"One and two and melt towards the floor — not quite so melty there, think wax, not butter." A tall, silver-haired wisp of a woman walked slowly down the rows of barres, fixing each dancer in turn with her expert gaze.
I focused on straightening my back as I bent into a forward fold, even though the comment hadn't been directed towards me.
"Ballet is the marriage of softness and strength," Miss M went on, "and I don't want to see you forgetting about either. A bit too rigid there, Lucas." She molded his arm into a rounder shape.
I adored Miss M. She had a way of making me feel encouraged even when she was telling me I looked like an awkward praying mantis. Her upswept hair, poise, and impossibly elegant way of moving through the world would make it easy to see her as a living legend even if I hadn’t devoured all the tapes of her famous roles I could get my eyes on.
"Développé into arabesque, good, and up," Miss M’s voice moved along the line. It was nearly my turn to be under the microscope. “When you think you’re at your limit, push further, higher.”
One leg stretched high behind me, I rose onto demi-pointe, trying to ignore the pain it awakened in my ankle. I had lightly sprained it a few days ago, but as long as I promised to take it easy, the doctor told me I could still dance. This was triply important with my leading role in the year end production of Giselle, the romantic, ghostly ballet about a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, coming up. It will be my final student performance, and as my audition for the professional company associated with the school, a triumphant step into my career as a ballet dancer.
"Don't rise if your ankle can't take it, Aria," Miss M cautioned me. I must have been grimacing.
"It's not too bad," I replied, lowering my heel to the ground anyway.
"Take care that it stays that way. Eyes and chin up, keep your shoulders squared. Think upward thoughts."
I complied, focusing on the lines I was creating rather than the twinge in my ankle.
"That's better. Yes, that’s definitely better." Miss M’s signature phrase was part of why I looked forward to her critiques.
After the morning ballet class, I headed upstairs to the medical center instead of to the academic wing with my classmates for biology. Unlike the studio section of the school, where the piano music that trickled out from classrooms and the electricity of a shared passion made up for the yellowed tiles and fluorescent lights, the medical center felt drab and depressing. No dancer ever came here because they wanted to.
Seated on the bed in the examination room to wait for the doctor, I swung my legs anxiously.
"How's the ankle holding up?" Dr. Luna, who I had seen for every minor injury since starting at the school at age ten, entered with his clipboard.
"Pretty good, not too much pain,” I answered with almost total honesty.
He began to run through exams, checking my ankle for swelling and testing its mobility. Satisfied, he gently lowered my foot to hang next to the other.
Dr. Luna sat down in his rolling chair with a sigh, clasping his hands together in a way that sent my heart racing in fear. "You have an important performance coming up, don't you?"
Not good not good not good. "I’m going to dance the part of Giselle."
He raised his eyebrows. “Big role! Congratulations. Now, I want to make sure that it actually happens for you. Frankly, you were lucky this time. A grade one sprain like yours should be able to heal in time no problem, but repeated sprains weaken the ankle. And this is the third I’ve treated you for.”
I slowly released the breath I had been holding. “But it’s healing, right? Why wouldn’t I be able to dance?”
He let out another long sigh, increasing my heart rate. “Yes, it’s healing. I am, however, worried about you reinjuring it with rehearsal. I trust that you’re taking it easy, but I also believe that this wouldn’t have happened if you had been strengthening your ankle with the exercises I gave you last time.”
I looked down at my hands, strangling each other on my lap. It was true that I hadn't done the exercises for a while — between rehearsal and homework and stretching my evenings at home were pretty full. Forcing myself to meet Dr. Luna’s eyes, I used my most confident tone to tell him, “I’ll start doing them again, I promise.”
"That's what I like to hear. No more coasting." He got to his feet and headed for the door, throwing over his shoulder, “Oh and Aria, the next time I see you better be on stage.”
I dragged my feet down the hallway to bio class. If I walked slowly enough, I would miss it completely. The academic portion of the day was by far my least favorite, and not just because there was nothing I would rather be doing than dancing.
I always seemed to be one step behind everyone else when it came to our studies. I knew why — ever since I explained to my first grade teacher that reading was impossible because the letters keep changing themselves around, I've gotten extra time on tests and assignments. But that doesn't mean that it's not frustrating being stuck struggling through schoolwork when I already have my whole career mapped out. Even the academic advisor barely encouraged me to apply for colleges.
