Soft edges, they’ll tell you, even as yours become increasingly rough. Soft edges.
There is no such thing.
There are two kinds of parents: those who can’t wait to have their kids out of the house during the summer so they can go about their own business, and those who think that idle time is the Devil’s playground, and that children must work on their future, at every moment they get.
Unfortunately for me, my parents fall in both categories.
The Dandelion Ballet Summer Program is a stage-parent’s haven, an impressive stepping stone in their children’s dance career. It opens doors and opportunities in places like the Kennedy Center, for one.
“Leotard Camp”, as we kids like to call it, is eight weeks of concentrated torment, where one is endlessly drilled on technique, posture and stage presence. If you can make it through the program without hating yourself, you’ll have proven worthy of the title.
I know I am no longer a child when I can accept that two people can tread the same path, but still walk separate ways. We are like shoes; one of them breaking apart does not necessarily entail a similar fate for the other. As such, these sentiments could only ever be my own.
My parents have had stars in their eyes for weeks leading up to the audition. I, on the other hand, am a little less impressed by the prospects ahead of me. I’ve been dropping hints, for the last two years, about wanting to quit ballet. This has taken an insidious toll on my physical and mental state, and has either genuinely fallen on deaf ears, or my parents are pretending not to understand.
In an impulse of recklessness, I tell my Dad, on D-Day minus one, that I’m putting my foot down, but it doesn’t go far. “It is what it is, you’ll thank us later” is the anticipated response I get.
“It is what it is” is my parents’ version of “because I said so”, “deal with it” or “end of discussion”, depending on how generous they’re feeling at the moment.
The good folks at the Dandelion Ballet make you hand over an arm and a leg during the application process, and expect you to be thankful about it. Every one of their niceties are punctuated with statements about how “lucky you probably feel”, about how “this opportunity only comes once”. There will, in other words, be no fooling around. That’s a guarantee I can’t make on my part.
But wait, there is certainly more.
In addition to the telephone interview, the application packet requires two headshots and three full-length pictures of the student in question, in full gear and in pointe shoes. The studio they refer us to specializes in dance photography, but it doesn’t take me long to realize that it’s less about the pictures themselves than it is everything else around it. This is not your average Sears Studios: every single corner is an intricate component of the assembly line.
Girls in buns so tight you could polish their foreheads like a shoe practice their first, second and third arabesques, because in front of the camera, they’ll only get a few seconds to nail the picture. Others line the window, as makeup is lightly applied to them. A dad rubs a wipe over his daughter’s eyes, arguing with his wife that “they’re not supposed to look whore-ish, this isn’t a pageant show”.
Parents lace their daughters’ pointe shoes like they’re stringing a roast beef, and near the window, a few assistants do some Two-Minute therapy for the kids — or parents — having a breakdown and over who the hell knows what; another assistant waits by the sidelines as the camera flashes, ready to catch anyone who loses their balance.
And I am suddenly struck by how much they want this. They really, really want this, despite it all, and here I am praying that I bomb my audition.
We have to put a stop to the process for an hour because a girl lands on her foot at an angle, and her ankle cracks. We wait for the ambulance and she sits, holding her leg and screaming her lungs out, while her parents alternately fall to pieces, and harshly tell her to shut her mouth.
Is this real life, I ask myself more than once today. I am still asking the question when they take my picture, and if you look closely behind my lovely facade, you might see my eyes throwing bloody daggers.
The fog is so thick it seems to press on the window panes of the waiting area: we are fish in a stormy fishbowl. The staff is an equal mix of saccharine solicitation and steely passive-aggressiveness. It’s all about balance. It’s all about making it look effortless, while making it seem like you actually tried. “Just do your best,” one of the handlers coos, while everything in another one’s smile says show me, show me how much you want this.
I’m uncharacteristically calm throughout, because I have no intention of getting in, really. Even as I sit, sandwiched between my mother and father, in a room full of sharks, there is a sense of safety in the fact that I cannot be disappointed. The parents act like they aren’t sizing each other up, while their kids look, if possible, a million times more murderous. Most of the boys and girls are taller than me, and the barely concealed leer behind their eyes states that “we eat girls like you for breakfast”. Jaws set with yearning. Chins held high with confidence. Eyes ablaze with excitement.
