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I walked into the dressing room and was instantly enveloped by a thick cloud of hairspray and nervous chatter. Nobody looked up as I made my way to an empty space on a bench and sat down.
Today was my first day at the American National Ballet School in New York City. Along with the fifteen other girls in the room, I had been accepted to the most prestigious dance school in the country. Now I'd be taking classes here five days a week.
Amid all the chaos, I managed to get my pointe shoes on and the ribbons tied. Just as I was tucking in the knot on the right shoe, a girl shrieked, “It's time!” I hurried out with the others to the studio, where a woman wearing all black was standing, waiting for us.
“Please take places at the barre,” she said. Everyone rushed to get a good spot at the wooden rails attached to the mirrored walls of the studio. Once the room was quiet, she spoke again.
“I am Madame Theresa. Welcome to Junior Level Class. Most of you will continue to Senior Level after this year. Some will drop out. And a very small number-probably no more than one or two-might be promoted to the Company at the end of this year.”
More whispering began, but Madame silenced it with a look at the transgressors.
“So with that, let us begin. Start in fifth position. Tendu devant right, roll through to fourth, plié, tendu, close to fifth. Repeat twice. Music, please, Mr. Williams,” she added to the pianist. The music began, and we started the exercise.
As we continued at the barre I began to feel flustered, because during nearly every combination, Madame found something wrong with my dancing.
“More turnout,” she snapped, twisting my working leg out more in développé. “Point harder,” she reprimanded me, as I struggled to keep my leg extended high in arabesque.
By the end of barre, I was exhausted and dripping with sweat. Every muscle in my body was screaming for a break, and I could tell without looking that my toes were covered in blisters.
“All right, ladies, since it’s your first day, I’m going to let you leave early,” Madame began. “However, we have to do some center work, so I’ll give you a simple adagio, a slow, graceful exercise. I want to see failli, penchée on right foot, up, promenade one rotation, then place and pirouette. No less than a triple. Oh, and no one is leaving until everyone gets it right!” With tired sighs, we got into position to begin the adagio.
After class we all limped into the dressing room. I had never felt so enervated. The girl sitting next to me on the bench winced as she peeled her pointe shoes off, revealing bloodied toes.
“That’s what you get for not using toe pads, Mallory,” a blonde girl sitting on the floor cackled.
“Well, Vivian Jacoby doesn’t use them!” Mallory retorted.
Vivian Jacoby was ANB’s main principal, or prima ballerina. She was well known for being a diva and often refused to perform if her demands were not met. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary dancer, and we all aspired to attain her level of success.
“Whatever,” answered the blonde girl. Then she turned to me, scowling. “Hey, what was up with Madame giving you so many corrections?”
I looked into my lap despondently. “I guess she thinks I have sloppy technique.”
A freckled girl across the room said, “What are you talking about? Getting lots of corrections is awesome, because it means the teacher thinks you’re really good. Otherwise, why would she waste her time?”
I pondered this on the train home to Connecticut. ANBS was so different from my old ballet school, Riverside Dance Centre. Where its atmosphere had been laid-back and nonchalant, the ambience of ANBS could only be described as intense.
It had been my teacher at the Centre, Miss Heather, who had encouraged me to audition for ANBS. “They can offer you so much more,” she had said. So here I was, commuting every day after school to New York City.
My high school allowed me to skip seventh period so I could get to class on time, since it was an hour-long trek into the city. Unfortunately, I had to stand up for most of it, because rush hour meant the trains were packed. This was especially annoying since I had hoped to do some homework during the commute.
At last I arrived at the station, where my dad was waiting in his little blue car to pick me up.
“How did it go, Alice?” he asked, a big smile on his face. I mumbled something incoherent and slid into the passenger seat. “Tired?” he asked. I nodded, and he replied, “Well, you’ll get used to everything soon.”
The next day at school I was a zombie. I fell asleep in every class, even Psychology, my favorite, so during lunch I snuck out with a group of seniors to grab some Starbucks. I couldn’t afford to be sleepy all day.