I fell into step with my closest friends, Danielle and Salma, just as they were exiting the classroom.
"How'd it go?" Danielle asked me.
"I got in trouble for not doing my ankle exercises," I replied, making them smile with a face of exaggerated guilt, "but he says it's healing."
Salma swatted me lightly on the arm. "Don't you dare be too injured to dance Giselle with me." As Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, the vengeful group of spirits who died of broken hearts, she had the second-largest female part. Our scenes together were my favorites, especially near the end when she mercilessly tries to force the man who betrayed me to dance to his death while my spirit desperately protects him, even after he broke my heart. It was fun to dance opposing roles with someone I knew so well, and with Danielle as a Wili, we would all be on stage together.
I grabbed my shoulder in mock pain. "Now I’m too injured to be Giselle!"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't even joke about that."
"Did Dr. Luna say there's a chance you won't be able to dance?" asked Danielle. She looked very concerned, as if she were trying her hardest to make sure we knew she thought that would be terrible.
I didn’t like to think about that. My tone was more dismissive than it needed to be as I replied, "Only if I get reinjured, which isn't going to happen ‘cause I'm going to do my exercises every single night.”
"You better,” Salma said.
I kept my promise. The next few weeks passed in a blur. Ballet class. School. Rehearsal. Dinner. Homework. Stretching. Ankle exercises. Ice pack. Heating pad. lce pack again. Finally, sleep.
I barely saw my parents, and my grades were the last thing on my mind. How could I think of essays and bio labs when soon I would be wearing the gauziest, most ethereal full skirt ever to grace a stage, while performing my dream role alongside my best friends? Every moment not dancing was a waste, unless I was doing something that helped me dance, like my all-important ankle strengthening exercises. Giselle consumed my life, and my focus could have put lasers to shame.
I loved rehearsals for Giselle because we were allowed to wear flowing white skirts that fell to mid-calf. Even though we still had to wear our regulation black leotards, I felt like a dancer in a professional company, where they could wear skirts whenever they wanted.
“That’s a lot of tape!” Danielle commented one evening as we stretched before rehearsal. With my leg propped up on the barre next to her, she had a good view of the lime green tape criss-crossing the ankle, which my pale pink tights did little to hide.
“Ugh, I know,” I replied, “I ran out of white so it’s so obvious today. It definitely helps, though.”
“That won’t look so good with your costume,” she laughed.
“It’ll be long gone by then, don’t you worry.”
Miss M clapped her hands twice, signaling the start of rehearsal. “We’ll go from Giselle’s entrance in act two. Salma, you’re over here by the grave. Aria, still in the wings. Wilis, get into your two lines on the edges.” She stood in the center of the studio, directing the flow of dancers with long, graceful arms.
I was pleased, as this scene was Giselle’s big moment after Myrtha wakes her up from her grave, and I very much wanted enough practice to get it right.
The pianist began and I waited for my cue, stepping lightly onto the stage area as Salma lifted her arm dramatically to raise me from the dead. I loved the part that came next: Giselle’s famous spinning, leg stretched back and arms reaching skyward, that never failed to earn an applause when it was performed. I felt like a spirit sent wild with grief, tamed slightly for a series of delicate hops across the stage.
“Lighter, Aria, ghostlier, airier!” came Miss M’s musical voice from where she paced at the front of the studio, “Yes, yes, definitely better.”
I began the final section of the dance, spinning and leaping from the upper corner of the stage. By this stage in the preparations I knew the choreography well enough that I could focus on interpreting the role and the music, with technique in the back of my mind. I felt strong and free and ethereal as I soared through the air, landing my first leap painlessly on my weak ankle.
I spun down the stage and took off once more, euphoric in the air, but this time my ankle turned as I landed and a jolt shot up my leg. I stumbled, and heard the gasps, but it was okay because it didn’t hurt and I had to keep turning because I had one jump left and my part wasn’t done and the show was next week and I was going to be Giselle.
I leapt clumsily, came back down to Earth, and crumpled to the floor, not because of the pain — although it was by now undeniable — but because I knew that I had done it this time. This was not a minor sprain, and I would not be dancing my dream role in my graduation performance. Everyone watching me knew it, too.