All that fuss ends up being for nothing, because the audition itself doesn’t even last that long. I am faced with a wall of faces I can’t read, and expressions that could be neutral disapproval, or indifferent curiosity. To every question they ask me afterward (Where do you see yourself in ten years? Who inspired you to dance? Why do you think you need to improve your technique?), I give brutally honest, self-deprecating answers that essentially narrow down to the same answer: beats me.
One of them comments: that attitude will get you far, in an artistic career.
And that’s when I realize: I think they like me.
Most of the girls in my level are what I call Diplomat Nice. They smile, they compliment, but there’s always an edge to it: you can see them appraising each other, commenting on the thickness of their thighs, on the flatness of their stomachs, on the leanness of their muscles, which does nothing to eliminate the issues I already have, and the reason why I wanted to stop doing this in the first place. There is no smokescreen here. I cannot fold into myself to protect my imperfection. I cannot make myself smaller than I would like to be. I cannot hide the scars I’ve been so good at concealing.
Their awareness makes me more aware.
Two of them turn out to be genuinely sweet. Andrea has just moved to D.C. from Argentina, and although she doesn’t speak English very well, the language barrier doesn’t stop us from becoming fast friends. Ruth, on the other hand, is not only loquacious, she stands out by the fact that unlike the others, she smiles. She smiles constantly, she smiles easily, and so often that I’m not always convinced she isn’t secretly a sociopath.
Years later, upon once again marveling at the voraciousness of your eating disorder, you will, with a gentle sigh of wise realization, understand that ballet is not to blame for anything. It is that other, much more subtle sentiment which has latched onto you, and kept the door open for future trouble: it is that feeling of not belonging to yourself, that feeling of your body’s performance being a token other people exchange, for their own agendas. Adults, trading children like mere flyers. It won’t explain all of it, but it will make some of your dysfunction less baffling when it comes roaring your way.
We are housed in dorms at the nearby American University, according to our schedules and specializations. We are a menagerie of performers, a zoo-like spectacle of the entire dance spectrum, coming from schools and institutes around the city. The musical theatre people stand out like colorful thumbs: and although we aren’t technically supposed to fraternize, they are the easiest to like, radiating charisma and openness.
A girl asks me what my sun sign is. “Pisces,” I answer, and she gives me an impish smile.
“Me too. I could tell,” and she runs before I can catch her name.
The jazz, contemporary dance and flamenco students are a little older, and perhaps because of this, they tend to stay with their own. I find a pair of them locked in an intense dance-off near the elevators, where the acoustics are more carrying.
We ballerinas have acquired quite a reputation for ourselves.
We are only a week in, and we’ve had a string of vicious incidents that have required staff mediation: someone has been greasing the floor outside the bathrooms — fortunately, ballet dancers are known for their agility, so every fall has been graciously avoided. Theresa, my roommate, complains that someone has been sanding her pointe shoes, which explains why she can’t spin as well as she would like. I find small holes poked into my tights, so that when I wear them, they enlarge into enormous craters that run up the length of my legs. Andrea, my friend, retaliates to an insult about her height by cutting all the elastic bands of her tormentor in half.
The rigorous schedules leave no space for anything remotely resembling leisure time. Still, students are encouraged to venture down avenues they would not have otherwise explored. I’m tempted to try tap-dancing, the activity most likely to aggravate my parents, but unfortunately for me, my debonaire attitude during my audition has come back to bite me, with a vengeance. Since I seemed a little vague about my ambitions, the faculty has decided to make me do a little bit of everything, which is just what I needed.
Where others get to slide in some extracurriculars in their training, I am scheduled into every single class the program offers. I go to bed so tired I often forget to soak my aching feet in a saltwater solution. By the time I am through the first class, the following day, they have already started to bleed.
My mother would be gruffly proud: nothing legitimizes effort like killing yourself for your art. I feel more like Andersen’s mermaid, dancing on bloody feet for the sake of someone else’s pleasure.
Like clockwork, Pisces Girl (as I’ve taken to calling her since I still don’t know her name) greets me in the corridor of our dorm by reading me our shared horoscope. I don’t know how to tell her that this is the last thing my mornings need: a prediction about how the day’s going to screw me over.
