For as long as I can remember, I always felt like I was walking a tightrope. Shaking, unsteady, teetering on the brim of either triumph or collapse. The rope could be anything; schoolwork, spending time with friends, tying my shoes. If there was an opportunity for me to slip, to fail, to embarrass myself, my tightrope was there. Taut, unforgiving, and ever-present. Each day was a feat, committing myself to impossible perfection, cracking like porcelain under scrutiny when I inevitably made mistakes and tumbled from my rope. And dancing? Dancing was my longest and most daunting rope. Strung high above everyone’s heads and reeking of hairspray, stale air, and perspiration.
I was five years old the first time I was pushed onto a stage by fast, agitated hands. Teachers angrily hushed the voices of anxious and chatty children, fastening the bows on their ballet slippers and picking loose threads from uncomfortable tights that clung to sweaty legs like another layer of skin. Yellow light burned down onto our bare shoulders and illuminated our little faces, painted in glitter and uncertainty. Ms. Jenn stood in the wings, both pointer fingers pressed into her cheeks, smile uncomfortably wide.
“Smile girls, smile!” she urged, and I did.
Teeth bearing, a smile so wide my eyes became two slits. I wasn’t exceptionally happy to be onstage, not a toothy eye-slit grin kind of happy, but I wore that smile like an irremovable accessory. Because without it I could feel myself wavering, losing my footing, like if I let go of that smile I’d plummet from an unthinkable distance.
“She’s just got that smile,” Ms. Jenn told my mom backstage after the performance, both hands resting on my shoulders, giving them a firm squeeze.
“She was born to be on that stage.”
My mom’s eyes shone, one hand pressed to her heart. She was proud, and that filled me with the warmest light. It made me stand taller, spine like a flower stem. So long as I made her happy, I could maintain my balance. That pride, it kept me from wilting.
“She just loves being up there, don’t you Caja?” my mom gushed, and I nodded.
And perhaps I did have a semblance of love for dance. It was the sun by which my world revolved around. An immense yellow ball of hot light, almost identical to the spotlights that washed over me on the stages in which I moved upon. I spent countless hours with a leg propped atop the barre, back pressed against the cold hardwood studio floor, feet pointed and pressed toward the floor, curved like a crescent moon. Performing at competitions, arms out and chin raised, walking my tightrope like an all too familiar path.
Until that hot light began to burn too bright.
I grew older, and the heavy weight of it all made a home upon my brittle frame. It was pressure and it was strain, inflating within my chest like a hot air balloon. It was the fall, the harrowing descent from the rope that I always feared. I had lost my zeal, my artificiality could no longer be masked behind a smile. It was that smile, that feigned smile.
I had good days and bad days at the studio, most bad.
“Good work today. I can see the old Caja coming back, where has she been hiding?” Ms. Jenn had said to me in passing after one of those rare, good days.
“I’m trying my best,” I mumbled, mostly to myself.
Her praise felt backhanded, and I could feel myself falling once again. I had tumbled from the rope so many times that I had forgotten what balance felt like. Bruised, bloodied, like a canvas of running ink, I’d shinny back up my rope only to collapse once more. The thing that always feared me most about the fall was what awaited me at the bottom. It was a dark expanse, an ocean of defeat, and I had welcomed the wave to swallow me whole. I wasn’t a dancer, I was a failure. The one who had it, but lost it. I was the witless girl who fell from the sky.
Until I realized, I wasn’t witless at all. That all this time I had been so petrified of the fall and what I’d meet at the bottom, but I was already well-acquainted with it. Defeat, failure, loss, I would face these things at every turn. They were there to teach me, to drag me down, to lift me up once I learned to recover. I had walked many tightropes in my life, and I would walk many more. I wasn’t a wilted stem, I had simply grown beyond the garden that dance had planted for me.
“Mom, I don’t think I want to dance anymore.” The words tumbled out of my mouth, I squeezed my eyes shut, the balloon in my chest threatening to pop at any moment. I was afraid of her reaction, of the unwelcome wave of disappointment that was bound to pull me under once more. But the weight was too much to bare, and I refused to carry it with me any longer.
“I know you don’t,” she sighed, and gave me a soft smile.
“I want you to do whatever makes you happy.” She pulled me in and enveloped me in her arms. I felt the fear, the hurt, the anguish, all of it was rushing out of me. Falling from my eyes, leaking from my ears. I wasn’t afraid. Not of my tightrope, not of the fall, not of failure. I had walked that thin wire, it was once a part of me I held tight in my clenched fist, but I outstretched my palm and let it float away, dissipate into a memory.
I was seventeen years old the last time I was pushed onto a stage by fast, agitated hands. My last performance before I would be leaving the dance company behind. Ms. Jenn took my chin in her hand and squeezed it.
“Breathe,” she reminded me, as if she could see the nerves wrapping themselves around my throat like twine. I relaxed my shoulders and willed the knots to loosen.
“I am proud of you.” She nudged me towards the wing that lead toward the stage. That stage, washed in a familiar honeyed glaze of yellow light. Light that once burned me, light that I now took in my hand and slipped in my pocket.
I looked out to the audience, faces like tiny dots stippling the expanse of the theatre. Faces that once intimidated me, believing they were there to knock me down, to laugh at me as I descended, hungry eyes feeding on my collapse. But they looked much different to me now.
The music began to play, propelling my body into motion. One shaky step across a thin, taut rope. As I moved, I looked down at that dark expanse below me. A pit that once seemed never-ending, a tumultuous and unforgiving crash towards everything I once feared, it was no longer. I took my final pose, one last slow bow, audience erupting into a firework of noise. Clapping like cannons and cheers like a song. Awaiting me at the bottom of the plunge was freedom.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath,