When I was a little child, I asked my grandpa if he ever prayed.
He replied: “Only when my feet hurt.” And little did I know, at the time, that I would pray a lot for that reason.
But I am running ahead on my story. Forgive me!
I am thirteen or fourteen and I hate sports! Gymnastics was more my kind of thing, moreover because I was studying classical ballet. But anyways, I guess I was the kind of girl whose only real gift was daydreaming…
There was this image in this classroom, of a woman with red hair standing alone. I imagined she was a noblewoman. Maybe the last one.
I was startled back when the teacher snapped my name. Back to reality. Boring.
I dreamed up a story for the woman with red hair standing alone in the picture. I invented a sad but dull story.
I scribbled pierced hearts in the margin of my notebook. I didn´t understand it yet, but something ricochets in me whenever I think back on the image of this woman with red hair, standing alone.
My homework was returned to me with a big red X, and what was even worse: the teacher scrawled: Don´t let your imagination run away with you!
I don´t know if you appreciate or enjoy classical ballet, but if you do, I invite you to delve into the rarefied world of the ballerina. I will be your guide. Follow me and astutely notice the symbols and rage underlying the romantic image of the ballerina.
There´s baldness because it´s necessary. But also, barbarism! The next time you watch a ballet performance, try to be akin to an anthropologist and explore the hidden sculptures revealed in the coded language and shared ethos of the cliques and sects of dancers. Their secrets are not merely secrets, but a means of expressing eroticism, dreams, and above all: rage!
When I think back to my ballerina days, it resembles a Film Noir. The femme fatale is endlessly fascinating to me. She is allowed to be dangerous and alluring. But (almost) always gets punished for it, though she´s really nothing more than a projection of male anxiety.
I remember how I prepared my pointe shoes. It was a very private affair, as private as pleasuring yourself, a ritual. Though in my case, the privacy was more about the shame over the state of my poor feet. (You didn´t really think I was going to elaborate on that ritual, now did you?)
I tortured them for the sake of the art of ballet and I came to hate my feet.
I wish I had a glamorous teacher. Mine was plain and incredibly unforgiving. It was rumored that she used to be a nun, and she still was a fervent Jesus fan, to the point of freakiness.
She was not beautiful in a classical ballet way. There were substitute teachers, sometimes. Mostly students who chose the safe road, by planning a career as a ballet teacher. And of course, choreographers, but they were mostly male. Come to think of it; classical ballet is the only discipline I know, where the attire of men is more revealing than the costumes of the women.
I was fascinated by the bodies of these substitute teachers; their vigor, their coolness and elegance, and the wordlessness of their exchanges; they contained mysteries.
I wondered what their lives were like outside the studio and the school. I imagined grand romances for them, and I yearned for that touch of glamour that felt beyond. I longed for mystery, exotism, and self-containment.
Ballet is full of dark fairytales, in which the prima ballerina has a lot in common with the femme fatale: a touch of weird glamour, acting on their own longings, prial emotions, and of course, there´s a moody atmosphere of sex and dread.
Those substitute teachers looked like they held secrets. I never bothered to imagine those for them. After all: secrets should remain secret.
My ballet teacher gave me such a tough time. The more I dreamed of a career as a prima on the greatest stages of the world, the more she was hellbent to crush them. I vowed to rise above it and vanquish my enemy!
The world around me was not very encouraging. It was conservative in a time when my teenage rebellion was mostly internal.
Ballet dancers are the epitome of grace and sophistication. The reality, however, is that they´re deprived and masochistic. Ballet will always be tied up in our culture with ideas about femininity, conforming ones such as the exacting and specific physical ideas of the Balanchine type, blonde, petite, and blue eyes preferably. And on the other end of the spectrum, the potentially liberating ones such as strength, discipline, and physical power. To me, it became a way to explore not just the demands placed on women, but the way women are judged, including by one another, and
what women demanded of themselves – and what might happen if they start to free themselves of some of those demands.
Every year, there was an exam in which the outcome determined if a student could remain in the school, do a year over, or simply choose another path and leave. A do-over was not an option for me. My grandmother couldn´t afford the school fees, which weren´t subsidized for a do-over year, and all the intensive training left no space for me to get an additional side job. Failure was not on my mind!
Nearly everybody today, with even a smattering of classical music knowledge is familiar with Ravel´s Bolero: the piece I chose to prove that I was talented enough and worthy to attend the final year. The throbbing rhythm of the orchestral piece is an example of musical perseveration with qualities in an abundance of intimacy and precision. That´s how I planned to prove my determination and endurance to the judges and above all: my teacher. A singular premise based on the orchestral crescendo lasting a quarter of an hour. I immersed myself in decoding the sinuous and sexy composition, in this obsessive, musical sexual piece. I designed my own choreography to mimic the movements of a toreador in a bullfight, flirting with dramatic tension, combined with athletic grace and balance.
My costume for the performance didn´t have big colorful frills or ruffles. My grandmother was the one who made my costumes, and she assured me that I was able to make it look extremely dramatic on stage. I was ready!
The repeated rhythm grew in both dynamic and texture, as I concentrated on the emotional acuity, punctuated by subtle stretches that lingered for about a few seconds more than tolerable. The mesmeric melody slowly builds a final climax. The percussions are in full force, as the whole orchestra comes together, holding a discernment Dbd cord, and falling to a C major. As did I.
That´s right; I never walked off that stage. I was carried off, together with my prima ballerina aspirations. A complete rupture of the patellar tendon. My knee never regained full function.
My ballet teacher smiled. My dropping out (for life) was a victory for her.
Maybe she saw a version of herself mirrored in me. The extremity of her desires, the intricate blend of rivalry: it must have been haunting.
I have always feared being warped and broken by life. Don´t get me wrong: struggle and battle scars are beautiful to me, far more than ethereal grace. They make beautiful survivors. It´s the things we hide or hope to hide, that have a singular beauty.
A few years later I lived in a room in the inner city. I scoured dirt from the tiles and grimaced at the biography of old blood and semen stains on the mattress.
The cries I overheard in the dark: rage and lust or both, my taps always dripping, rats in the tiny yard; still, I liked it there. I taught myself to live by the rigors of frugality and examined classified ads and supermarket deals with care.
I drafted poems in that room. They came to me at night. They hurried towards me in the dark, trembling between bliss and exhaustion.
She came back to me then: the woman with red hair, standing alone in a picture. I dedicated a poem to her. Grief had to cast its murky shadow over every line.
I could hear her lamenting lullaby. I cringed at the idea of the crush I had on the woman with the red hair, standing alone in a picture. I flinched at myself; I made myself uncomfortable, staring at strangers from bus windows.
My feet never got to dance on the biggest stages of the world… but what stages they walked me through: the jungles and plains of Africa, the ghettos of Romania, the whole of the UK, Spain, Italy, the United States, North Africa, and the Middle East.
I am proud of my feet, and I treat them with respect. I pamper them and dye my toenails in extravagant colors.
And yes, me too, I still pray when they hurt.