She seems so excited about this ritual however, that it is touching. So, like every morning, I bite back my protestations, and listen to her warn me to “be careful of the bane in the form of a boon”.
Today is the day I officially give up on my teacher Irina calling me by my proper name. It has been a constant battle. She kept butchering Dounia, so I allowed her to use my middle name. Somewhere along the way, Mélanie became Michelle, because I apparently look like a girl in her other classes who goes by that name. So Michelle it is, apparently.
Irina is simultaneously so nice and so terrifying that I’ve decided to let the matter go. She is the sort of person who could break your composure with a few well-placed words one moment, and motivate you to be the best version of yourself the next. She is much older than she looks: and yet she moves, bends and leaps with more agility than all of us combined. Irina is––I come to learn––an old-school ballerina, trained under the most ruthless mentors in Russia, and those lessons do not simply go away with time. When she feels silly and magnanimous, she calls us her “little swans”.
But this is not one of those days. Today, we stand in a silent line, frozen in arabesques, our left legs raised way above our heads, toothpicks slid between our fingers. We’ve been holding the postures for five minutes, and she walks among us, checking the toothpicks (meant to assure that our hands are in the correct position). If one of them so much as slips, we start all over again.
My tendency to laugh at inappropriate moments always threatens to strike, but I am never the first to break. I have my smiling friend Ruth to thank for that; and once her giggle pierces the silent air and we all follow suit (the patter of toothpicks hitting the floor), Irina sighs, and resets the stopwatch.
Early this morning, when I’m sure everyone is either in their rooms or out of earshot, I call my parents. I want to know if there is still a chance they may reconsider. It hasn’t been that long, their minds can still be changed. The suggestion is shot down with a condescending chuckle from my mother. Surely you don’t think it works that way.
Besides, my parents tell me, they are going overseas to visit family in Toulouse. So there is it, again: it is what it is. I suspect this has been their plan all along.
I am officially stranded, a castaway on a strange island.
I wait for my next class to start, as ten year-olds wrap theirs up. One of the girls is so small, the barre barely reaches her shoulder. Over the sound of their ballet slippers whining against the floor as they leap, the teacher enunciates: “Remember your arms, soft edges, soft edges. Your legs do all the work, but your arms must divert the attention. Soft edges. Never let them see how hard you work.”
Deflect the gaze from the bruised muscles. Smile. Soften your hands. Elongate your neck. Tilt your head like a bird. Bear the aching ankles. Round your shoulders. Never let them see how hard you work. Sounds like a metaphor for my life.
The girls never break the movement, but I can tell they are all ears. This is a lesson they’ll take beyond the classroom.
After days of paltry horoscopes, I finally get a dose of (promising?) fortune: according to Pisces Girl, we should expect to be “the dark horses in an unexpected situation”.
Mr. Caesar, our Thursday evening instructor, is the sort of man you have to meet to believe he exists. We call him Caesar Salad behind his back, out of childish savagery, and because of his fondness for the color green. He seems to exist in a constant state of surreality, spouting phony anatomical babble for an hour and a half at whoever will listen. Having initially aspired to be an Olympic gymnast, then a professional sprinter, then a jockey, then a competitive swimmer, he has since converted his losses into a very successful career in dance, but he swears he’s “still got it”.
Even better: he swears he can tell the sort of athletic activity everyone does by simply giving them a quick look-over. Sometimes, he’ll slap one of our thighs to “check the firmness of the muscle”, or he’ll tickle his fingers down one of our lower backs to “correct the posture” (I won’t, of course, understand until much later how disgusting his behavior truly is. For the moment, we simply endure the resignation too many young girls learn, early on, will avoid further escalation).
You do yoga, he’ll say, eyes screwed in fake concentration, appraising a girl’s backside. I can tell from the way your adductor magnus folds in on itself.
You there, you swim on the side, right? He’ll tell another, kneeling before her and holding her leg in a would-be scientific way, while his thumb makes circles on her skin. You have beautiful legs.
“You,” he tells me today, “you probably do gymnastics.”
