The hopefuls are desperate to be seen. They wear identical black leotards that cling tightly to their prepubescent bodies. Their right hand rests lightly on the barre as they lift their legs above their heads and hold them there for a count of four. They stand in perfect uniformity, fully assimilated along the perimeters of a white room streaked with mirrors. A corpulent woman with apricot hair, thick stockings and wearing black orthopedic shoes that can’t manage her bunions, taps her stick on the Marley floor. In a thick Russian accent shouts Pointe. Point. Pointe.
The hopefuls stare at their exquisite sweaty selves in the mirror as they point and flex, step on Rosin, stretch their arches, stand on their toes, arch their backs and bend backwards, fold themselves in half, wrap their feet around their heads, jump high in the air and land without making a sound, turn once, twice, three, four times, on one leg, plié, Grande plié, tendu, pas de bourrée, glissade, jete and walk like ducks, their bun heads held high and their spines, stick straight.
The hopefuls are rail thin and profoundly hungry. They carry bags on their bony shoulders the size of Carry-On luggage. Things they carry: 2 pairs of ballet slippers, 2 pairs of pointe shoes: one soft, one hard, 2 leotards, 2 pairs of tights, ankle, calf, arm and leg warmers, massage ball, foot roller, cosmetics bag, hairspray, first aid kit, ‘toe bag’, lambs wool, extra Band-Aids, KT tape, sewing kit, chocolate laxatives, antiperspirant, chocolate Ex-Lax, sugarless gum, cigarettes, Gummy Bears, Tic Tacs, caffeine drops, almonds, wallet, Marc Jacobs Body Mist, IPod, textbooks and a food diary
Hours before the hopefuls’ class begins, they can be found in the hallways wrapped in cellophane-like pants and tops, layered and draped in colorful woolen one-piece body warmers, cut t-shirts, hand knit calf warmers, converted pajama tops, tailored sweat shirts and fuzzy foot warmers. They splay their dance bags and its contents, covering the entire width of the corridor with their bodies and their stuff, as they stretch, chew gum, zone out with ear buds in, wrap and re-wrap and an injury, brush their hair, sew their toes shoes, inspect their toes, inspect other’s toes, roll a ball under their buttocks, and chat.
One hopeful stands on her right leg facing the wall as she slides her left leg up the wall so high and so close that her crotch touches, like a split on the floor, but vertical.
Athletes in team sports, performers in show business all believe that if you want it bad enough you’ll make it. You’ll win a game. You’ll win a part. Luck could strike at any moment. You just have to wait it out and if you want it badly enough, you’ll overcome all obstacles.
The hopefuls could want it until they are blue in the face, but if they are not born with certain physical attributes they can’t have it. Ever.
Necessary physical attributes are: thin long-limbed bodies, a substantial amount of turnout (range of motion in the hips), beautifully arched feet, a small head. Musicality, élan, or that indescribable something such as raw talent that a hopeful might have, over one that doesn’t, doesn’t necessarily trump a hopeful endowed with the above physical attributes chances of making it. These attributes make beautiful lines and beautiful lines make beautiful shapes, and beautiful shapes inspire choreographers, who are among the key people, a hopeful wants to be seen by. If their bodies don’t make beautiful lines, they won’t be looked at. If they can’t see you, (or won’t’ look at you; same thing) you won’t be looked at. You might as well kill yourself.
Can a hopeful overcome the terrible tragedy that genetics have played on them? Hopefuls who are not born with a substantial amount of turn-out can gain some measure of it by lying face down on the floor, spreading their legs to a forty-five degree angle, bend at the knees so that the bottoms of their feet touch, have another hopeful sit on top of their feet, the weight of which will force the muscles around the hopeful on the floor’s hips to release – or tear – usually the latter – but hopefully the former – so that their hips will open, and hooray, their feet will touch the ground, thus increasing their turnout. Until that day, they repeat this ritual – until that happy day arrives – and if it doesn’t, they fake it. Faking it means turn her feet out, literally, making it appear as if her hips are open, completely disregarding the anatomical fact that her knees and hips are in opposition to what she is making her feet do.
The result is two-fold: the lines they make are more beautiful, on the other hand this near guarantees rheumatoid arthritis, knee and/ or hip surgery and replacements are their future.
Hopefuls who accept their turn-out-deprived bodies and who have innate (superior) technical skills, have a shot at being looked at seriously by teachers, choreographers, and most importantly, the audience. It happens. But what the audience really wants to see; what they are paying top dollar for is perfection not exceptions.
The hopefuls’ skin is to be that of a color of a fresh peeled apple. Inside the dressing room as they change into their leotards, as they stand in front of the mirror and scrutinize every ounce of flesh on their lithe bodies, as they examine the small lip of butt cheek that they cover over with their leotard, as they apply eyeliner, lipstick and rouge, and during every moment of their one and a half hour class, the hopefuls are sizing each other up: This one’s heads too big, this ones feet are sloppy, this one only eats condiments, this one can’t jump, this one’s father’s on the board, this one hasn’t had her period in six months. They compare toes. This one’s second toe is bigger than her first: the pressure won’t distribute equally; compared to my square toes, theirs are the most likely to injure first. This one in the advanced class had her breasts reduced, this one’s torso is too long, this one barfed in the bathroom stall before class, this one’s got it all but she’s lazy, this one’s hips are too wide, this one’s neck is too short, this one’s black.
