Visceral Reactions

January 3, 2018
By Anonymous

I stand before an ocean of people, everyone going along with the current of their monotonous daily schedule. This day is nothing special to them. But I stand alone. I inflate my lungs and exhale slowly as I step into the room. I keep my shifting gaze fixated on the ebony-colored floor, avoiding eye contact with anyone and simply hoping to blend into the background. The casual chatter and laughter of the professional dancers floats over my head, inaudible, as if I am moving in a bubble as I make my way to an empty spot on the floor. I place my bag on the cold dance floor and plop down beside it. I extend my legs out in front of me as I retract my hands into the warm, comforting embrace of the sleeves of my oversized sweatshirt and flex my feet upward, my ankles crackling and popping and releasing the tension built up inside of them. My eyes shift upward, slaves to the curiosity of the room around me brewing in my mind, but my lips remain sealed shut, as if to trap in any word that might try to escape.

 

I scan the room, taking in every detail in my panoramic view. The room is vast and rectangular. The floor is the deepest black you can imagine, shiny in most places, but duller and worn from overuse in others. Three of the four walls are made from rough, exposed brown and red brick. There is a long, floor to ceiling mirror mounted on the floor, reflecting the light coming from the ceiling above. An industrial iron bar is mounted on each of the three walls to serve as a ballet barre. The ceiling is very lofty, maybe 15 feet high, crossed with a pattern of supportive beams. In the corner, there is a sound system sitting next to a small, shining mahogany piano, just waiting to be played.  There is only one tiny window in the entire room- it’s in a silver metal garage door inserted in the back brick wall.

 

Now, I start to notice the people around me. To my left, a tall man with a dark scruff of beard and a hoop ring hanging from his nose clutches the metal ballet barre with his hands and pulls his body away, stretching his spine like a cat awakening from a midday nap. I can hear his spine softly popping like popcorn as each vertebrae separates slightly and he lets out a long exhale of relief. I wonder who he is and how he got here. I want to ask him about himself, but as he turns my way to do another barre stretch, I sheepishly glance away and move on.

 

My vision pans a little farther to the right and focuses in on two women. One has a curly, fawn-colored ponytail cascading down her back. She is standing tall and statuesque with her right leg levitating effortlessly high above the ballet barre, curving her foot into a perfect parabola from her ankle to the tips of her toes. As she places her leg gently on the barre and effortlessly elongates herself forward to stretch her hamstring, her ponytail sweeps over her shoulder and covers her face like a velvet curtain. The other girl sits on the floor, winding her golden-blonde hair into a tight bun centered on the top of her head and securing it with a rubber band and countless pins. Then, she vanishes into a heavy smog of hairspray. The brunette makes eye-contact with me as a friendly grin spreads across her face. My heart feels a little lighter and encourages me to speak to her, but as my mouth opens to greet her, my toungue is instantly tied and my brain takes control, sharply forcing my eyes back to the floor before I can actually say anything.

 

I decide I should do something instead of just sit there, staring. I should at least try to look like I fit in. I rummage through the never-ending pit of junk that is my dance bag in the hopes of finding something to occupy myself with. I find my numbing cream and apply some to my tense calf muscles to prepare them for the long week ahead. I untwist the cap and a harsh mint aroma wafts out. I massage the gel into my aching muscles and the cold instantaneously permeates its way throughout my leg. My calves release their iron-grip and the only sensation I am left with is a tingling numbness.

 

I notice a girl a standing few feet away from me, simply minding her own business. She looks so calm and collected. I try to act the same, but my clammy palms and shaking muscles reveal my facade. She glances up and smiles at me, realizing that I am different. I am not usually in this class because I am not a member of the professional company. She saunters over to me and greets me with a friendly smile. “Hi,” she says. “Are you here for the summer apprentice workshop?” Blushing bashfully, I manage to stutter, “Y-yes. Yes I am.” “ You’re going to have so much fun dancing alongside the professional company this week! How old are you?” she inquires. “Seventeen,” I reply. “Oh my gosh! You’re like a baby!” she exclaims as she walks back to her spot on the barre.

 

Then, it dawns on me. I am so much younger than everyone else here.  I am at least 4 years younger than the next youngest person. I overhear conversations of who I assume must be the other apprentices. “...just graduated from Butler…” I hear from one side of the room. “...Senior at Pointe Park…” I hear from the other side. My heart starts to race and my brow starts to sweat. These people have so much more experience than I do. How will I ever keep up? Maybe I’m not supposed to be here…

 

These thoughts of doubt stop abruptly like a car slamming on its brakes as the teacher, Nick, enters the room. He glides through the door and his presence commands everyone’s attention. You can’t help but pay attention to Nick. He is the founder of the company, and a critically acclaimed choreographer. He is extremely successful in his field, which makes him a very strict teacher. Nick is followed by another man who tightly grasps sheet music and slides onto the bench behind the mahogany piano tucked in the corner. The pianist cracks his knuckles, shakes out his hands, and prepares to play.

 

Nick chooses a spot at the barre and every dancer in the crowded room flocks towards him, trembling with the anticipation of witnessing his genius choreography. We learn the first combination of the day: simple pliés. I take it all in and return to my spot. I focus on every sensation: my hips rotating outward inside their sockets, my knees bending as deeply as they can while still keeping my heels rooted into the ground, my ribcage and arms extending upward to resist and oppose the downward motion of the rest of my body, and my heart pounding out of my chest- an internal metronome keeping time with the notes sailing out of the piano.

 

Nick struts around the room, adjusting each minute detail like the position of a fingertip to his exact liking. He strides towards me with his critical eye observing each element of my movement. As he approaches, I tense up and prepare myself for the corrections I think I am about to receive. “Turn out more. Roll your shoulders back. Lift your chin. Straighten your spine. Level your hips. Don’t pronate your feet,” I expect to hear. Instead, Nick smiles warmly and says, “You’re doing a great job! Welcome to the summer apprentice workshop. The company and I are happy to have you here. Oh and also- you can breathe!”


“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, “ I quietly exhale, deflating all of the tension from my body like a balloon releasing helium. His warmth melts away my icy paralysis of worries and doubts. A weight is thrusted off of my shoulders as my breathing slows, my heart rate calms down, and my movement starts to feel eased and free.  I auditioned for this intensive, and I was accepted into the program. Nick saw my potential and ability and thought I would be able to hold my own in a room full of seasoned professionals. But the only way I will succeed in program is if I stop doubting my own ability. If I just focus on each visceral reaction within myself, I’ll be just fine.


The author's comments:

I wrote this piece after attending a dance intensive this past summer with a professional dance company. I am not a professional, just a student still in high school. After I had auditioned, they raised the minimum age to 18, and I was only 17, but I was still accepted into it. I didn't know I was going to be the youngest one there. The next closest person in age was a senior in college, but most of the dancers were professionals in their late twenties of early thirties. Understandably, I felt vert nervous and self-concious about my age and ability walking into that ballet class on the very first day. 


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