I don’t actually, but he insists I do. He can tell because I “have flat feet”, apparently. He thinks I should reconsider a career in ballet.
“You and me both, my man,” I answer. He makes me stay an extra twenty minutes, for “being fresh” with him.
I find it unsettling that of all the openly cruel, casually offensive remarks I’ve heard thrown around, the only ones that never reaches my ears concerns the color of my skin. I find it unsettling, because if they aren’t saying it to my face, they’re saying it behind my back. If they aren’t saying it to my face, it must be particularly hateful.
The pastel pinks and milky whites of our attires is offset by my dark skin in a way I find increasingly garish. The lighter the clothes, the more they make me stand out. The more they seem to hiss you don’t belong here.
When one of the older girls I sometimes see in passing tells me she envies me the color of my skin, I am initially suspicious. But then I look over my shoulders, and see that she has also glanced over hers. And her smile tells me there is no place for malice there.
The cafeteria’s usual hubbub is broken by a scream this morning, wrenching me from my exhausted stupor. A girl has slipped on something wet and grabbed onto a nearby shelf to steady herself; a huge nail sticking out of it rips her hand from palm to wrist. She takes it like a champ. It is her friend who screams, a long, uninterrupted ribbon of sound that is grating, but very understandable, considering that she gets sprayed full-on with blood.
I don’t see the girl again, but I hear from Ruth that she’s been sent home to recover, and it’s not likely she will be back. This could be my ticket out, I think. If I can make it look like an accident, I might be home in time for afternoon cartoons.
But when I go back to the cafeteria that evening, I see someone has taken the nail out and sanded the wall. Even the blood on the wood flooring is no more than a dark brown stain. It might as well have never happened.
I am three years old when I try on my first ballet slippers. It is at the gentle coaxing of my father, when he notices my inexplicable tendency to go up the stairs on tiptoes. His coaxing becomes much more enthusiastic when he observes how often I stand like that, on the tip of my toes, craning my neck and stretching my frame — I am, after all, shorter than everyone else, but it doesn’t hamper my need to be included in everything.
By the time I am five years old, the idea has solidified into a concrete plan and a purpose. I don’t initially mind: I have an unhealthy obsession with classical music, dressing up and the color pink, and if dancing means I’ll get to experience all three, who am I to complain? Hence, spending all my afternoons leaping and pirouetting in time with other girls my age doesn’t really phase me.
But it quickly becomes clear, even to my very young mind, that I’ve just made a Faustian deal. Ballet is a beautiful sport, an elegant way of life: but I’ll spend the next few years learning what true paradox is. It is cruelty cloaked under the guise of discipline. It is dysfunction veiled under the pretense of control: and most of all, it is being at your physical peak, while your insides are chipped away, bit by bit.
My eyes keep gliding from the wall-sized mirror, where our reflections bend and stretch, to our piano accompanist Victor, in the righthand corner of the room. It’s as if he exists only within the confines of the studios. No one has ever seen him outside of them; but if they had, they probably would have fled the other way. Victor is scary. He towers above us, a broad, taciturn man with a mustache to rival a walrus’. He plays, eyes straight ahead, not even bothering to look down at his instrument, but hitting every note with magnificent accuracy.
Every morning, I wonder how someone with fingers like that — broad, square, stacked with thick rings — is able to play the most elegant compositions I have ever heard. But in that very mystery, I discern multitudes of intricacies. You can tell, simply by looking at him, that he has led a most interesting life. Every time our teacher Veronica has her back turned, I steal a glance his way, until he suddenly snaps his head in my direction and sticks his tongue out. I am taken by surprise and nearly laugh, for which I am quickly reprimanded. When Veronica has moved on, I steal another glance at Victor, who has gone back to staring ahead; but unless I am mistaken, he could be smiling.
This, you don’t know yet.
You will find out years later, long after you have left the sport behind, that it has not left you. Not so easily.
You will have a pavlovian response to the Swan Theme in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
You will silently measure the straightness of your back against every chair in which you sit, and be a little proud that you were not slouching.
You will make a bun out of your hair with a draconian precision you know too well.
You’ll get inexplicably nervous around the holidays, because you know someone will mention The Nutcracker, and you’ll have to politely circumvent that conversation.
