By Heather Durham
A spotlight shone on a massive black cauldron as the red-gowned queen lowered a green apple to where I hid inside. I took the green and handed her the red, which she raised toward the audience. Magic!
I tucked to one side as she climbed in next to me, and I awaited my cue. The slow, sinister bow of a cello. Enter the villain.
I snaked one arm up into the light, white fist unfurling from long-sleeved black leotard. The other arm, up. As the music crescendoed I rose, arms still raised, revealing a steel grey wig, thick black eyeliner, warty fake nose, and blood red lipstick. Paused for effect as the audience oohed. Then I clutched my long black skirt, lifted one scarlet shoe and then the other out of the cauldron, avoiding the now crouching queen. I spread my black cape like bat wings, and I began to dance. I stomped and swirled, lunged and bounded, a frenzied frenetic ballet.
I started dancing at five years old and for much of my childhood, ballet was more habit than anything else. Like going to school, just something I did. Pink leotard with pink tights and pink shoes with the other girls all dressed the same lined up at the barre facing mirrors. Plié, relevé and port de bras, I followed the rules, the proper step at the proper beat in the classical piano piece played on 8-track tape. For a socially awkward, introverted kid, ballet was a comfort. Fitting in was easy.
That’s not to say ballet is easy. Even for those who can do a quadruple pirouette en pointe -–I was lucky if I managed a mediocre double– the real talent in ballet is something that can’t be taught. A delicate yet precise unfurling of the body from one position to another, spiraling out from a strong, solid core to liquid limbs. It’s something you can recognize in an instant in a shifting hand or straightening leg. You either get it, or you don’t.
Somehow, at sixteen, I got it. Something changed in the way my body responded to the music. I felt it. My teacher saw it. When the time came for performances, I was welcomed into the adult corps – a flower in the Waltz of the Flowers, a snowflake in Waltz of the Snowflakes. Dressed like a princess in gauzy tutu and satin pointe shoes, with blue eyeshadow and rosy blush, hair gelled and bobby-pinned into a bun, I bourreed and grand jetéd in time with the others. Twelve twirling tutus and Tchaikovsky, a synesthesia of movement and sound.
Still, I knew I would never be a prima ballerina. They were the ones who not only got it, but who had mastered difficult technical moves that took a rare combination of perfect balance, strength, flexibility, and general athleticism. And, who also happened to have tall, svelte bodies.
By sixteen my technique was solid, and what I lacked in balance and flexibility I made up for in strength, precision, and an ear for music. But I was no willowy heron. I stopped growing at 5’3” and had the stocky body of a rugby player. Costumes always had to be let out at the shoulders and ribcage, and my quadriceps bulged in tights. I would never be Snow Queen or Sugar Plum Fairy. But I did get my time in the spotlight.
Channeling a crone’s gnarled hands, I clawed toward the dwarves’ cabin and drew out Snow White. She was the prima, pink shoes and white dress, sweetness and light, all legs and arms and dizzying spins. Toward her I crouched and crept, slunk and stalked, taking one giant red-shoed step after another, music swelling. I beckoned her close, offered her the poison apple.
Naïve little princess, she took the apple from the disguised queen. She bit. She swooned. And she fell. Lifeless.
I whirled, I leapt, I cackled out loud, and for a few brief seconds, turned the world upside down.
Until, inevitably, the dwarves ran me off. And yes, Snow White was revived by a statuesque, handsome prince and they lived happily ever after. You knew that. The prima always gets the prince.
But there is a price for being fairest of them all.
Early in our lives, our teachers started sizing us up, grooming their show ponies for greatness, turning away from the rest of us. The future prima ballerinas got the attention, but they also got the criticism. Harsh standards of perfection and the assuredness that failure would crush their dreams forever. Turn faster. Leap higher. Land lighter. Arms tighter. Hands looser. Stand on your toes longer. When you bleed through your toe shoes, buy more.
Be thinner. Not thin enough? Starve. The points of your narrow hip bones are the only curves you are allowed. If in your malnutrition you skip puberty, all the better. They want you frozen in time. When their fair flowers wilt, they will toss you away. Find more.
The rest of us? Short and stocky, muscled and pudgy, we were free. To be ourselves, and dance. In fake noses and hag wigs, gothic rags and red shoes, we forgot about fitting in and spun and soared with an ecstatic grace the primas will never know. Maybe villains come to equally predictable ends. But every so often, when all eyes are on the princess, we will cast our spells and craft the sweetest of poisons.
Copyright Durham 2016