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The tops of my weathered pointe shoes are ragged and dirty, the lackluster pink satin peeling away to reveal the colorless, sturdy cloth hidden beneath. The formerly velvety, shiny satin enveloping the ballet shoe no longer has the same lustrous sheen that it did when I was merely an aspiring prima ballerina; they now carry the dried brown stains of blood oozing from overworked ankles, the grimy tips from relentless practice sessions on dusty wooden floors. The bottoms of the shoes are inscribed in messy script with heartfelt messages from a former lover; the reality that he is gone from my life occasionally spurs salty teardrops that leave crooked iridescent lines down the sides of my face. I halfheartedly pick up the shoes from my cluttered bedroom floor, toss them into my orange polyester dance bag, and mosey out the door, the warm temperature of my cozy apartment nipping me in the back as the frigid New York winter air slaps me straight across the face.
“One, two, three, one, two, three, one…,” my French dance teacher pompously articulates, as she strolls around the room to ensure that the entangling of her student’s bodies is executed with the utmost perfection. Her hair pulled back into a rigid tight bun, her rail-thin body swathed in an abundance of black material, and her lips outfitted with deep wrinkles from years of smoking, she is a woman that could be absolutely stunning if she put a bit more effort into her appearance. Her natural beauty aside, Adeline is a woman that is both revered and feared in the dance community.
My dank fingers glued to the metal barre, my legs lifting up and twisting into overly rehearsed positions, Adeline spots an error in my casual warm-up routine, and quickly ambles over to me to correct it. As I trade a knowing look with a fellow dancer, Adeline places her crimson nails over mine and violently smashes my hands closer together to produce a more graceful leg lift.
“Ouch!” I loudly interpolate, my facial expression changing from tranquility to that of disdain.
“It’s for the better,” Adeline interrupts, her narrow brown eyes suddenly snapping open, surprised that a lowly dancer is challenging her authority. Hardhearted to my obvious pain, she saunters to the center of the dark room and claps her hands twice, the universal sign for the commencement of class.
The dancers flock to the center of the room, their multicolored pastel tulle tutus glimmering in the light that beams through the dirt-caked windows. I slowly trudge along, lackadaisically kicking the dust that blankets the cracked wooden floor; only a stern glare from my dance teacher forces me to quicken my pace. Fifty classically beautiful, svelte young women scrappily cluster around Adeline’s diminutive figure, overwhelming her so much that she steps back. Finally, she speaks.
“You girls are reaching a point in your lives where you are good, very good, dancers,” she quips in her heavily accented English, while glancing around the shadowy room to ensure that her words have sunken into the minds of her students.
“Tonight, I must choose one of you to send to the New York School of Ballet,” asserted Adeline, in a voice with no semblance of sarcasm. A mood of anxiousness and joviality came about the room, and my fellow dancers exchange words of encouragement until Adeline responds with a disapproving glance that quashes all forms of conversation.
“What I have said to you in the past does not matter now; the only thing that matters is your performance tonight. This is your chance to get out…your chance to get out of this depressing hellhole and actually do something with your life. I wish all of you the best of luck,” she asserts, as she slams the peeling white wooden door to light up the dark Brooklyn night with her flaming Marlboro.
“Do you know how much this could change us?” bravely inquires a loud voice from the corner, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen over the room since Adeline’s exit. The dancer stepped into the light to reveal herself; the confident, smooth query was uttered from the lips of Christa, the most arrogant dancer in the company. Simultaneously pulling her grainy black hair into an unkempt ponytail as she strode towards the center of the room, she wore a smug grin that implied who she thought the chosen student should be. The soft winter wind whistled in the distance as the entire company waited to hear the dancer’s egotistical discourse. Instead, words of encouragement and love flowed from her cherry red pout.
“We’re not rich, we’re not smart, we’re not cool. This is the only thing that keeps us alive, because otherwise we would be smoking crack with the best of ‘em,” she asserted, nervously adjusting her shabby black leotard and glancing around the barren dance studio for inspiration.
“This is who we are and what we do, and even though one of us can go, all of us are worthy of the experience,” she continued, her eyes widening in an attempt to spur applause from her attentive audience. When the deafening sound of elegant hands smashing together was not echoed throughout the studio, she slinked back to her position in the corner, anxiously awaiting her time to shine.
