the number they assigned me at check-in. He flips it over and there are two letters written in pencil: “OW.” Ah, he says. We don’t process applications for dancers who are overweight.
My universe collapses under the weight of those two letters. Ballet is nothing more than a shimmering illusion. It’s just like home and all the other places where my body is Too Big, where I Don’t Fit In, where There’s No Place For Me.
None of it belongs to me anymore.
I don’t quit right away. I hang by the grip of a few fingers. I audition for another company in Colorado where they accept me for their summer program even though I am OW.
But the curtain is coming down. I feel the heft of its red velvet hovering above me like a guillotine.
One last performance. A piece titled War, choreographed by my French Jewish ballet teacher who survived the Holocaust. I can hardly listen to the music without my whole body clenching in sadness and horror. The music, sung by death camp survivors, is a dirge, an elegy, a keening. It hurts to listen.
My teacher writes her memoir with our bodies.
But I don’t feel worthy of the music, the song, the history. How could my meager offering, my wrong body, be deserving of her story?
In the piece, the lethal threat—armed soldiers who train their rifles at us, our bodies, and our children—looms just off stage. In the first thirty-two counts, we strip off our clothes: scarves, shawls, long woolen skirts. We slip tunics with vertical strips over our flesh-colored leotards. When the five-year-old girl-dancer cast as my daughter is taken from my arms, I collapse in a heap by the discarded clothes. There I remain until two other bereft mother-prisoner dancers pick up me up and urge me to keep going. To dance. We must keep going.
Each step is a mourning, a body grief, a sorrow unspeakable. My body bends with horror, goes slack with anguish. The steps are not normal ballet steps. There are no brises or fouettes. It’s all downbeat. The earth is swallowing us. In the end, as the curtain falls, there is only the slow beat of a drum and the dancers, linked arm to shoulder, shuffling in an ever-tightening circle.
I could stand up right now and dance most of the piece. I could hum the music. The voices from the recording still haunt me, will always haunt me. Ein Lichtehäftlingwar ich zwar. Their Hebrew words both a mystery and a song I know by heart. War was a pin drop on the first and last moment in my childhood when I knew what it felt like to include my body in memory, to mourn out loud with arms, head, neck, shoulders, ankles, toes. I knew there were others whose bodies remembered. My ballet teacher. Those singers. The dancers in the circle with me.
There were others willing to remember with their bodies.
But I quit weeks later. Ballet, dancing, remembering with my body.
Because it was too big. There were too many mirrors in the studio and no way to outrun the white card with the two letters. My ballet teacher, the French Jew, encouraged me to go on the Egg Diet: Three eggs a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. What else? Nothing else. Three eggs total.
I couldn’t bear to pull on my tights and leotard. I couldn’t bear to see my body in the mirror, to look down and see the bulges of my breasts, my hips, my fleshy thighs. Battle lines were drawn all across my flesh and the effort of combat consumed all the passion, love, and relief. I could no longer hear the music. The body battle expanded in my ribcage like a balloon attached to a water spigot. I stuck my finger down my throat and heaved until the blood vessels around my eyes burst. And then I did it again. And again.
There was not enough room for both battle and ballet. So I buried the pointe shoes, the French words, the memories of making art with my body and breathing inside a musical note. I stashed years of myself and my deepest longings under Too Fat, Breasts Too Big, Wrong Size, Wrong Shape, Wrong All Wrong. I turned my attention to AP exams, student council, a tall basketball player with an East Coast accent—pursuits that didn’t require me to look at or feel my body in a ballet studio mirror for hours on end.
I’m a highly functional adult woman on the cusp of age thirty who’s obsessed with how she might kill herself. I dream of driving through Cabrini Green at a dangerous hour so a stray bullet can pierce my gray matter. I wonder if I could go out in an interesting way, like the lead singer of INXS, who hung himself while masturbating. I wonder if I have the courage for any of it: a gun, pills, train tracks, a bus, a fall.
A kind doctor who says Mazel Tov when I tell him my class rank at law school asks what I want. Like from life. From My One Wild and Precious Life. He knows about my suicidal ideation. He knows about the alcoholics I love and fuck and try to save. He knows I pay their bills and let them ignore me. He knows that the way I do relationships leads me to the fetal position in the bathroom, warm cheek on the cool floor. I believe I will die this way, and he seems to think I might be right.
What do you want?
I’d like a relationship with a man who has good hygiene and full benefits.
What do you want?
I want to not die alone.
What do you want?
A date for my younger sister’s wedding, preferably someone I would like to kiss.
What do you want?
I want a partner who will push the cart through Costco for me because I hate that fucking frozen walk-in cooler but that’s where the berries and lettuce are.
What do you want?
I want to have a family of my own.
What do you want?
Sex on a semi-regular basis.
What else? Is there more? Can you say more?
That’s it? Are you sure? Nothing else?
One year with the kind doctor turns into seven years, and I’m married. I’ve done Mother work and Father work and Sister work and Body work.
Eight, nine, ten years. I have two babies. I’ve offered them my breasts. I can run my finger along the 10-inch scar where they met the world. They are more than I asked for. They are maybe more than I deserve.
But is there more? The kind doctor wants to know.
What else do you want?
I can’t say it.
No, I can’t.
Breathe. Good. Now what is it?
I want to unbury dance.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Gerald Pereira