“It is not the failures in our life that define us, it’s the moment when we decide that getting back up is all that matters.”
The insults hurling towards me hurt almost as much as the nails digging into my hands. I try to focus on my choreography, run through it over and over again inside my head. I try to block out the perfect faces bearing down on me with their sleek hair, clear skin, and golden brown tans, but their words still filter down through my crumbling barriers.
“Some people just need to realize that they will never succeed in the professional dance world. Sorry to break it to you honey, but ballet dancers have to be pretty. Would you want to look at an ugly swan?” The bunheads try to hide their giggles behind falsely sympathetic smiles. They don’t try very hard.
“And let’s face it,” says bunhead #2, “that second hand costume just isn’t going to work. I don’t know how you feel right now, but I would be so embarrassed if I had to perform at the Prix de Lausanne in a second hand costume. Am I right girls?” She looks at her friends, simpering at my slightly rumpled and yes, second hand tutu.
“Wyndsor?” Marie appears in the dressing room’s doorway, she surveys the long and brightly lit room before looking at me expectantly. “They mopped the stage so we have a few minutes to work. Let's go.” She gives the still giggling trio next to me an appraising look, and then waits as I pull off my socks and head for the stage before following me. “Have you been making friends?” she asks with an all-too knowing look.
“Yeah, whatever.” I turn away and take a deep calming breath. I cannot be distracted. My performance tonight at the Prix de Lausanne finals will either make my dreams of dancing professionally a reality, or it will crush them. I cannot let snotty opponents or nagging teachers get in the way of my future. Staring out at the immense and echoing expanse of the theatre before me, I listen to the tiny voice that has been nagging me for weeks now.
“What if you fail? What will you do? What will people think of you? How could you face anyone ever again?” I think about my uncle drinking himself to death in his run down trailer, my dad moping around the house after being fired, my sister crashing her car while smoking herself into a stupor. I cannot fail, I cannot be like them. I must remain calm. Calm. Focused.
The blood rushes in my ears and pounds in my chest; every nerve in my body on fire. My feet mark the steps of “Lise” variation from La Fille Mal Gardee out of habit, but the movements mean nothing to my brain.
“Wyndsor Oberg, 16, United States of America, Variation from La Fille Mal Gardee” states the announcer, his deep and raspy voice booming off the gold plated theatre walls. I am frozen. And yet searing heat courses through my veins. Forcing movement into my limbs feels foreign, like I have never walked before. As I take my place on the stage, I stare out into the 1,850 shadowed faces glaring down at me from red velvet seats. My career hangs on the edge of a knife as the achingly familiar first notes of the melody bounce out of enormous speakers. I don’t stop to think. I begin. My mind remains blank, but hours of rehearsing pay off, and muscle memory takes over. Lost in the fluctuating movements, I hardly notice one of my tormentors from earlier this afternoon watching cooly from the wings.
I feel as though no time has passed since I stepped onstage; I can't even remember performing the begining of my solo. But here I am, so close to being done. All that stands between me and victory are a few little fouettes. Whipping my leg around me, I gather speed, rising up onto pointe again and again. For the last time, my arms open, and time seems to slow to a crawl. I know what will happen a split second before my ankle collapses. Unable to stop, I crash down in a heap of tulle and my hopes shatter. It is over. Hot tears of pain and grief strike my eyes but I can’t show them how weak I am. My future may have just come crumbling down around me, but I am determined to remain whole for a few more minutes. I stand, and face the vast black sea of people, most of them hardly caring that my career has just been torn from my grasp when I was so close to being able to hold on to it forever. Giving the panel of judges a low curtsy and making my way to the wings, I see Marie waiting for me. I don’t want to talk to her, or even look her in the face. I know the disappointment will be there, etched in every wrinkle and line. I know what she will say.
“You tried your best, and that’s all that matters.” But I know what those words really mean: You're a failure, and you just threw away your one chance at stardom. Because both of us know the truth; there will be no next time. This was my one chance, and yes, I did throw it away.
I try to walk past her, to get to the bathroom where I can finally be alone, to let out the flood of burning shame and misery boiling just below the surface. But she hooks my arm and turns me around. I see tears sparkling in her eyes as she pulls me toward her and squeezes my wrist.
“You tried your best.” Her voice sounds dead and cold, almost like a stranger’s.
“I’m sorry” I whisper, and the the tears that I have been fighting so hard to contain finally escape. They mingle with sweat on my face and cascade down my cheeks as if they will never stop.
Glossy college brochures slide off my comforter as I shift in my cocoon of blankets. Again and again I run through lists of majors in my head, but not a single one sounds interesting. Ever since the Prix, teachers, counselors, and parents keep asking me the same question:
“What do you like to do besides dance?” They ask me this like it’s the simplest thing in the world, like I can just snap my fingers and come up with a new life plan. But the truth is, I have no idea what I would like to do besides dance. I always sort of felt like Ballet would be there for me, that I would never have to worry about the hundreds of different career paths that most high schoolers find themselves lost in.
My mother’s voice wafts down the hall from the kitchen, and I know she is talking to another sympathetic relative. I know they mean well, offering their ‘condolences’ and everything, but every muffled conversation make me feel more and more contaminated. I feel like have some sort of infectious disease, every one is treading carefully around me (that is when their not whispering behind my back).
“Don’t get to near to Windsor, she has a bad case of failure.”
The anticipated knock comes on my bedroom door, and my mom peeks her head in without waiting for an answer. She has a strange secretive expression on her face, and she looks like she just won the lottery.
“Wyndsor honey, there someone on the phone for you,” she breathes. Her eyes are twinkling like she can hardly contain her excitement. She walks to my bed and holds out the phone.
“Is it another relative?” I ask in dulcet tones. But instead of responding, she she smiles, shakes her head, and walks out of the room. I have the distinct impression that she is standing just outside the door; prepared to listen to every word I say. I pick up the phone, which is still warm from my mother’s hand.
“Hi there, is this Wyndsor Oberg?” says the male voice on the other end. It’s definitely not a relative.
“Yes, this is Wyndsor”
“Wyndsor, my name is Helgi Tomasson. I’m the artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet.” My heart stops. I can feel the hand holding the phone begin to shake. Struggling to keep my voice level I try to reply with something polite and inquisitive, but all I can do is wait for him to continue.
“I saw you compete at the Prix de Lausanne, and I was very impressed with what I saw.”
“But...but Mr. Tomasson, I fell during my variation.”
“I am quite aware of that, failing onstage is a part of any dancers life. What is more important is knowing how to have dignity and composure when dealing with mistakes. When you fell during your solo, you demonstrated just that.”
“I don’t understand, Why are you calling me?”
“Wyndsor, if you are able and willing to get back up after your failure at the Prix, then I am offering you a job with The San Francisco Ballet.” His words slowly wind through the corridors of my brain, filling me up with excitement; a balloon that will never pop. Taking a deep breath, a smile slowly spreads across my once tear-stained face.
“Mr. Tomasson, I accept your job offer. I’m ready to get back up.”