You’ll find yourself twirling or leaping, instead of walking, the way one would break into spontaneous song — but never counterclockwise, under any circumstances.
You will either embrace the color pink and reinvent your relationship with it, or you will do away with it altogether.
And whenever you are bored and standing still, you’ll find yourself sliding one foot in front of the other, and making them parallel, just for fun.
You’ll catch yourself in the mirror, and you won’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
My insomnia, which has been suspiciously well-behaved, has come back with a snarling vengeance of late. I am up in seconds when I hear a knock on my door: I already know who it is.
With the help of fellow insomniacs from the musical theatre and jazz groups, I’ve started a secret card game club. We gather in one of our rooms at the dead of night and play Speed, Old Maid or Slap Jack on the carpeted floors, while one of us holds the flashlight and another takes score. What started out as a small group has turned into a full-on Fight Club, if Fight club was a bunch of pre-teens betting candy and Pokémon cards on rigged matches.
Wednesdays and Sundays are the highlights of my week. The Execution of Movement classes are legendary in the program, because of the staggering amount of injuries that have occurred: those happenings validate my masochism, and give me hope. Hope that I may be one of the sensational stories that have come out of it: a boy gets distracted and drops the girl with no warning, straight onto her knee; a girl performs an overly enthusiastic grand jeté, right into the window pane; a dancer spins her foot into the teacher, knocking his glasses off and giving him a black eye. Some of these incidents have led to hospitalizations or temporary outs, which is what I’m aiming for.
And indeed, as our evaluations approach, and as nerves get increasingly jangled, more and more accidents seem to be happening: people getting tripped mid-rotation, kicks getting thrown with more abandon, elbows getting shoved into eyes.
So: today I learn the hard way to be careful what I wish for. The teacher has divided us into two rows on opposite sides of the room, and we spin toward each other with drill-like precision when my friend Andrea and another classmate collide with a resounding crack. Blood flies out in a glorious arc. If we keep at it, my entire class will be taken out by some type of injury before I have the chance to make my great escape.
The Summer Program’s end of term showcase is mandatory for all enrolled students. It is what the rigorous classes and the merciless schedules have all been leading to.
We’re doing Sleeping Beauty this year; and while I am initially content with settling for a smaller role, this quickly changes when I overhear Estelle, one of the most ruthless girls I have ever met (of holes-in-leotard-poking fame), call Ruth “sausage legs”. I don’t know what gets into me. Suddenly, I have to audition for the same role as her. Anything to slap the taste of cruelty out of her mouth. Fittingly, she is going for that of the Evil Fairy Carabosse. This, I understand, would mean that my plan to get out of the program early would essentially be bust.
In the end, it doesn’t even matter. Estelle performs one of the most technically flawless auditions I have ever witnessed, and I already know she will get the part. I sit in the sidelines and watch, hoping that when she does, every second on those pointe shoes will hurt like a bitch.
We are driven through the city to the Potomac River to see the 4th of July fireworks. Even though I live here, it is exciting to re-discover it through the eyes of my excitable friends. As we go by the Washington Monument, Caesar Salad makes a lewd phallic joke, probably thinking we’re too young to get it. I make a mental note to push him into the River if the occasion presents itself.
Soft edges is a quasi-contradiction. You usually like those, but there are times when the sound of it strikes your ear the wrong way.
And then one day, it tickles you, and you cannot, for the life of you, understand why. Soft edges just means you can’t hurt anyone. You’re a dull blade. A harmless weapon. Why would this make you laugh?
We sit on the grounds of the American University, on our rare day off. The sky is a carpet of blue cotton and grey clouds roiling in from the sides, signaling imminent, violent storms. I watch from afar as our classmate Helen argues tearfully with her mother, near the parking lot. The news spread yesterday: her older brother was killed in a car accident. But her mother isn’t here to pick her up. She’s here to bring her a change of clothes, and tell her that no, she cannot just quit and come home. Not this far in the program.
I am reminded of that sensation again, the one that always follows my thoughts about the pointlessness of things. We are all stranded in a too-small aquarium, souring in the claustrophobic sensation, hating everyone, but especially, ourselves. I don’t like the person this sport makes me. I don’t like how it makes girls like Estelle, who are probably very nice, bare their teeth and demand blood.