Salma was kneeling beside me, the rest of the girls gathered around. "Are you okay? Try and get up," she was saying.
Miss M was there too, lips pursed as she parted the sea of Wilis. She stretched out a delicate hand, which I took. "Can you stand?"
I tried, even though I already knew it was pointless to think I could put any weight on my ruined ankle. Leaning heavily on Miss M and Salma, I struggled to a chair by the door.
I didn't realize that I was crying until Salma said to me, desperation in her voice, "Don't cry, Aria. Maybe it's not that bad."
I met her eyes where she knelt beside me, noticing that she was on the verge of tears as well. That sent the first agonizing, cruel stab of emotional pain through the numb disbelief. I shook my head, noticing how the motion flung tears into my lap. "It's that bad," I whispered.
Miss M pulled Salma away gently and turned to quiet the whispering dancers. I noticed Danielle huddled with a few of the other girls, sending glances in my direction. For a single, unguarded second, she looked almost gleeful. I glared at her, letting anger build, grateful for something other than my shattered dreams to focus on. How could she triumph in my failure?
In such a competitive field it was hard to know who your real friends were. Maybe I could have found it in my heart to forgive her if she was my understudy, but she wasn't. She had nothing to gain from this. Apparently, she was just happy to see me fail.
The medic on evening duty arrived with some crutches and I hastily used them to stand, glad to get out of there. In the privacy of the next studio, she confirmed what I knew: It was bad. My mom was there suddenly — someone must have called her — holding my hand and helping me to the car, where I leaned my head against the window and hoped for the relief of sleep.
One week later, on a Friday evening, my mom and I sat in plush, burgundy seats on the ground floor of the city’s grandest auditorium, wearing our most elegant summer dresses. It was the night of Giselle. I fully expected the performance to be two acts of sheer misery for me, but I was there because I couldn't not support Salma. I knew she would have come to see me if the situation were reversed.
I reached for my mom's hand as the curtain came up on the rustic village I had hoped to live in for a few hours. I watched the peasants, my schoolmates, whirl around the stage, and as my understudy, Maddy, charmed and was charmed by the visiting nobleman. The first act ended with the betrayal scene: Giselle, having discovered her love was betrothed to another, fell into a madness that spelled the end of her weak heart.
Maddy did a good job, but at that moment I felt like I could step into the role and dance the most convincing depiction of a broken heart the world had ever seen.
As the curtain dropped on the first act, I was fighting tears. I wasn’t sure I could bear the second act, which had always been my favorite. I would see Maddy, stepping out from Giselle’s grave, ethereal in her white, gauzy full skirt. I would see Salma whipping her Wilis into a murderous frenzy, bent on exacting revenge on Giselle's lover, and doubtless spot Danielle in the first line during the haunting dance of the Wilis.
I would have given anything to dance her part, any part, and felt bitter even thinking of seeing her in the costume I loved so much.
My mom was looking at me, eyebrows knitted together. "Do you want to leave?" she asked.
Yes, I did. I would truthfully rather be anywhere else. Lord knows I was used to physical duress, and mental, too. But this emotional struggle was new to me. Was this something that could be worked on, beaten, like finally adding another turn to your pirouette?
An echo came into my mind, Miss M's voice resonating out of better times. "When you think you're done, push further."
I remembered all those evenings in rehearsal when she urged me to embody the character of Giselle, whose strength of spirit triumphed over her grief. Thinking of Danielle, I remembered that ultimately, Giselle was a story about forgiving someone who betrayed you.
I shook my head at my mom. "Let's stay," I said.
The curtain began to rise on the misty graveyard, spooky in its blue lighting. I took a deep, bracing breath, wondering if I had made a mistake, if I should have left when I had the chance.
"Chin up, Aria," came the ghost of Miss M’s voice in my head, "Eyes up, now, and face the world head-on with nicely squared shoulders."
I took the corrections, sitting up straight and crossing my good ankle over my injured one in the proper way I imagined ballet dancers ought to. I felt suddenly resilient, as if I might be able to put my grief aside and get lost watching my best friend in the most beautiful ballet ever created.
As the dancers appeared on stage, I heard one last, lilting echo: "That's better. Yes, that's definitely better."