I open the door, head held high, and walk into the studio. Rejection weighs heavily on my shoulders. I hadn’t been stretching long when P.J. arrives. She has always been like a hurricane, her blond curls wild and words fast. She has also been my silent benefactor, giving me the keys to her business so I could practice, when she learned I couldn’t afford all the lessons I wanted to take.
“Hey! How did it go?”
I school my face, so the hurt doesn’t show. “I didn’t even get in the door. They measure your height before your group performs.”
She shakes her head, “I’m not surprised. Did you think you were going to somehow wow them so much that they would overlook your height?”
All I can do is sigh. “I got to learn the first combo, at least. It was mostly jazz, but they threw a triple time step in there for good measure. After that, the combinations were going to get progressively harder.”
“Oh, let me watch!” She grabs a CD, and Christmas music blares.
“Ugh, seriously? It’s July!”
“It’s from the Christmas Spectacular; let’s see what you got!”
I pull myself up, slipping on my character taps, and let the music wash over me. It's easy to forget that I’m in a small studio in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Now I’m on the big stage in New York City, welcoming the holiday season and surrounded by lights and color.
Right, kick, left, kick, drag ball change. The tempo speeds up, and I adjust my timing. Hop shuffle step flap ball change. Cross touch, kick, ball change, double, and hit.
My teacher claps and whoops, and I come back to reality.
“You would have looked beautiful.”
I paste a smile onto my face as I gaze at my reflection and run my hands down my body. My breasts are too big, and my legs are too short. No matter how hard I work, I will never be a Rockette.
She glances at me, seeing through my counterfeit smile.
“You got that modern scholarship at the university. My sister owns a dance school up there and is always looking for teachers. She will hire you in a heartbeat.
I sigh. I was adequate, maybe even good, but what’s the point of working so hard if it doesn’t make a difference?
I open the door, head held high, and walk into the studio. Kaleigh greets me, and her mouth stretches into a wide grin.
“Irish or Tap first?” she asks.
“Hmm, Irish,” I reply. “I want to get Saint Patrick's Day down.”
She nods, and we both put on our Rutherford’s. I am lucky to have met her. Unfortunately, the university only offers modern, ballet and a few beginner jazz classes. Fortunately, we are allowed to sign out for studio time. Kaleigh is teaching me Irish dance, and I am teaching her tap.
We maneuver the portable Marley floor to the center of the room and roll it out. The head of the Dance Department didn’t want us ruining the floor with our shoes. I miss the sound my taps made on the maple floors at my old studio, such a resonant echo. Unfortunately, the Marley we had to use here stifled the beauty of the sound. It was fitting, though. Each day of school, I felt more and more stunted. Dancing with Kaleigh helped, and it gave me a purpose.
I glance at myself in the mirror and stretch, a little taller. There may be no one watching, but I want to get it right. I close my eyes, and I am at a Feis with a great mass of chestnut curls piled on top of my head.
“You ready?” Kaleigh asks.
Treble 1, Treble 2, Treble 3, Treble 4 Treble Hop Treble Hop Back. My imaginary ponytail is bouncing, and my smile widens. This is a relatively easy traditional dance, but the position of crossing my legs while still turning out is dissimilar enough that it takes all my focus to do it right.
Tip Step Down Kick Hop Back Hop Rock 2-3 Treble 1, Treble 2 Treble Hop, Treble Hop Back, Hop Back 2-3-4. I finish that phrase and stop.
“Why did you stop? You looked awesome!” Kaleigh asks.
“It’s the rocks at the end. I’m terrified to do them,” I laugh.
She pulls me over to the bar. “Use this to practice!”
Kaleigh and I had gone to see Riverdance in Boston the week before. The large numbers had been so inspiring; the masses of dancers weaving in and out took my breath away. I wonder if Riverdance accepted short people into their company?
But, I was nineteen, and I am sure those dancers had been training since they were young. So, let's be real; no matter how hard I worked, I would never be in Riverdance.
I open the door, head held high, and walk into the studio. I don’t know what had made me think owning a dance studio was going to be easy.
My desk is littered with little sticky notes, reminding me of all the things I need to get done before I start classes at four. I glance at the clock; it’s 2:30. First, I grab the key and open the box where the parents leave their payments and only find one envelope. So many families were behind on tuition.
