Everyone has left the locker room. I rub my hands on my grey sweat pants while I look down the hall. I look both ways making sure no one sees me. I lift my hand to my hair, checking the bun I always weave close to my neck. I stride up the hall and into the staircase. Along the mirrored archway I catch the reflection of myself. I sigh at the picture I make. Pitiful. Mauve scoop-neck tee, grey sweats, and black split-sole jazz shoes. Terrible. Hair’s a mess, makeup completely gone, I look tired...even more than I am. I’ll look better in my leotard and tights when I get up to the studio, maybe. Did I forget my special shoes? They give me good luck. I remember when my Grandmama remade them for me. She bent over her basket on her lap with the light from the fire caressing her face. She has a great face: distinguished and warm at the same time. The living room was filled with the aroma of Italian coffee. Real Italian coffee, not that junk you buy at Starbuck’s.
I climb the next flight. Going to the top floor always takes a while. It’s a tall building and I like to climb it. The time gives me space to think and I fill it with a sense of accomplishment. Twenty odd stories makes for one heck of a work out after rehearsal.
My Grandmama’s parents immigrated here from Italy, on different boats, in the early 1900's. They met, married, and had my Grandmama all in 1929. Most kids in my neighborhood call their grandmother Nonna which is Italian for grandmother, but not me, grandmama preferred to mix American and Italian. With them they brought the family business: shoemaking. The women of our family make the female shoes and vice versa. Our ancestors were pioneers in pointe shoe making and though the demand is down we have continued the tradition. We uphold that our are the finest in ballet shoes and we earn the title. My grandmama started making pointe shoes 68 years ago at the age of 10. She learned at the knee of my great grandmama and passed the legacy onto me. My family, if nothing else is a family of custom, but my grandmama took it further. She was the very first to wear the family’s product on stage en pointe. Boy was she ever on stage.
Grandmama stood in the spotlight of the New York Ballet for close to two decades. She was spectacular. Mama Maria was the epitome of sprightly grace, possessing and elegance of neck and slenderness of limb rarely seen on the American stage. For 17 years Grandmama enjoyed every leading female role the ballet had to offer. Danseurs, choreographers, and composers offered up blood and tears if only she would consider their art worthy of her presence. Grandmama never turned down a character. When she left the stage for marriage and motherhood she considered herself in her greatest role. In fact that is how the papers printed it.“Maria Shilmaria Leaves Stage for Greatest Role”. She was the empress of the performance until she turned it down for love.
I climbed the next several sets slowly, head down. I pause in another of the mirrors.
Soon after she left the drama, traditional Italian strength and grace was overshadowed by skinny girls with no stage presence. Grandmama was appalled by the countless tiny Russian girls that swarmed the ballet.
“Bella!” Grandmama said. “You must be Prima one day or God will weep with the injustice of it!” As I said, she is Italian.
Grandmama taught me La Ballet Blanc since I was four and started my en pointe dancing at 15 when I stopped growing. Grandmama thought my dance divine. She often stated our similarities and fawned over me as over a brilliant sunset. I don’t measure up to the instructors or choreographers I have now though.
“Lift that leg higher Anna!”
“Watch your turnout!”
“Anna I’ve told you a thousand times Anna, mind your plie.”
“ Not so fast, you Italian girls want to knock your partners out!
I’m not a fantastic dancer by today’s standards, I’m just good enough to not be overlooked when they need a corps de ballet; small jet’e, entrechat, pirouette, plie, always alone. Never pas de deux. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.
I hurry up the next flights. I pause at the last set of mirrors.
It’s true. I am a good dancer. I’m just not a great dancer. Once again, I have shown my mediocrity by being placed in the corps de ballet in The Nutcracker, again. I’ve done this part so many times I could do it in my sleep. I probably will. Pasty smile, tutu parallel to the floor, high ribbons, bun hair; very classic and austere. I’m afraid I’ve failed her. Again her demand comes to mind: “You must be prima!” I think it’s going to rain.