After hearing Christa’s inspiring speech, I positioned myself in a particularly cozy niche of the studio and stretched my toned legs across the soiled floor. As I began to finally realize the importance of excelling in tonight’s exhibition, I vigorously clamped my tan hands to my head in an attempt to decipher what this opportunity really meant in my life. My father is an infamous cocaine dealer, an absentee figure that has not been involved in my life since he chose the merciless streets over the warmth of a loving family ten years ago. I’ve seen him in passing many times; his glassy brown eyes depict sadness and emptiness, his wide nose is caked with white powder, and his indifferent swagger is not that of a powerful cocaine dealer, but of a feeble man that is sorely disappointed in what he has become. My mother is a middle-aged slut, one whose life consists of two elements; the approval that she seeks from seedy, older men, and the child support checks that come by the dozen each month. To her, I am merely a product of a short-lived romance between her and a rich man, not an individual with thoughts, hopes, and dreams. To her, I am nothing.
After an hour of Adeline’s absence, the flaking brown wicker knob on the door is turned and a slim figure steps through, cloaked by the darkness of the night. The pungent smell of cheap cigarettes and the abundance of hair protruding from the back of the figure’s skull is unmistakable, and the teacher steps into the studio with a minuscule grin, anxious for the night’s events to commence. She claps her hands twice and the dancers scramble to the center of the studio, clamoring to be the first one chosen to show her skills. Adeline gives everyone’s apprehensive face a once-over, and finally turns her attention towards me, my stained, yellow teeth chattering with fear.
“Tina, you first. Nutcracker,” Adeline proclaims.
The other dancers shuffle to the sides of the studio, anxious to weed out the frontrunners in this fierce competition. All eyes are on me, and when the ‘play’ button is pressed on the shoddy, battered Casio radio, I am ready for action.
The first notes of the music commence, and I literally jump into my routine with the utmost enthusiasm. I scamper across the room, almost tumbling down as dust particles slip under my shoes, but gain composure as I leap into my first grand jéte. My legs mimic perfectly straight sticks as I grandly leap across the room, my brows furrowed into an expression of intensity; seconds later, I land, sticking it with such precision that murmurs of approval travel across the room. The pulsating beat of the music fuels the fire in my stomach as I complete a series of allégro from one wall to another, the envious stares of my fellow classmates not ceasing as I continually nail my difficult routine. A series of effortless battements completed, the time has come for me to launch into the last leg of my routine, which is also the most arduous. I took a deep breath of fresh New York air and dove into an arabesque, my left leg perfectly vertical, my right leg stretched up in an elevated arch that tested the limits of my mind and body. I lowered my right leg and plastered it into the ground as I performed 32 fouettés en tournant, beads of sweat flowing from my cheeks as I struggled to bring my left leg around my right dozens of times and still hide behind a faÃ§ade of composure. Finally, I lowered my trembling left leg to the ground and leapt into three consecutive grand jétes, executing them with such accuracy that a broad smile burst onto my face, signifying how proud I was in myself and my accomplishments. Then the music halted, and I was left standing in the shadows, shaking in the wake of my success.
“Tonya, you next,” interjected Adeline in a booming voice that broke the blanket of wonder that had come over the room. Although it was understood that Adeline had to be impartial throughout the course of the performances, she could not mask the slight grin of satisfaction that befell her.
The other forty-nine dancers performed their version of the Nutcracker; a select few gave dreadful performances that made Adeline shake her head in disapproval, while others carried out average dances that could be called mediocre at best. There was not a sole individual in the room that executed a performance as dazzling as mine, and I was positive that my spot as a student at the New York City of Ballet was secure. When the last girl gave a performance chock-full of bent knees and awkward arm movements, Adeline gathered the company in her protective embrace and delivered the lines that would change my life.
“Only one can go, and only one is deserving of going,” she frankly asserts, nixing the cheesy merit acknowledgement that usually follows a major dance competition. “I am very proud of this girl, and she deserves this spot…,” she paused for effect, leaving all of us perched on the balls of our feet in anticipation. “…that girl is Tonya,” she delivered the line in a soft, unassuming voice not typical of a effervescent character such as herself.
My facial muscles jutted into an expression of joy and happiness; my ears perceived one thing, while my mind interpreted another. I let reality sink in for a few milliseconds, but then realized that the eyes of a scrawny girl in the corner were filled with tears of delight and bliss. My stomach violently dropped, my doe-shaped eyes thinning to chocolate balls of rage and fury. It wasn’t me. She chose someone else.
Shooting a malicious look to Adeline on my way out, I slammed the crumbling door with such force that the whole studio quaked. My vision was impaired by irate tears, and my feet, still outfitted in my back-breaking point shoes, had trouble descending down the steep stairs, so I aggressively ripped them off my feet and slammed them into my dance bag. I entered the dark night of Brooklyn barefoot and heartbroken, and apathetically shuffled to my pitiable apartment alone and dreamless.
My shoes and I were used to disappointment.