Every time I borrow money from them, my parents tell me I have to be better about collections. It’s not the kids’ fault their parents don’t pay. Everyone is struggling with money these days. I scan through my checkbook. At least I have enough to pay the studio's rent and my teachers this month.
Eating is another matter. Good thing it’s Tuesday. Mrs. Mower usually brings me dinner because she thinks I look too thin. I laugh out loud. She doesn’t know the half of it. Perhaps the landlord wouldn’t notice if I slept at the studio; I could save a ton of money.
I give up on trying to reconcile the books and head into the classroom to work on a combination for my ballet class. When I see my reflection in the mirror, I realize I am too thin. My eyes look gaunt and hollow, and my stomach concave.
Then the music starts.
Valse Fantaisie plays softly in the background, and I am transformed. Step dégage, step, step brush. Pas de bourrée Balancé, balancé and prep for a pirouette. I can feel myself on the stage, lights on me, waltzing across the floor, free as a bird.
As the notes fade, and I am alone in a studio I can’t afford, faced with a decision. I need to learn how to run a business or find a new career. Because no matter how hard I work, it doesn’t pay the bills.
I open the door, head held high, and walk into the studio. It had been over five years since I have taken a dance class. However, this studio offers a free trial. It is an adult's beginner class, so I should be able to keep up just fine.
“Welcome!” The teacher that greets me is friendly, and she offers a wide smile. “This class is for all levels, so don’t worry if the person next to you is doing the choreography slightly differently. I’ll give you options.”
We go around the room and introduce ourselves, but most of the other students seem to know each other. The only other new person in the room is an extremely tall man that looks nervous. I wander over near him.
“I’m Shumon; call me Shu,” he extends his hand.
“Jess,” I smile at him.
“I’ve never taken a formal dance class. I’m a hip-hop dancer.” His eyes dart across the room.
“I danced a lot when I was younger. I should be able to pick up some steps. Let’s stick together.”
I look at myself in the large mirror. It’s been so long since I’ve been on the dance floor. My hips are wider now, and my rounded stomach is evidence of the son I recently gave birth to. I wonder if I will put my children in dance classes.
“Cell Block Tango” starts playing. I feel bad for Shu, but when I glance his way, his eyes light up.
“I love this number,” he whispers. His face is so alive.
Joy floods through me as we moved through the steps. He had it comin’ He had it comin’, step point drag hip. He only had himself to blame. Step kick lay it out. The choreography was simple, and I feel myself become Chita Rivera as Velma. By the end of the number, everyone is staring at me.
I cringe and shrink into myself. “Too much?”
The teacher just laughs. “You looked amazing. Talk to me after class.”
When everyone has left, she asks me about my dance experience and hires me as a substitute. I gladly accept and wonder if I could find a place to teach again. But, my husband works such unpredictable hours, and childcare is expensive. I would only just make enough to cover the cost of a babysitter. Was it worth it?
I open the door, head held high, and walk into the studio. This was it, the summer session was over, and it was my last day teaching. Ever. I didn’t tell any of my students. The ones that knew me best could reach out to me easily enough. Mostly, I want to fade away. Everyone else would know when my name wasn’t on the fall schedule.
My children are busy with their own interests. When they were younger, they loved coming with me to the studio, now not so much. My husband could have been the one to cart them around. But I want it to be me. I need it to be me.
“Hello, Miss Jessie!” Annika said, her smile bright.
“Hi, Annika,” I said, giving her a hug. “We got the video from the recital back. Since everyone in this class was in Roundtable Rival, we are going to watch it.”
This production had been the culmination of my career. A fusion of styles intertwined in one of the craziest dance battles you had ever seen. It started with the Irish dances. Bang treble hop back, Bang treble hop back, as they battled Shumon’s hip hop dancers. In the end, there was a little of everything.
I glimpse myself in the mirror, a streak of gray in contrast to my dark locks and eyes rimmed red with unshed tears. This was the right decision, but walking away is never easy.
At the end of the evening, I clean up my room and close the door behind me. I reflect on the last twenty-five years. I had been in this very spot so many times, asking the same question. Was it worth it? Is it worth it?
Sometimes things do not go the way you plan. I never got to share my high kicks on the stage with the Rockettes, and my choreography is mediocre, at best. But, every time I stepped into the studio it was a quiet victory, shouting to the world, “I will not give up, just because I don’t fit the mold.”
I smile to myself as I finally realize walking through that door was never about success or failure.