I am truly ungrateful. I should be grateful I can dance at all especially with all my drawbacks. I’m a little too short, a little too “solid”, a little to deficient of neck and my body has tried to overcompensate with an overlong waist. I am the complete opposite of Grandmama. Except for my perfect feet. I have Grandmama’s feet. It feels good to have some part of her. My mind goes back to my lucky shoes. I haven’t even looked at them since Grandmama gave them to me. I don’t know if they fit. Maybe we don’t have the same feet after all. That’s silly, Anna. Of course you do, Grandmama always said so and she never lies.
I scramble up the last flights of stairs. My muscles are slightly tired. My hand itches for a barre.
The top floor is my favorite. I always use this studio before the opening night of a new ballet just as my Grandmama wore her shoes. The slightly aged air makes me feel closer to Grandmama. Anything bygone usually makes me feel a little closer to her. I slip down the hall to the left studio. The room is dark and feels cavernous. I leave the lights off and flip off my street shoes and clothes leaving myself in black leotard and tights with slim blood-red skirt. The glow from the city is enough light for me. I used to think that the lit windows of the buildings reminded me of a bee colony, but I was wrong, now they remind me of people; one being for each light. It’s comforting. The room is still and quiet. The only thing I hear is the barely discernable scrape-scrape of the wood floor on my bare feet. I look out of the huge windows, actually they aren’t windows, it’s more like a glass wall. The city is still alive and jumping. That too puts me at ease. The barre is along the wall of glass and it beckons me to return to it. I ditch my bag on the long bench and make my way to the barre. I complete a few light stretches and return to the end of the bench to retrieve my cd player. The studio is so old it is equipped with a turntable but the Academy only issued CDs of the performance music. I prefer the turntable. The records crackle and pop ,but at least I know the record is moving with me. I like to know what I’m playing with. I take out the LP I brought with me. It’s my favorite; Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty . Grandmama performed it and always promised me that I would too. Oh, well...
I set the record aside and grab a pair of old canvas practice pointes; some of the last Grandmama made me. I change into the practice shoes and grab the cd player. I flip the switch. One must have light to make heads or tails of this contraption. I take my place and realize that I left the light on. I might as well leave it on this will only take a minute. I run through my choral movements trying to put some emotion and interest into it. I used to love the ballet. I hungered for it: the dance, the fever, the thrill of the audience. My Grandmama always said it was no use to beat a dead horse. Well, mine’s been dead quite a while.
I finish my work and then plop down heavily on the bench. Maybe it’s time to quit. I can always teach. I am good enough for that. I wouldn’t be any good for the children though, my heart’s not in the classroom, it’s on the stage. I close my eyes and catch my breath. I grope for my water bottle. The cool slides down my throat and penetrates my veins. I feel refreshed. Grandmama always said water was good for you. Chalk another one up to Mama Maria.
I reach for the Gaynor Minden box I had stashed the shoes in. No, I won’t open them just yet. I remember them though. The shoes are white, creamy satin with blood-red rosettes embroidered on them. My Great-Grandmama made them for Mama Maria’s theatrical debut. I was told it took her six months and on the day they were to be finished Great-Grandmama nicked her finer on scissors and a drop of blood fell on the perfect satin pointe shoes. Great-Grandmama didn’t panic though, she sewed on little rosettes and kept adding them; one for each of Mama Maria’s opening night’s until Great-Grandmama died. I told Grandmama that it sounded a little like Snow White and she said “Of course, only such a story could be true for the fairest in the land and guess what? You are! Besides this will be an excellent story to tell the press when you dance Snow White!”
I keep the shoes hidden because they are special to me. I have never even danced in them yet. Nor am I likely to, but the thought of someday keeps me hanging on to them. I really should take them out of that box though. Everyone at the Academy knows I hate Gaynor Minden shoes. They’re leather. I hate leather pointes. I can’t feel the floor through them and I don’t like having to break them in. It takes forever: stomping, smashing, burning, scraping, shellacking, I just don’t have the time or the patience when myself or my Grandmama can make perfect canvas pointes for me at home. Pointe shoes have a soul. One that shouldn’t have to be broken or bent to you will. I dance in my shoes as they were meant to be. I don’t need outside force to make them supple. “You can’t expect to be dragged through the fire and to never get scorched.” That quote is courtesy of Grandmama. That sounds arrogant but it’s not it’s the simple truth: “to dance, you must dance.” courtesy of Anna Ballazio.