But most of all, even when I am long gone from this place, I will always remember this: a little girl in tatters because the brother she loves is gone, and the mother who brings her a pair of leotards, asks that she pull herself together and go on with the show.
Because ballerinas don’t get depressed. Their bodies don’t get broken. Their hearts do not need rest. Even when you go under, you are expected to pull yourself back to the surface, cover your scars with your leotard, cover your face with your makeup, cover your unhappiness with your smiles.
And you go on with the show.
These sentiments could only ever be my own.
That sentence is a mantra I hope will keep me afloat for the rest of my life, and my resentment at bay. But I’ve never really bothered to ask. Are these sentiments my own? Am I the only one who has felt this way?
Or have I just been the victim of the most well-timed ill-luck?
The third Sunday of July is a beautiful day. I am well-rested, having slept through the night for the first time in weeks. I’ve just spoken to my father, and they are finally coming home from their trip. My feet don’t hurt as urgently as usual. The air smells like honeyed rain. Even the girls who don’t usually speak to us are thawing a bit, sending mellow greetings our way in passing. Everything is fine.
All this considered, then, I don’t know why I do it. But then again, of course I do. I’ve been heading this way for a long time.
Later that evening, I go to the library’s second-floor balcony and I jump. I immediately know that it’s bad. It isn’t the way my foot twists, or the way the wind knocked out of me. It is the sound I hear when I land, a dry snap that is simultaneously very loud and very, very peaceful.
I spend the next couple of hours in the hospital, where doctors try, and fail, to make me say that my fall was intentional. And although I know I have more than enough reasons to be hospitalized, if I bothered to prod beneath my surface, I am stubborn, adamant. This is about my foot, I maintain, and my foot was an accident. In the end, my parents reluctantly agree that the program may not have had a good immediate effect on my tendency to break under the slightest pressure. The doctor seemingly lets it go; but I wake from restless sleep to find pamphlets left surreptitiously near, about having “Difficult Conversations with your Child” and “Identifying Underlying Issues”.
I don’t need to thumb through them to know what they say. All around me, I listen to people, some even younger than me, speak their self-loathing in shockingly honest terms. I see girls voice their body issues with a frankness that cuts me to the quick. I hear others bear their self-inflicted bruises and scars: and I wish I didn’t recognize myself in them, in the same way that I sometimes wish my fall had been more conclusive.
I have done what I intended to, and then some: my ankle is in splinters and the ligament in my toe completely torn. When the doctor tells me and my parents that I will most likely never dance again, my mother looks like she’s just heard that someone has died.
When they leave that night, I start to cry in earnest, emancipated relief.
Today is Demonstration Day, the day of the Sleeping Beauty presentation. Even for those whose children are not performing, it is an occasion to take stock of their progress (and compare it to others’, of course). Judging from the way Estelle’s mother is treated, she used to be something big, back in her day. A better dancer than her own daughter, if it is to be believed. It must be terrible to grow up under the wing of someone like that. It doesn’t make me feel sorry for her, but it makes my dislike for her much less intense.
I’ve stayed in the program in an “observational” role: just because I can’t dance doesn’t mean I can’t watch others dance, the director told my father, with an indulgence that suggested she thought she was making me feel better. It was almost touching.
The soft edge contradiction makes you laugh because you haven’t figured it out, you realize. And you tend to laugh at things when you can’t get to their bottom. There is no secret meaning, no lines to be read between. You’re a cat, entertaining yourself with a piece of fraying, forgotten yarn to give yourself some purpose. The sooner you let it go, the better.
It’s nearly evening. Andrea and I sit on the lawn, from where we can see the courtyard; Caesar Salad has taken shelter under an awning, smoking with some of the adults while our teacher Veronica ushers the others inside. Like me, Andrea’s parents couldn’t make it. Unlike me, however, they have the excuse of being overseas, and would have come if it was possible.
Maybe my parents are still recovering from their disappointment. Or else they don’t see the point of coming to a performance in which I have no part. With them, after all, every effort must have its outstanding, demonstrated result, and this has been the misfire of the century.
I have nothing to show, for nothing.