In the dining hall of Jessica’s Women’s Residence, while Amber is on her way to the subway, as Pilar waits on line at Starbucks for her morning coffee, while they’re stretching, or walking up and down stairs and all throughout their history, English, French, trig class, as they dream, even, the hopefuls are counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 . . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and a one and a two . . . and a 5, 6, 7, 8 . . . 16 counts of four . . .4 counts of 8 . . .24 counts of 6, 0 percent fat, 2 ½ grams of fat, 16 oz., 24 oz. Apple: 85. Bagel: 260. Carrots 35. Muffin: 310, Yogurt: 120. Gum: 6 calories. The hopefuls’ parents too are counting: Toes shoes: $80 (2 pairs per week). Tights: $20 Leotards: $40. Ballet paraphernalia: $50 here, $50 there. Winter, spring, summer and fall tuition
Stress levels spike when an outsider enters the hopefuls’ classroom. The hopefuls jockey in line to be front and center. The hopefuls use peripheral vision to keep track of the number of corrections, glances, flirtations and proximity the guest teacher, choreographer, board member, trustee room gives to one hopeful and not another. The hopefuls assess: What’s so great about her? My feet are prettier. I am exquisite. Look how sensitively I can portray my every movement. I am the fastest. Look at the openness across my chest, and the air underneath my chin. My jumps are higher, cleaner. My arches: gorgeous, my legs; longer and thinner, my turnout; natural. I have the most graceful arms, the prettiest fingers; my French Twist elongates my already long Swan Lake neck. How elegant my profile. Look how I can strikingly portray mystique, cheekiness and flirtatiousness through the use of my head/eyeline. Look how I engage my back muscles to make my arms more expressive. Keep your eyes on me. I am your muse.
Look at me.
Look at me.
Look at me.
Hopefuls think with their bodies.
How they ‘do’ in morning class determines how they will know if they are up or down, good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Morning class is the spine of the hopefuls’ day. If they have a bad class, and are “off their leg” or ‘out of it’ they can never get “it” back. The hopefuls wait in a state of heightened anticipation for their teacher to arrive, and for morning class to begin. Some sit and stretch, some stand, others primp and pluck at their bodies, buns, toe shoe ribbons, leotards, tights, as they look at the clock. When the teacher arrives silence reserved for the only the holiest of places descends. The hopefuls line up at their place at the barre, stand in first position. The teacher demonstrates the plié combination, marking the movements with their hands, then nods to the pianist.
Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, six days a week, for years, adding up to decades, the hopefuls grow up together, in the classroom.
They watch their bodies change, they watch their classmates bodies change, they watch their teachers watching them, change, they watch the light in the classroom, depending on the season, change. They sensate the mood in the classroom; electric, somber, one day Amber is having a good day, one day Rita is on fire, one day Betsy is off.
Unlike the kind of “we’re all in this together” kind of camaraderie that accrues from people spending that much time together, theirs is rife with competition. Their goal is not to be in it together, it is to be solo(ist).
There is no loneliness like theirs.
You, line up. You: go over there, you: stay put, you: stay in line, you; stop hiding in the corner, you; in front, you: POINTE, POINTE, POINTE, You: where are your feet? You, head up, look front, where are you arms? You’re slow. You’re late. Don’t get ahead of the beat. Get those legs in the air. Front row: higher, higher, higher, faster, faster, and faster.
Yanking, kicking, beating, jumping, holding, squeezing, leaping, turning, bending, holding, pushing, smearing, lifting, day after day after day after day. Eventually, a hopeful will slip, fall, twist, buckle, overstretch, tear, break or bruise, a bone, tendon or ligament.
The hopefuls pack up their photos of Gram and Grandpa, Junior, Spot, Mom and Dad, posters of Taylor Swift; pillows shaped like lips, Raggedy Anne dolls,
Glitter unicorns, fairy lights, bejeweled jewelry boxes, then seal the box up and it get shipped to student housing, a women’s residence, a two-bedroom apartment with four other hopefuls, or with a friend of a friend who has a spare room in their apartment, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The loneliness of that first week away from home is unmitigated by Skype, text or phone. A more sensitive hopeful might react to the vast and varied opportunities of the city, so readily available, by losing their shit in a Bushwick bar, bingeing on Krispy Kreme, jars of cake frosting, or finding herself in an UBER on her way to LaGuardia for the next flight home.