The rest of the week went much the same: drag myself out of bed; go to school; go to torture-I mean, ballet; scribble out some homework; fall asleep in my clothes. Repeat. By Friday I was wondering if I had made a mistake in auditioning for ANBS. As much as I enjoyed the challenging classes, I was having a hard time adjusting to the incessant soreness and exhaustion. At least now I saw corrections as something positive, which was good because I got more of them every day.
The following week we had a surprise visitor in class. Madame didn’t introduce him, but it seemed like some of the other girls knew who he was. After we révérenced to Madame, she dismissed the group and called me over, a twinkle in her eye.
“Alice, this is Mr. Arthur Van Haalsig, our Artistic Director. Mr. Van Haalsig, this is Alice Holly,” said Madame.
We shook hands. “Miss Holly, Madame Theresa has been telling me what a lovely dancer you are, and today I saw your exceptional gift. How old are you?” he asked.
“Amazing. Well, I’d like you to bring your parents here on Friday. I want to speak with them about something very important.”
I stammered a reply, and Mr. Van Haalsig smiled and told me to have a lovely evening. Incredulous, I left to go to the dressing room down the hall. As soon as I walked in, the girls screamed, “What happened?”
“I’m honestly not sure. He asked to meet with my parents,” I said carefully.
“That doesn’t sound good! My friend Jillian in Senior Level said that only happens when he’s going to kick you out for getting too fat,” giggled the blonde girl, Hannah.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Liana. “I’m sure it’s for something wonderful.” I shot her a grateful smile, and she grinned back.
Still, that night I slept badly, imagining why Mr. Van Haalsig might want to speak with my parents. I was fairly sure it was about something positive, but it wasn’t unusual in the ballet world to be praised one day and ridiculed the next.
The next day, my parents joined me on the train into the city. They decided to visit a friend’s art gallery while I took class, then come to the school afterwards for our meeting with Mr. Van Haalsig.
After my class, I went upstairs to where his office was. My parents were already inside when I arrived.
“Have a seat, Miss Holly,” Mr. Van Haalsig told me. He turned to my mom and dad. “Mr. and Mrs. Holly, we see astonishing talent in your daughter. She possesses that quality which many dancers of great technical ability lack: joie de vivre. As such, we would like to invite her to join the Company.”
My jaw dropped. Join the Company? I had only been at the school for two weeks!
Dad seemed to share my thoughts. “Isn’t this moving a bit fast? Alice hasn’t been here very long.”
But Mr. Van Haalsig was having none of that. “Mr. Holly, in my experience, it is best to act as quickly as possible in situations such as these. This is an extremely rare occurrence, but I, along with the other teachers at ANBS, believe that your daughter is ready for the corps.”
My parents were quiet for a moment. “Well, if you truly feel that she is ready, then I am fine with the idea, but only as long as Alice wants to,” Mom said, looking at me.
“Without a doubt!” I said enthusiastically. This was an opportunity I might never be offered again!
“Well then, it’s settled. Meet the newest member of ANB’s corps de ballet, Alice Holly!” declared Mr. Van Haalsig.
Of course, we had papers to sign, and details to go over, so it was a while before we finally left.
“This is a momentous occasion! We should go out to dinner or something,” my dad said when we got out of the building.
“Dad, wouldn’t be a better idea to celebrate tomorrow? I’m exhausted and still gross from class,” I said.
“You’re right, sweetie,” Mom said, hugging me as we walked. “But we’re just so excited! Imagine, our daughter, a ballerina in the American National Ballet!”
Those words were what kept me from quitting in the following months. I was having a terrible time adjusting. If I had thought Junior Level class was difficult, Company class was ten times harder! The teachers expected nothing less than perfection.
I now had class six days a week, with occasional rehearsals on Sunday afternoons. We were preparing to perform Cinderella, and opening night was less than a month away.
I missed the girls in my old class. I hadn’t been close friends with them, but at least I had things in common with them besides dance. Everyone in the Company class was nineteen or older, and they often ignored me. They had tons of inside jokes that I didn’t understand, and when I tried to join their conversations they’d act like I hadn’t said anything.
