Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My parents were dancers. Though practical and predictable in all else, they let their passions surface in the rumba, the tango, the dances that conjured up exotic places and smoldering emotions. For my mother, it was a requirement that any husband of hers be light-footed and know how to lead. My father was the only man my mother had ever met who could do the cha-cha without counting under his breath.
For a time, they hired a dance instructor, who came to our basement once a week, along with three other couples from the neighborhood. The women all wore their hair like helmets; the men told corny jokes and never mentioned their jobs.
Those Friday evenings, I would rush to answer the door of our brick row house and let in the glamorous, sharp-featured stranger with the narrow waist. He would brush past, ignoring me, one hand clenching the handle of a portable record player, the other pressing a stack of records into his armpit: album covers with red-lipped women and slick-haired men.
“We dance now, yes?” he asked each time, placing one palm flat on his stomach, the other around the shoulder of an imaginary partner. He had swivel hips and an outrageously phony accent. He would tell stories of tangoing with princesses and movie stars. Then, to demonstrate, he would take one of his four women students by her hand, roll her into his chest, and unfurl her like a flag until she was giddy and breathless.
From my bedroom, I could hear the sharp click of high heels on the linoleum floor like a lullaby. I would fall asleep secure in the thought that my parents were obviously the most graceful and talented of the group. After all, didn’t the teacher give them advanced steps when all the others were still struggling with the basics? My father wore a red cummerbund; my mother’s skirt stood out from her hips as she twirled. Even today, her legs are long and well developed in the calves.
“There must have been some good times,” I insist when we talk about why he walked out. “You moved so well together.”
“Dancing can lie,” she snaps. “It’s no different than anything else.”
On Monday afternoons, as a child, I walked around the corner to Miss Barbara’s storefront dance school carrying soft, black ballet shoes in a pink plastic case. On Wednesdays I brought patent-leather tap shoes with pink satin ribbons. When it came time to do the splits, I slid right down with no resistance. Miss Barbara was just out of her teens, yet she would call us “my girls.” She would tell us that our young bodies were limber, our futures without limitations. We had not yet developed bad habits; we were starting from scratch.
Miss Barbara’s mother made all our costumes. At one recital, I did the shimmy, the red sequins of my roaring-twenties costume catching the light. At the spring showcase, I flapped across a makeshift stage with scarves tied to my wrists, one of a dozen bluebirds in tights the color of robins’ eggs.
“Dance boldly,” Miss Barbara told us. “You are dancing along the curve of the earth.”
Miss Sonia ran a more professional school, and I was clearly her favorite. At each lesson she divided our class into two groups. It was common knowledge that if she put you in the “New York City Ballet,” you had promise. All the girls in the “Bolshoi Ballet,” on the other hand, had developed too early. At fourteen, they were already hopelessly on their way to having thick waists, big breasts, and full hips. When Miss Sonia looked at the mothers of these girls, her mouth would tighten as if she smelled something rotten.
I was particularly small, flat-chested, and muscular, a dart of pure power. I pulled my hair into a bun so tight it made me look Asian.
I took the subway by myself to class, arriving early and running up the stairs to the studio lined with mirrors and windows. And I stayed late. After the others left, Miss Sonia would bring out her scrapbook and show me pictures of herself as a young dancer in Russia. She had specialized in dramatic roles and had been known as a great actress. The exaggerated expressions on her face seemed etched in place by the heavy stage makeup.
She showed me these photographs as a warning of what not to become. Miss Sonia hated everything that Russian dance represented: the romantic plots with their garish sets and overdone costumes; the rigid choreography; the way every ballet ended with the same cliché of athletic turns, the ballerina’s leg whipping in and out as if she were some kind of circus performer. The Nutcracker meant death to Miss Sonia. What she loved was Stravinsky and Balanchine: music in its purest expression and movement that bypassed the unreliable, sentimental heart and aimed for the mind and soul.
Sometimes, in the empty studio, she would have me remove my black leotard and pink tights. Still sweating from class, I would stand naked at the barre for inspection of my posture and turnout. Her hand would start at my neck and slide down to the small of my back, pressing each vertebra into place, then pass between my legs, pausing only an instant before moving up and over my flat stomach. She would perform this ritual wordlessly.
“You are the dancer of the future,” she would say when it was over. “A figure without sex or personality. A faceless form. A line passing through space and music.”
Before long men on the subway started to look at me. Even in the summer heat, I began to wear sweaters over my leotard on the way to Miss Sonia’s studio. She became critical of my form and wondered aloud what had happened to my turnout. It was embarrassing. She put me on a diet, but nothing could hold back the inevitable.
One day after class, without her asking, I stripped and stood at the barre. She walked over and slapped me across the face, saying, “You don’t even hear the music anymore.”
But I did. And now I was free to hear it everywhere. I wanted no more part of teachers. It was partners that I sought and found. I danced the Texas swing and country two-step with a homesick college boy. I learned to waltz from a sad, crazy man on the street. Even disco: all that simple backbeat. There was so much laughing.
One partner promised that in Florida there was plenty of room for people to dance. So we drove twenty-four hours straight, dropping to the bottom of the country as if drawn by gravity. We moved into an apartment complex painted the color of cotton candy. There was a sign on the balcony near the pool: No Diving. The clouds never stopped changing shape.
Late at night, he would ask to hear about my feet. “Again?” I would say, secretly pleased. I would point out the misshapen toes and blackened nails: “This is what you get from a childhood of squeezing them into pointe shoes. Once you have these feet, you can’t deny being a dancer.”
Eventually the money got low and I found myself on a stage wearing a pair of old pointe shoes and nothing else. I concocted stories about my past. First my name was Emmalinda and I was a minister’s daughter gone bad. “See what too much religion can do to you?” I would say. Then I cut my hair very short and became Chantal, a prima ballerina who had left France under mysterious circumstances.
My partner began pacing the floor of the cotton-candy apartment. Nights, he stared over the balcony into the deserted pool. Then he was gone. I kept dancing even as my stomach hardened and grew. The manager at the club said I was bad for business. I was beginning to make his customers uncomfortable. He had to fire me. At first my condition had been a novelty, but now it was just in bad taste.
My daughter — like everyone — began dancing in the womb. She is four now, and I try to align her spine or sculpt her arms. But she doesn’t concern herself with grace or form. When I bend down to place her feet into one of the five basic positions, she pushes me away.
Instead she spins, holding her arms out straight. She is the earth rotating on its axis and revolving around her mother, the sun. “I’m dancing!” she shouts.
Her hands reach out for something to cling to, but the room no longer follows any rules. My daughter has no choice but to fall to the floor. She laughs at where all this dancing has brought her.