Invitations the hopefuls get in the city and which they say yes to read like this: We request the honor of your presence (to decorate) a donors’ cocktail party/fundraiser. After a few elbow ribbing from a more experienced hopeful, the newer hopefuls learn not to gawk or giggle when they enter buildings with doormen, housekeepers, chefs and musicians. The hopefuls wear strappy black dresses/and hold glasses of champagne while standing, feet turned out, on penthouse terraces overlooking the city. Men, older even than their father’s, fawn over them, invite them out to restaurants, order them Peking duck and offer them smooth silent drives through Central Park in a warm limousine
A hopeful’s dedication to their art is equal to their ability to hide pain. Bloodied toes, bruises, muscles pain, in time become so normal they don’t feel it. Adrenaline, vanity and self-preservation kick in, their minds tell them to suck it up, hold it together, push harder and most importantly – smile.
Save it for when you retire.
Injured hopefuls, propped up by crutches, on the floor under the barre, or worse, wearing street clothes, is a sour reminder of what could happen to any one of them at any moment. The injured hopeful feels the pain of her injury far less than what she sees in the uninjured hopefuls gaze; you blew it. More for me. Go Away. Move on. You’re blocking my view in the mirror.
Some hopefuls’ parents’ were once hopefuls themselves. They see their hopeful as ‘a thing’ that will fill their emptied life, fulfill the accomplishments and live the dreams that they, for whatever reasons, could not.
They are the ones brushing and pulling their hopefuls hair tight, tight, tight, sticking flowers into their hopefuls’ elaborately constructed buns, French twists or crown of braids. They wait for their hopeful at the classroom door with an eye and a mouth full of criticism. The hopeful feels the way they are looked at and resent it. Ex hopefuls and hopefuls spend an extraordinary amount of time together. Their lives are inextricably bound by the production of ensuring a hopeful’s success, in all the ways that the ex-hopeful failed. Sacrifices (real and imagined) an ex-hopeful makes for her hopeful: the best years of her life, her marriage, her having anything left to give to her other children, her figure, etc. The weight of these sacrifices feels real and lay heavily on the hopefuls’ bony shoulders. They respond in not so pretty ways. One ex- hopeful gained so much weight she was asked to leave the school. One lost so much weight; her body started to growing moss on her skin keeps her organs warm. Another was chronically injured. Like trying to feed a hungry ghost, all hopefuls’ attempts to satiate their ex-hopeful parent will fail, yet they’d risk dying trying.
Hopefuls in the corps de ballet of Swan Lake, say, must blend in neatly, yet she will want to have ownership of her work, to know it so well that it becomes a part of her, her movements conveying thoughtfulness, care and a mindfulness of classical purity, without ever becoming robotic. She will add her own subtle individual interpretation not only for herself but also for that person sitting in the fourth ring, looking at her through their binoculars. They will see her individual stamp and not a blur of identicals, wearing identical costumes, performing identical movements at precisely the same moment, performance after performance after performance, after performance.
When a working hopeful has reached complete mastery, she is now on her way down. The clock ticks louder than ever. The true grasping starts. When a hopeful has willingly or unwillingly stopped being a hopeful, she will struggle with adjusting to life without her umbilical barre.
When I am no longer a hopeful, who am I?
All hopefuls are of exceptional intelligence.
College, graduate school, medical school, they earn Ph.D.’s, become psychiatrists, interior designers, professors, museum scholars, choreographers, lighting designers, real estate magnates, scholars, philanthropists, they teach dance, they marry, they have children, their bodies fill out, they stay stick thin, they tend to their chronic hip, knee and foot injuries.
Hopefuls who cannot find an answer remain suspended, like an insect trapped in amber, in the past. They can be seen nibbling from salad bars, lingering in the corner of an ‘open’ advanced ballet class, their feet crooked with massive bunions, toes sticking up, draped in layers upon layers of loosely fitted, loosely stitched, torn, off-pink wool body warmers, a ravaged ballet skirt, untied toe shoes, ribbons flowing, sharp, short streaks of red rouge on their ashen cheeks, a pink tattered scarf attempting to hold their up their orange hair, in a messy bun.
When they look at themselves in the mirror they see themselves as young, beautiful, turned out at the hip, able to remember complex combinations, backward and forwards, as being able balancing on one leg, triple pirouetting and leaping across the studio like a gazelle in the Serengeti.
When one ex-hopeful catches another ex-hopeful’s eyes on the street, they silently acknowledge the shared past, but not each other, and keep walking.
Suzanne Dottino’s fiction and interviews have been published in the American, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Heeb.com and The Brooklyn Rail, St. Petersburg Review, and others. Her plays have been published in SamuelFrench.com, Springhouse Journal, The Brooklyn Review and IndieTheaterNow.com. She is the founder of the literary magazine KGBbarlit.com and curator of the KGB Bar Sunday Night Fiction Reading Series.
Whew. This really moved me. I spent years in ballet studios as a “hopeful” and too much time in the “frog position” you describe, trying to open my hips. Ack! I saw friends’ bodies and hearts broken by the life. Have to say the most hopeful I felt was when I quit at 19 to go to college, be normal, and eat what I wanted. Thanks for this powerful portrayal!