I’m wasting time. Tomorrow is opening night and I’ve got to rehearse. I
start the cd again. I make it to the Waltz of the Flowers and become disgusted.
My dancing is pitiful. A child could do better. To make myself feel above
baby-level I do fouett’es in tandem. Take that!
A baby can’t do these. I keep doing them. I become so exhausted I crash to the floor. The music has stopped. I must have been dancing for a long time. Blast! I need to work!
I pull myself up from the floor, sweat dripping. I’ve decided. I reach the box. I rip the tape and pull each shoe out carefully. They are even more beautiful than I remembered. I start to cry. I cry for myself, my Grandmama, my past, my future. What happened to the dance? The dance was my soul, my reason for being. When did I let myself get so warped. Tears fall on the shoes. I wipe them away from my face with one hand. I notice blood on my hand. I must have hit my brow in the fall. I stare down at the shoes. The perfect shoes now had a spot on them, one small bright red drop. I can’t believe it. The first time I’ve had the shoes in my hand and I ruin them! My shoulders slump and I begin to weep in earnest. I grieve so painfully and so honestly for what i have lost that I make myself ill. I fall once again to the floor.
“The dance isn’t supposed to be this way Bella. It must come from inside you or not at all. You must not cheat yourself or the audience.” The lines came to me without thinking. Grandmama was all about the performance. If I can do one thing for her it would be to perform soulfully.
“All right Grandmama! Here you go!”
I heave myself from the floor. I turn off the lights. I stride to the bench, take hold of the record, and march to the turntable. I place the record on the turntable and then sit on the bench to put on the shoes. I wrench off my practice canvases and carefully place my feet into the first slipper. It is perfect. The elastics are marvelous and the ribbons are the same deep blood-red as the rosettes. They are just as I remembered. In the moonlight they seem to radiate the light of the muses. You can tell these slippers have the soul of fire and spirit of wind. I lace up the other pointe with care. I remember that Grandmama said she broke the elastics on this one. I try out the pointes. She replaced the elastics and the boxes. Thank you Grandmama.
I push the “ON” button to start the record’s revolution. I am Sleeping Beauty. I am Aurora. The music starts with a lilting waltz. I will use the ballet blanc choreography traditional for this role. Step, jet’e, pirouette.... STOP!
I will dance tonight for myself, no one else! I go to the turntable and skip the songs leading up to the climax of the ballet, at least for Aurora. I set the needle on the Rose Adagio. I tread to the center of the room with precise steps. The ballet begins. My spine elongates and I arch my neck. Every line is perfect. This dance is pas de deux but I will do it alone and even better that if I had a partner to get in my way. I lose my concentration. My eyes drop and I am cast out of the dance. The song starts again. This is strange but is known to happen with records so I pay it no mind. I am at peace with my ballet and my soul is on fire for the Adagio. I begin again. Perfection. Lines are long and the grace is that of Grandmama. I fouett’e, jet’e, pirouette, leap, stretch, skip, fling, twirl and catapult myself into the music. I hardly hear it. The music is moving with my spirit, bypassing my brain and moving straight toward my heart and limbs. I really am Prima in this moment. The powers of Heaven and Hell have no hold on me in this instant. I am completely free and my soul is gliding on wings of gossamer. The ballet’s infinite happiness spills forth from my heart so forcefully that it must find release in laughter. I never had energy to laugh before. Now it is all I seem to be able to do while dancing. No thinking or calculating or worrying; just dance. This is what Grandmama has been trying to tell me.
Here comes the finale. The incredible pas de deux between Aurora and Prince Phillip. I leap into it alone but someone catches me. Normally, if someone interrupted my rehearsal I would have stopped immediately, but not this time. It seems I cannot stop dancing and I can do no wrong. I dance moves I have only tried alone. I dance soulfully and soullessly. I am filled with joy and empty of thought. I am thrown and caught by a pair of strong arms. I alight on the ground and float into the last position. As the song reaches its end and the music slips into the night I open my eyes to find myself staring into those of Michael, the principal dancer for the New York Ballet.
“She’ll do fine won’t she Michael.” I hear from the door. It was a statement.
“That she will madame. She’ll do just fine.”