Nevertheless, I still enjoyed being a part of it all. My favorite part of rehearsals was watching Vivian Jacoby practice her role as Cinderella. I’d often inconspicuously follow her movements, listening carefully to suggestions Mademoiselle Karolina gave her. I wasn’t trying to become her understudy or anything; I simply wanted to dance something different. Most of the corps work was really boring- a lot of our choreography consisted of just standing around and smiling in the background.
Finally opening night was upon us. We had a dress rehearsal with the orchestra the morning of our first performance, and things quickly became fractious. Two junior soloists got into a fight over whose costume was whose, and a senior soloist who was dancing the part of Stepsister 1 hurt her knee when the prince dropped her during the ball scene. Later on a corps member who had indulged a bit too much the night before twirled off the stage and into the orchestra pit. Then, to top it all off, Vivian decided that she couldn’t possibly dance unless someone procured a specific brand of rosin for her pointe shoes.
Mr. Van Haalsig was on the verge of tearing out his hair. I watched as he observed his dancers bicker and complain, and saw his eyes narrow. Suddenly, he ran and knocked over a prop, jumping on top of it in a paroxysm of anger.
“QUIET!” he bellowed. Everyone froze in place. “Now, if you’re injured and you know you cannot dance, tell Madame Theresa or Mademoiselle Karolina. They’ll call your understudies. Abigail and Daria, instead of arguing over your dresses, go ask the wardrobe mistress which is which. And Vivian, if you don’t stop making empty threats about leaving, I’ll put you out myself. Any questions?”
Vivian put her hands on her hips.”But Mr. Van Haalsig, I really can’t dance unless I get some Kellmeyer rosin. I’ll slip all over the stage if I use that cheap Barati crap! Plus, I’m afraid that Prince Butterfingers here is going to drop me. He already let Fiona fall!”
The prince scowled at her, and Mr. Van Haalsig yelled, “I’ve had quite enough, Vivian. GET OUT!”
Vivian stared at him. “You can’t kick me out! Who can take my place? Nobody, that’s who!”
“I can kick you out and I just did. Goodbye.”
Everyone was shocked into silence as Vivian flitted off the stage, her chin held high. Who would be Cinderella now? There was an understudy, but she had called in sick early that morning. No one else knew her choreography! Except…
“Mr. Van Haalsig! The little girl knows the part. She’s always copying Vivian at rehearsal,” said one of the corps members. I looked over at her, surprised that she had noticed me doing that.
“Is that so, Alice?” he asked. I was suddenly the cynosure of forty pairs of eyes. “Show us.”
Six hours later, I was sitting in the darkened backstage area in Cinderella’s dress of rags, wearing a blond wig over my brown hair and clutching a broom. I still couldn’t believe I was about to dance the main role in this major production! All I was missing was my pointe shoes; I had given both pairs to the wardrobe mistress so she could dye one pair brown and the other, silver. One of her kind assistants brought them to me minutes before I was supposed to go on.
“Thank you, they’re beautiful,” I smiled, slipping both feet into the shoes at the same time. Then I shrieked-there was something sharp inside!
“What’s wrong?” the assistant asked.
I tore the shoes off my feet and peered inside to see shards of glass! The assistant paled and apologized a dozen times, saying she had no idea how the shoes had been tampered with. Mr. Thompson, the stage manager, came over to see what the all commotion was. He was appalled at what had happened. “It’s two minutes until the performance begins! What are you going to do?” he asked anxiously.
I dumped the glass out of the shoes and wiped the cuts on my feet with a tissue. “I’m going to dance.”
The reviews of the performance the next day were absolutely glowing. Encomium after encomium leaped from the pages of newspapers throughout the city, and Mr. Van Haalsig promoted me to junior soloist, saying, “You’ll be a principal by the time you’re eighteen at the rate you’re going!”
I later found out that a bitter senior soloist had put the glass in my shoes; she was fired immediately. After everyone heard about the “glass incident”, most people were friendlier to me. Some of the corps continued to dislike me, but if there was one thing I learned from all this, it’s that you can’t be friends with everyone!